The head of the University of Wyoming’s Faculty Senate publicly questioned Thursday whether the board of trustees’ decision to “fire” President Laurie Nichols was motivated by her gender, and he asked why the CEO of the UW Foundation kept his job after a public scandal.
“I’ve got a question for you,” professor Donal O’Toole asked the board during its public comment period Thursday morning. “Is this about gender because that’s – in the absence of any information – and again Dave (True, the board president), I know you’re trying to be courteous and considerate, but that’s what the discussion is — are we treating women differently in this state, especially successful women, from how we treat men? Because it certainly seems that way to us.”
O’Toole pointed to the case of an UW administrator who was the subject of a lawsuit over alleged retaliation and who kept his job despite the scandal. O’Toole told the trustees he would not name the administrator because he didn’t want to come off as personally attacking the individual.
The outgoing chairman of the Faculty Senate confirmed to the Star-Tribune in an email that he was talking about Ben Blalock, the president of the school’s foundation. Blalock was sued in 2017 by a former employee who claimed she was fired because she complained that Blalock allegedly told her “not to hire another ‘retard,’” referring to another employee who had a disability.
In his comments to the board, O’Toole called the words used by Blalock “appalling” and said that the foundation official had previously brought “great disgrace” to the university in how another donation was handled.
The university settled the suit against Blalock under undisclosed circumstances in December. It had previously denied the allegations against him.
The details around Nichols’ demotion have been shrouded in secrecy since the university announced she would not continue as president after her contract expires on June 30. True has repeatedly declined to discuss the decision. Nichols has twice said publicly that she was surprised by the decision and that she has not received an explanation from the board. True has previously declined to comment on Nichols’ statements.
On Thursday, O’Toole called on the board to “get together” before they left town this weekend and provide a detailed explanation to Nichols about why the trustees chose not to renew her contract. He asked that the campus be given a general explanation of what happened.
In his prepared notes that he referred to during his public comment, which he shared with the Star-Tribune, O’Toole wondered why the board “fired the female administrator, but (did) not even publicly rebuke the male administrator,” referring to Blalock.
O’Toole added in his notes that “absent an explanation from this board, I and others assume that the standards by which President Nichols are judged are different from those used to judge her male colleague. She is being judged as a woman – and those standards are more rigorous.”
“We just need to know in broad terms how and why this decision is made,” he told the board, adding that providing such an explanation would be the “courteous” thing to do for campus. “There’s a rumor going around it involves the foundation and a donor. ... I hope you do that. I think you will.”
True, who was in board meetings throughout the day Thursday, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment regarding O’Toole’s questions about the role Nichols’ gender played in the board’s decision or if True would heed the professor’s request for an explanation.
In his comments to the board, O’Toole noted that Nichols was the first female president in the university’s 133-year history.
“We’ve had 26 presidents. We’ve had only one woman,” O’Toole told the board. “And then a president gets fired and that person happens to be a woman.”
He praised Nichols’ work with Wyoming’s Native American tribes and how she took over the presidency during a time of significant uncertainty at UW — the school was facing $42 million in state cuts and falling enrollment.
“A lot of people who are sane would’ve run a million miles away,” he added, praising Nichols’ “character and courage.”
The board, meanwhile, is moving ahead with replacing Nichols. It announced last week that it was considering three candidates to replace Nichols for the next year, while the board searches for a permanent replacement. That decision will likely be announced early next week.
Gov. Mark Gordon, who followed O’Toole and gave a 20-minute address to the board, did not mention Nichols. But he told Star-Tribune reporter Nick Reynolds on Wednesday that the school, as an important institution in the state, “has to be transparent” and that “it needs to have stability.”