In November 2013, the University of Wyoming’s board of trustees met privately for nine hours to address the problem with the school’s new president.
More than a year earlier, the board had set out to replace longtime president Tom Buchanan. The search was largely confidential and private, shrouded in enough smoke that it prompted legal challenges by multiple media outlets, including the Star-Tribune. When the confidential hiring process ended, with Oklahoma State’s Bob Sternberg emerging as the pick in February 2013, Dave Bostrom, then the head of the board, praised Sternberg and said it was “the most important decision we will make during our tenure.”
Sternberg took over in July and lasted 137 days. During those four and a half months, several deans and upper-level administrators departed UW. Some said they were asked to resign. Others left in protest. The mood at the law school was somewhere between frustration and rebellion.
“There was a groundswell of opposition to him at all levels, and it boiled over,” said Ken Chestek, a law school professor and the incoming Faculty Senate chair.
Sternberg said he was merely doing as the board had instructed (a characterization one former board member says is generally accurate.)
In any case, Sternberg stepped down after the marathon November 2013 board meeting. He told the Star-Tribune then that he felt he didn’t have the support of the board. He had not even lasted an entire UW football season.
In ousting Sternberg, the board spoke with faculty and other leaders, officials say now. They consulted and listened, and Sternberg was gone. Dick McGinity was quickly installed as an interim and then permanent president. It was apparent quickly he would not be a long-term leader.
The search for his replacement was open, in marked contrast with the Sternberg hire. Stakeholders from across the state were involved, public input was sought and the finalists were brought to campus.
“I will say this about the trustees: They listened when the faculty said, ‘If you’d only listened to us, if you’d only included us,’” history professor Renee Laegreid, who also represents the American Association of University Professors, said of the fallout after Sternberg. “The (next) president search ... was very open.”
From that search emerged Laurie Nichols. Previously an administrator at South Dakota State University, Nichols arrived at UW in spring 2016, with the “budget in the dumpster” — as Laegreid described it — and enrollment projected to be down roughly 600 students. Within three years, she’d solved both problems, eliminated hundreds of positions, instituted layoffs, started an Honors College, rebuilt the university’s relationship with Wyoming’s Native American tribes, built a strategic plan for UW and more.
Last month, with her contract three months from expiring and talks about an extension apparently ongoing, she was told she would not continue as president after June 30. Nichols was essentially demoted to a faculty member.
The “why” of what happened with Nichols remains largely unclear. She has said she doesn’t know the reason for her demotion. Faculty and staff leaders, state legislators and former trustees have said they have no idea why the board chose not to renew Nichols’ contract. The board’s president and de facto spokesman, Dave True, has repeatedly declined to provide details.
What’s left is the looming shadow of another presidential search. The office atop Wyoming’s sole four-year public university will again have a new occupant. That person will be the University of Wyoming’s fifth president in six years.
“Everybody I know agreed that was the right thing to do,” Chestek said of the board pushing out Sternberg. “Whereas with Laurie Nichols, that’s a completely different situation.”
How to describe a university that’s had so much turnover at the top?
“I could think of several adjectives,” said Mike Massie, a former trustee who was also a special adviser to Buchanan several years ago. “But probably the most apt one is uncertainty. ... (Uncertainty) erodes morale, that’s the first thing it’ll do.”
There’s no shortage of uncertainty. Renee Ballard, the Staff Senate chair, said the looming search is “nerve-wracking.” Jason Wilkins, the president of the UW student body, said students are “a little confused.” Maggi Murdock, a former administrator and teacher at UW, said the Nichols news was part of a “continuum of disruption” that goes back to Sternberg.
Ann Rochelle, a former trustee who was on the board when Sternberg was picked, also traced the current turmoil back to 2013.
“As a former UW Trustee, I bear some responsibility for the position that UW finds itself in without a President,” she wrote to the Star-Tribune last week. “ ... I cannot emphasize enough the need for stability at the top. I will accept responsibility for my part in a poor selection five years ago.”
The board will have to hire a new leader in this uncertain environment. True, the board president, said Friday that the search will likely take a year. In the meantime, an interim president will be appointed, though True said no timeline has been established yet.
Another question: Will this level of upheaval limit UW’s options for new chief executives? True didn’t think so; he was adamant that the university is headed in a good direction. Nor was Chris Boswell, the school’s former legislative point person who retired last year, convinced the university would struggle.
“Laurie Nichols was a good candidate, and she arrived a very short time after the upheaval of Bob Sternberg,” he noted. “Ten years, nine years before that, there was upheaval before the hiring of Tom Buchanan, when Tom was originally not on the list of finalists and he wound up becoming president and having a successful and very healthy tenure. There are no absolutes in this game.”
Other people close to UW are less sure.
“What’s going to happen this time, UW is going to have a reputation,” Massie said. “And what my concern would be is that it would discourage or retard the number of high-quality applicants the board of trustees will get right from the start. Folks will remember Sternberg, they’ll remember the uncertainty the university went through until Laurie came, and then suddenly Laurie ... Folks are going to sit back and say, ‘What the heck is going on?’”
Richard Legon, the president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, called the turnover “a lot of churn.”
“The question becomes for the board, because you still have an impressive institution, you want it to be great — so the question for the board is to do a little bit of reflecting,” he said. “’Why are we going through such an abundant number of presidents in such a constrained number of years?’”
Donal O’Toole, the current chair of the Faculty Senate, said the silence surrounding Nichols’ demotion will likely shrink the applicant pool. He said potential candidates may see the job as a “minefield.”
