If you spend enough time in government meetings, you’ll probably hear the phrase, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” ad nauseam. While surely cliché, it couldn’t be more applicable when it comes to the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees’ decision to not renew the contract of President Laurie Nichols.
Faculty Senate President Donal O’Toole hit the nail on the head during the trustees’ public comment period on Thursday when he said simply, “This looks bad.”
It looks bad because Nichols is a well-regarded leader at UW. It’s never an easy job to be the top administrator as one has to make tough decisions that won’t leave everyone happy. Well, Nichols took on making tough decisions full-steam ahead when she came to UW in the midst of an economic slump that led to a $42 million cut in the university’s block grant funding over two years. When the dust largely settled from those budget cuts, however, Nichols seemed to have emerged still holding onto her reputation as an open leader who frequently communicated with members of the public and often acted to address their concerns. We should mention, too, that it’s much easier to be transparent as a leader during times of growth and prosperity, and it’s far harder when times are tough.Transparency isn’t limited to simply stating what is happening; Nichols also shared the why in most circumstances.
We look with favor upon accomplishments at UW under her leadership, including growing enrollment, establishing a five-year strategic plan, back-to-back years of salary increases, eliminating structural budget deficits and implementing a new financial system. It’s also been encouraging to see Nichols push for UW’s anti-sexual assault campaign, part of the national “NO MORE” campaign. The creation of the Native American Research and Cultural Center, which opened in September 2017, was also a much-needed and long-overdue move in reaching out to tribal communities.
Students, faculty and staff lined up on Thursday to express their concern regarding the board’s decision to end Nichols’ presidency. While some were more direct than others in criticizing the move, there was a common thread among everyone who spoke: We are surprised, and deserve an explanation.
It’s the fourth time in six years UW will be looking for a president. As far as we can tell, no one is pointing to a smoking gun or a set of concrete reasons why Nichols should be ousted. How can the public have confidence in the trustees to find a new leader that will be a better fit? Everyone can agree Bob Sternberg was a bad hire. Dick McGinity kept the ship steady during his short tenure, but now we see his successor, Nichols, let go after just three years. Excuse the sports analogy, but this is what Denver Broncos fans feel like when it’s up to John Elway to find a quarterback — we just have no reason to believe it’s going to go well at this point.
We understand there are times where it won’t do anyone any good to air out dirty laundry in public, but this is an exceptional situation. If there’s no firm explanation we can wrap our heads around, our ability to see the current board makeup as competent, reliable stewards of our only four-year university will be damaged, probably beyond repair. In that case, we would look to Gov. Mark Gordon to make appointments during his tenure that take the board in a different direction.
Several commenters have already expressed the sentiment that these board members want what is best for the university, and we agree. But you can’t just ask us to take your word for it here. Not everyone agrees, surely, but it’s our assessment that Nichols deserves a chance to lead as things at UW improve — she’s earned that.
At this point, however, it seems that ship has sailed. Even more unfortunate, then, is that the next steps are being taken under a dark cloud of uncertainty. What is the plan for selecting a new president? A news release on Friday said it would be open and transparent, but no specifics were provided. The release also indicated someone would fill the presidential position while the search takes place, but who are the trustees looking at? Most importantly, what exactly are you looking for in a candidate? What are your goals, and what qualifications in a leader are needed to get us there? Let’s not forget that there’s also considerable cost associated with another presidential search. The price tag is another good reason the trustees should feel obligated to provide an explanation as to why this move is worthwhile. What is motivating them to think we’ll look back and think this all paid off?
It’s truly upsetting that this is all up in the air, and the only thing we do know is that it won’t be Nichols at the helm.
The only way forward is for the trustees to have an open conversation about why the decision was made and what’s next as soon as possible. Members should make themselves available to the public and media for questions, and they must be candid. They must risk the possibility that the explanation won’t be well-taken by many in the state. But if the trustees are really confident in their own decisions and processes, then there’s no reason not to stand by them publicly. If all this remains in the dark, then, we must have new leadership in the board of trustees at UW.