Three weeks away from the end of her time at the University of Wyoming, President Laurie Nichols says she has still not received an explanation from the board of trustees about why her contract was not extended and that she was planning to stay in Laramie for a year as a faculty member until Black Hills State University in South Dakota approached her last month.
In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday morning, Nichols spoke about her new job, her legacy at UW, the board’s decision to let her contract expire and the rumors that persist about why a popular president was so quickly shown the door. She said she was proud of her work at Wyoming’s sole four-year public university and that she felt the school was in a “really good position” going forward — a view shared by UW board president Dave True, which makes the decision to let Nichols go all the more puzzling.
Nichols has given just a handful of interviews since the board’s announcement on March 25, first with Wyoming Public Media, then the university’s student newspaper and, most recently, with Wyoming PBS. She has consistently maintained that she has no idea what prompted the board to not renew her contract, a position she reiterated to the Star-Tribune.
She previously told Bob Beck of Wyoming Public Media that she planned to stay on at UW as a tenured faculty member — a position guaranteed in her presidential contract — for at least a year. On Wednesday, she said she had planned to follow through on that plan until only recently, when she was called by Paul Beran, the executive director and CEO of South Dakota’s public universities. Beran reached out in mid-May, after the president at Black Hills State announced he was resigning.
A spokeswoman for Beran said she wasn’t familiar with the discussions, and Beran wasn’t available for comment Wednesday.
“I wasn’t looking” to leave Laramie, Nichols said. “I had very much decided ... that the best thing right now was just to go back to the faculty and kind of get my feet under me and take next year to do some future looking. That was truthfully my plan.”
Nichols ultimately decided to take the interim presidential role at Black Hills State for the next 12 months, a position she said she will not pursue on a permanent basis. She previously worked in South Dakota’s public university system and is a native of the state. Her husband, Tim, recently accepted a job at the Honors College at the University of Montana.
She said she plans on “putting my feelers out there” for a permanent job in a few months and will try to work in administration, rather than transitioning into the ranks of faculty.
True said he wasn’t aware of Nichols’ decision to take a new job until the Star-Tribune called him Monday but that “if she’s pleased with it, that’s a very good step.”
Among other work at UW, Nichols highlighted her efforts to absorb massive budget cuts — $42 million handed down shortly after she came to UW in spring 2016 — and reverse a spiraling enrollment trend. The former crisis took more than a year to fully handle and included 37 layoffs and the elimination of hundreds of mostly vacant positions. The latter issue started as a 600 student shortfall, was tempered to around 200 students by fall 2017 and has now fully turned around, with UW posting record-setting freshman classes.
Nichols said she felt she always had the support of the board throughout her time at UW, including during a pair of related controversies surrounding faculty and staff upheaval. The first involved the board sweeping roughly $140 million from hundreds of accounts across campus (a move that Nichols advised against), and the second involved Nichols acting as a bridge between faculty and the board when the trustees were attempting to change a pivotal university regulation.
“I didn’t feel as though we had any problems or issues there,” she said of her relationship with the board. “If they were there, I wasn’t in tune to them.”
Both of those controversies prompted some in and around the university to wonder if the board had taken a more aggressive approach to governing UW. Nichols said the board took its role very seriously and worked hard. She added that she was aware that some believed the board was “micromanaging.”
“I think you can say that they’ve gotten overly involved in management,” she said, “but when I take a step back, I wouldn’t call it micromanagement but the culture and nature of this particular board.”
Nichols said she was hoping for “at least” another three-year contract and that negotiations began normally in the late fall and progressed up until she was informed her contract wouldn’t be extended in mid-March. She said she wasn’t applying for any other jobs or looking to leave the university.
She confirmed that board leadership told her about the decision to let the contract run out while she was on vacation in Arizona on March 15. The Star-Tribune previously obtained a flight manifest showing that the board’s four officers — True, John McKinley, Jeff Marsh and Kermit Brown — took a private jet to an Arizona airport near a condo Nichols owns. True previously declined to comment on the trip, but Nichols said she was told about the board’s decision then.
“They made the decision to come down and tell me there,” she said, adding that she was on the first day of a scheduled vacation. “It was shocking, it was unexpected, I did not see it coming at all. There was very little information given to me, they’ve never told me why to this day. It was very brief.”
She said during that meeting on March 15, she asked the board’s leaders for an explanation.
“They told me they would not tell me,” she explained.
After Nichols spoke with Wyoming Public Media and said she had not received an explanation, True declined to comment on the interview when asked by the Star-Tribune.
Nichols added that she maintains a “professional relationship” with True and the rest of the board and that she is on speaking terms with the trustees.
“While it was incredibly disappointing and devastating to me, I also had a huge obligation to students and faculty and staff on this campus to come back and be a good president,” she said. “I just felt like, swallow my pride on this one and just step up and continue to do the very, very best job I can do.”
She has still not received an explanation from the board and doesn’t expect that she’ll ever receive one. When asked why she thinks the board has been silent, she speculated that “there’s not much of an explanation” to give.
The absence of full transparency from the board has not quieted rumors or calls for an explanation. Donal O’Toole, who until last month was the chair of UW’s Faculty Senate, told the board at its May meeting that the decision seemed motivated by Nichols’ gender — she is the first female president in the school’s history.
When asked about O’Toole’s comments, True said he didn’t “agree with his speculative conclusions.” Nichols told the Star-Tribune on Wednesday that she didn’t want to speculate about whether her gender played a part in the decision.
“It’s always in the back of one’s mind,” she said. “I don’t know. I would say this — I would hope not. For heaven’s sake, it’s 2019. It’s going to be 2020 pretty soon. This is the Equality State. We need to be well beyond this as a state right now. If (my gender’s) problematic, then it’s a shame.”
O’Toole also wondered to the board about a rumor that Nichols’ decision involved a donor and the UW Foundation. True declined to comment beyond disagreeing with O’Toole’s gender comments.
Nichols said there was no foundation issue and that “people are making up stories.” She reiterated that she had no idea what could’ve prompted the board to decide to not renew her contract.
“You know, any time there is a void of information, people will create their own theories about anything,” she said. “So you’re going to hear all kinds of junk. I just laugh at it; it’s so ridiculous.”
For now, the board is maintaining its silence — True told the Star-Tribune late last month that he wouldn’t comment and that the newspaper was “hammering on an old topic” — and preparing to move on. Neil Theobald, UW’s vice president of finance, will take over as interim president on July 1 as the board searches for a permanent replacement for Nichols.
On UW’s future, Nichols repeated what others have said: There’s been too much turnover at the highest levels of the University of Wyoming, and if the board hopes to attract a good candidate to replace her, it will have to provide some explanation for why they have to replace her in the first place.