Boswell said there were three potential types of candidates that UW will attract: a younger person who is aggressive and ambitious; a person close to retirement; and a person desperate for a job anywhere. That would be true regardless of how Nichols’ demotion was handled, he said.
He cautioned again against reading too direly into the Nichols’ situation, which all who spoke to the Star-Tribune said was not as dramatic as the Sternberg debacle.
“Does the departure of a sitting president at the end of her contract necessarily bode evil for UW? No, I don’t think so,” Boswell said. “You might have to refine the search. ... It’s not as though there’s a spectacular model that was in place (before Nichols). We struggle on occasion. But still we were able to have some success.”
“Success,” in this case, would be defined by many as an end to the presidential merry-go-round.
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“I think folks are tired of being at a university with this amount of administrative turmoil,” O’Toole said. “What we would really like is to have a good, competent, steady administrator that will be here at least for the medium term.”
O’Toole and others said the board will be hard-pressed to keep their silence about the Nichols’ decision as they search for that good, competent, steady replacement.
“I think in getting rid of Laurie the way they did, that’ll make a lot of very good candidates ... leery,” O’Toole said. “Because they’ll look back on the history, all the way back to Sternberg, and say, ‘This is probably kind of a funny place.’”
“The word around here is that it’s going to be hard to attract someone unless you actually know why the president was let go,” Laegreid added.
But it appears increasingly unlikely that the board will divulge what happened, at least willingly. True declined to discuss it again Friday. Asked if he’s concerned that the smokescreen around the decision will drive away candidates, he demurred.
“That is a topic that each candidate will have to evaluate for themselves,” True said. “I can’t answer that for them. Again, I think it’s a great opportunity for a person who wants to take the university forward.”
True listed Nichols’ accomplishments — the Honors College, the strategic plan, the renewed relationship with Wyoming’s Native American tribes — as evidence that the university is on the right path.
But that, of course, returns to a central question: If Nichols was performing so well, why was her contract not renewed?
“To be honest, I think we’re seeing things very differently,” O’Toole said of how faculty view the university versus how the trustees perceive it. “Because what they see is forward momentum and what we see is a lot of choppy waters.”
It isn’t just the Nichols’ departure that’s created a perception problem for the board. The past two years have been rife with public disputes between trustees and university employees. Last year, it was the board’s sweep of $140 million from hundred of accounts across campus and its attempt to change university regulations. Both efforts prompted members of the UW community to wonder if the board was overreaching.
“I think ‘micromanaged’ was one of the words, one of the concerns, out there,” said Ballard, the Staff Senate chair.
“I believe this latest move has just reinforced people’s feelings that, you know, things are being done for reasons people don’t understand,” Murdock, the former professor and administrator, said. “ ... Six years ago, we started this debacle with Sternberg, and now we’re pushing another president out. It seems like part of a continuum of disruption.”
Boswell said the board became more involved in the day-to-day operations of the university because “it had to.” He said he didn’t think the trustees had overstepped their roles.
True declined to discuss the sweep or the regulation battle, saying they were in the “rearview mirror.”
But they won’t be for a candidate applying at UW.
“Any candidate is going to walk in there when they meet with the search committee and they’re going to want to know, unless they want the position desperately,” said Legon of the governing boards association. “The quality of leaders that Wyoming deserves and I’m sure can attract are going to ask very candid questions, like, ‘I can’t help but notice that my permanent predecessor was here for just a short duration.’”
“You’d be a schmuck not to ask the big questions,” he added.
Each of the dozen people who spoke to the Star-Tribune for this article — including True — said the board needed to be transparent going forward. Most said the board should shed more light on what happened with Nichols. But at the minimum, the search for her replacement should be as open as possible.
“We need an open and transparent search process involving faculty,” said Chestek, the law school professor. “The reason we got the mess we had with Sternberg is because it was a closed process. I think the trustees have learned that doesn’t work.”
True, who was appointed to the board in 2013, declined to discuss the Sternberg search but agreed generally that the board should be open with its search. Indeed, the only information the board has released about the presidential situation has been to reassure the state that it would not be a secretive process.
“We’re just going to look for input of the various groups who are interested in the university, whether that’s on campus, staff, students, faculty, other administrators, etc., or others throughout the state and even beyond the state through the alumni,” he said.
Wilkins, the student body president, said he had concerns about transparency. As the elected leader of the students, he’s a nonvoting member of the board and is thus allowed into the board’s executive session. But his predecessor, Alex Mulhall, had not been allowed into executive session meetings in March before the Nichols announcement, she told the Star-Tribune.
Wilkins said those meetings were likely about Nichols’ future and that they were held “abruptly.” But he said he had recently rejoined the executive session meetings, which was a “good sign.”
“I’m trying to look at it in the sense that I hope it won’t happen again,” he said. “I did feel a bit upset and upended about that decision. ... I would hope that doesn’t set a precedent.”
Wilkins isn’t alone in his desire to have his voice heard in the search for the new president.
“I think that generally, for the only university in the state, clearly to the extent that it’s possible, we want to know what’s going on. We love this university,” said Susan Stubson, who was on the search committee that helped pick Nichols. “ ... The president of the university, next to the governor, that’s one of the main figureheads of the state.”
“That’s another difficulty that the university faces, is rebuilding that trust it’s had with the people of the state,” she said. “The university belongs to the people of the state. It doesn’t belong to the president, it doesn’t belong to the trustees. It belongs to the people of the state.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the organization Renee Laegreid represents. She represents the American Association of University Professors.