A group of faculty and students took turns Thursday praising departing UW President Laurie Nichols and demanding transparency from the board of trustees that did not renew her contract.
“The phrase I heard around campus is an acronym: WTF,” Faculty Senate Chair Donal O’Toole told the board during a public comment period, referring to shorthand for a more colorful expletive phrase. “... So there are a few things we expect of the board. Courtesy is one of them. I know you are capable of it. I expect you to do it. Please cowboy up.”
“I would suggest the board consider its cowboy ethics and addressing the circumstances that we are in today and will be in for the next few years as we struggle to overcome a very publicly damaging decision,” added Caroline McCracken-Flesher, an English professor.
A number of people lined up to show support for Nichols, who is the university’s first female president and guided it through a series of public crises in recent years. People crowded around the door, and when one speaker asked who was in the audience to support Nichols, half of the room either stood up or raised their hands. Speakers called for the board to explain, either publicly or at least to Nichols, why her contract wasn’t being renewed.
On Monday afternoon, the university released a brief statement — O’Toole told the board it spanned just 179 words — announcing that Nichols would become a faculty member after her three-year contract expired in late June. Neither board members nor the university has provided any public explanation for the change. O’Toole suggested, both during his public comments and in previous statements to the Star-Tribune, that even Nichols is unaware of why her contract will end after just three years.
Nichols declined to comment via a secretary on Monday, and she did not return a message left on her cellphone Wednesday. She told the Faculty Senate on Monday night that she did not want to discuss details but that she was surprised by the news, according to a tape of a meeting obtained by the Star-Tribune and as first reported by the Laramie Boomerang.
Dave True, the board’s president, has repeatedly declined to provide details of why Nichols will not continue as president. He told the Star-Tribune on Monday that it was a personnel matter. Asked if the board would release more information, he declined to say. As for a plan for replacing Nichols, he told the newspaper on Monday that “with how timely all of this is, the board has not had a chance to evaluate that.”
Flight records indicate that a plane registered to the board flew to Arizona for 90 minutes on March 15, a day after Nichols arrived there for a vacation. Nichols and her husband own a home a brief drive from the airport where the plane landed, records show. Neither True nor other board members would comment on the flight.
If the public comment on Thursday was anything to go by, the silence from the board has apparently not helped campus process the news, which O’Toole previously said “came out of a clear blue Wyoming sky.”
Renee Ballard, the president of the university’s staff senate, told the board she was shocked and disappointed. She praised Nichols’ strategic plan and the hires she made during her three-year tenure. She said she was concerned that a new president — the fifth in six years — will halt the momentum built under Nichols.
Alex Mulhall, the president of the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming, said students “did feel a sense of shock, not understanding” upon learning that Nichols would be replaced. She urged the board to be transparent going forward. She praised the “positive reaction from Laurie Nichols during her time at the university.”
“Overall, President Nichols has done a fantastic job,” she said.
O’Toole was more critical. He noted that three board members whom he considered bellwethers — David Fall, Macey Moore and Michelle Sullivan — had not resigned and “that’s a signal to” the Faculty Senate.
“This looks bad,” he said. “We’ve had multiple presidents over the last couple of years. This hurts the university in the short term.”
Jaynie Welsh, a former vice president of the university’s student government, said the Nichols decision would have a negative impact and that, as a result, the board was doing a disservice. Jordan Pierson, a senator with the student government, wondered if the board was “demoting” Nichols because of her success championing students, staff and faculty.
“She stood up for us to this very board,” she said. “Apparently, she wasn’t successful enough in being a figurehead for this board.”
McCracken-Flesher, the English professor, asked the board to recall what happened with Bob Sternberg, who was very briefly president before he was replaced with Dick McGinity, Nichols’ predecessor.
“No one came to talk to you to say that was a mistake,” she said. “I think you’re hearing from a lot of people today that perhaps, there’s a decision being made that’s a mistake.”
She looked to Nichols, who was sitting next to True at the front of the room with the rest of the board.
“Thank you President Nichols for your service, and thank you to the board for the continued deliberation on this matter.”