The University of Wyoming trustees shocked many in the state last year when they abruptly — and without any elaboration — announced they would not be renewing the contract of President …
The University of Wyoming trustees shocked many in the state last year when they abruptly — and without any elaboration — announced they would not be renewing the contract of President Laurie Nichols.
For months, trustees refused to say what had led to their decision — even as dogged reporting by the Casper Star-Tribune and WyoFile revealed the board had quietly hired a law firm to investigate Nichols in early 2019. Over the protests of those outlets, the Laramie Boomerang and Wyoming Tribune Eagle, UW officials remained silent and insisted that nearly all of the records related to the decision were confidential.
However, in response to a suit brought by the media organizations, Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken disagreed. In early January, Kricken ordered university officials to turn over more than 100 pages, which finally became public last week. The documents don’t paint a complete picture of the events leading up to Nichols’ dismissal — for instance, the investigation compiled by the outside law firm remains secret — but they offer enough detail to give a general idea of what happened.
The gist of it, as laid out in stories by the Star-Tribune, WyoFile and Laramie Boomerang, is that multiple people accused the former president of abusive behavior; one UW Foundation staffer, for instance, reported being yelled at and berated by Nichols in a way that sent her into a panic attack.
Although the work conducted by the outside law firm, Employment Matters Flynn Investigations Group, has not been made public, UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said those interviews yielded “multiple individual accounts or perspectives of a similar and consistent nature.”
For her part, Nichols has contended that the complaints released publicly were inaccurate and rejected the idea that she was ever abusive. Beyond that, she’s taken issue with the fact that she was never informed of the allegations or given a chance to respond.
“If HR or the Trustees felt I needed coaching or leadership development, I would have gladly taken the opportunity to learn and improve,” Nichols said in a statement to the Boomerang. “But I was never given the chance.”
It’s certainly possible that attorneys advised the trustees it would be easiest to let Nichols’ contract to lapse without seeking her perspective or going through a formal investigation. But the newly released records show the split really wasn’t all that clean: In mid-January 2019 — only two months before trustees informed Nichols she was out as president — she and the trustees had agreed on the framework of a new three-year contract. Amid tight budget times in Wyoming, the deal would have given Nichols a 13.8% bump in compensation for the 2019-20 academic year, putting her total package at $564,666 for the year; UW Board Chairman Dave True had heralded Nichols’ acceptance of the new deal as “positive news” at the time.
Then, after the foundation staffer’s complaint surfaced, everything went off the rails.
Without all of the facts, it’s unfair to armchair quarterback all of the decisions made by the trustees. But there’s at least one clear lesson: Greater transparency is needed in Wyoming government when it comes to “personnel decisions,” an area where public officials are generally hesitant to say or release much of anything.
It’s hard to overstate what was at stake with Nichols’ contract. Not only did the decision profoundly shift the direction of UW, it involved a more than $1.7 million contract — which is a lot of taxpayer dollars.
As Judge Kricken put it in a portion of her January ruling, “The public has a compelling interest in knowing the employment details of the only university in the State of Wyoming and how public funds are being used.”
Unfortunately, UW chairman True may have missed the point. Just one day after the documents were released, True told the Star-Tribune and WyoFile that he hoped the press and public would move on from Nichols’ dismissal “sooner rather than later.”
“We are where we are and the history is what it is. We’re not going to change any of that,” True said. “We need to focus on moving forward and continuing to improve our university.”
However, due to UW’s stonewalling, the public didn’t know much of that history until last week. So we’re thankful that the Star-Tribune, WyoFile, Boomerang and Tribune Eagle kept pushing the university for an explanation. Because, to borrow a quote, it’s awfully hard to figure out where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been.