Since Nichols was hired, the rumblings of economic downturn in Wyoming were felt at the university level, and UW’s financial ground was shaken to the tune of a $35 million funding cut.
Nichols began her new job May 16 with the knowledge that the university must cut $23 million from its budget before July 1.
“I thought, as I was first taking this position, that the greatest challenge was just really kind of securing leadership again at the university,” she said Wednesday in an interview with the Powell Tribune.
Nichols arrived in Powell for a get-to-know-you visit just two days after she assumed her position at the helm of Wyoming’s only public four-year university.
“I knew there had been some turbulent times there, and I thought the greatest challenge would be ... getting it operating together and getting it heading in the same direction,” she said.
Nichols said she thought that would be “very doable;” it would just take time to figure it out.
“But ... things have really changed between December and now,” she said. “Now, what’s confronting us is the budget and the financial situation. So what I’m really walking into in the first few days is a $35 million budget cut.”
The $35 million cut in state funding is for the university’s biennial budget, from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2018. That equals $17.5 million per year for the next two years, or about 8.75 percent of the $200 million in state funding the university previously received annually.
However, an additional $5.5 million must be cut from the budget for the upcoming 2016-17 fiscal year, bringing the total annual cut to $23 million, or 11.5 percent.
Most of that additional cut is necessary to pay for a new fiscal system at the university, Nichols said.
“The whole financial system for the university, all budgets, are loaded onto it,” she said. In addition to accounting, tracking expenditures and auditing, the new financial system can integrate with the student information system.
“These two systems can talk to each other,” she said.
That capability allows data analysis that previously was difficult or impossible, such as comparing programs at the university by analyzing enrollment, credit hours and expenses in those programs. The system also can determine faculty workload and perform other valuable analyses, Nichols said.
The new system wasn’t cheap; it came at a cost of $10 million. The Wyoming Legislature provided half of that, and directed the university to pay the other half by cutting $5 million in expenses.
Nichols said it is difficult to decide, as the incoming president with limited background knowledge, where it is prudent to make the needed cuts.
“That is the greatest challenge,” she said. “How do I do it — not really knowing the university yet — how do I do it without making mistakes?
For that reason, Nichols said many of this year’s cuts will be considered temporary. Then, during the coming school year, she and her administrative team will take a much closer look at the university, its programs and its budget and determine where more permanent, strategic cuts can be made.
“I’ve said next year is going to be a big year” for determining priorities and doing academic and strategic planning, she said.
“Once we get through this, the most important work begins — strategically planning for the future,” she added. “I was hoping I could get after that a little faster. It will come, but it might have to come a little bit later.”
Nichols said every unit will be involved, both in the cuts and in planning for the future.
“Everybody has to share,” she said. “This is a substantial budget cut; $35 million is a lot of money.”
Budget cuts are never easy, but Nichols said she’s up to the task.
“This is not my first rodeo on cutting budgets,” she said.
While she was a provost at South Dakota State University, that university’s budget was cut by 10 percent.
“We did eliminate eight programs that had low enrollment, low productivity and were costing more than they provided,” she said. “But mostly, we made those cuts by becoming more efficient. We weren’t performing at our highest level.”
Nichols said making those cuts strategically helped South Dakota State become a higher-performing, better-run university, and she believes she can help make that happen at the University of Wyoming as well.
“As a leader and administrator, the very best thing you can do is be as transparent as you possibly can be, and keep the lines of communication open,” Nichols said. “You’ve got to get out there and start talking to people, even though it might be a tough discussion.”
People respond better to difficult situations when they feel they’re being listened to, “and you grab little nuggets of ideas and actually use them,” she said.
While making cuts at South Dakota State, “anxiety was so high that I just started hosting what I called ‘coffee with the provost,’” she said. There was no agenda, just an opportunity for people to talk and ask questions while she listened.
Nichols said she planned to end the informal discussion time after the cuts were made and things were operating smoothly, but “they wouldn’t let me. I had the last one a month before I left.”
Nichols said universities tend to become less efficient over time. Cutting the budget, if done strategically, while holding onto the things central to its mission, can help UW become leaner and operate more efficiently.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” she said. “Blame it on the budget cuts, when in reality, it needed to happen anyway.”