The University of Wyoming acknowledged Friday that its board investigated former president Laurie Nichols after it received two complaints against her last year, the first time the board has publicly commented in any detail on the end of Nichols’ tenure.
The admission came in the same statement in which the university also announced it wouldn’t be appealing an Albany County judge’s ruling earlier this month that a batch of documents related to the investigation should be released to a group of news outlets, including the Casper Star-Tribune, that sued UW last June. The judge had set a Feb. 3 deadline to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
“In early 2019, the Board of Trustees was made aware of two instances when reports were made to human resources by university staff members regarding President Nichols,” the board said. “We retained an employment matters firm to do preliminary interviews and inquiry. The firm reported that the resulting inquiry identified multiple individual accounts or perspectives of a similar and consistent nature.”
The exact nature of the reports — and what prompted them — is unclear. In September, the Star-Tribune and WyoFile jointly reported that the board had quietly investigated Nichols in early 2019, in the weeks before she — and the rest of the state — was informed that her contract would be allowed to run out on June 30.
Frank Mendicino II, who sits on the board of the UW Foundation, told a reporter last year that there was an incident between Nichols and a foundation employee that caused the employee to leave. The incident, which he described as a “brouhaha,” may have led to a complaint being filed, he said.
According to documents previously obtained by WyoFile and the Star-Tribune, the board paid $8,550 to Employment Matters LLC Flynn Investigations Group to investigate Nichols, which included contacting at least 14 people. The Star-Tribune and WyoFile have a request outstanding on how much it has cost the university to fight the news organizations in court.
Nichols previously denied in interviews that she knew of any investigation. The former president, who is now leading Black Hills State University, is also a party to the public records lawsuit and had also sought to have the records blocked. She may still appeal.
Through an attorney, Nichols said Friday that she remained unaware of what was in the records and that she still has not been told by the board why her contract was not renewed. She said the comments she had received about her performance were “quite positive” and that her contract renewal was “fully negotiated” when the board informed her she wouldn’t continue.
In the statement, Nichols said repeatedly that she was not made aware of the complaints, nor was she involved in the investigation at all. She added that before UW released its statement Friday, she “never knew there were any ‘reported instances by university staff members,’” nor was she “ever asked to respond or reply to the reports.” She said she repeatedly asked for an explanation and never received one.
“As I would do with any other employee, I would have expected an opportunity to be told of any employment concerns, have an opportunity to respond and then an opportunity to address the issues,” she wrote. “However, I have learned today, that the Board conducted investigations about me in secret and without giving me any notice or any opportunity to try and fix the concerns which were apparently made. I am sincerely disappointed.”
Board of trustees chairman Dave True did not respond to a message left Friday. A message sent to a Black Hills spokeswoman seeking comment was not immediately returned.
In a statement, WyoFile editor Matt Copeland praised the board’s decision not to appeal.
“We commend the board of trustees’ decision to discontinue its secrecy and to share its reasoning,” he said. “Let’s hope the position they’ve adopted today, and the costs incurred to get there, will inform the decisions of future boards on similar matters. If by pursuing these questions for more than a year we arrive at more responsive, transparent and accountable public institutions everyone’s efforts will have been well spent.”
For months, it was unclear what caused the board to effectively dismiss Nichols, who was a widely popular president who’d steered the university through tough times. After UW announced in late March that Nichols wouldn’t continue, none of the parties involved would provide details. Board members declined to comment and Nichols said she was never given an explanation, a claim she’s stood by for nearly a year.
But three sources with knowledge of the circumstances told the Star-Tribune and WyoFile last year that Nichols was the subject of a weekslong investigation, beginning in February and ending just days before the board’s four leaders interrupted Nichols’ vacation in Arizona to tell her she wouldn’t continue. One source said the investigation was into Nichols’ conduct.
In the days and weeks after the decision was announced on March 25, the Star-Tribune and WyoFile filed several public records request attempting to get more information about the decision, including requests specific to an investigation. The university blocked most of the responsive documents, claiming they were protected records. WyoFile and the Star-Tribune, joined by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and the Laramie Boomerang, filed a lawsuit in June, alleging the records were improperly withheld.
The lawsuit played out in court, with Nichols joining in October and adding her voice to UW’s request that the court block the records. But in early January, Judge Tori Kricken sided with the news organizations and ordered nearly all of the records — including some related to an investigation — to be released.
A university spokesmen said they were likely to appeal the decision. But on Friday, after a special executive session meeting of the board, UW announced it was conceding.
“While the board continues to believe a policy of confidentiality in personnel matters is most respectful to university employees, both current and former, we are confident the material shows our decision not to renew President Nichols’ contract reflected prudent judgment and was in the best interest of the University of Wyoming and its people,” the statement said.
In court filings, Nichols had suggested UW violated its own policies by investigating her without her knowledge and without giving her an opportunity to respond. She was not specific as to what exact policy she was referring. But a presidential directive from 2016 lays out how an investigation would occur, including that the respondent — Nichols in this case — should have the chance to participate in the process.
Nichols had previously asked the court to let her see the records. The judge dismissed that request. Earlier this week, her attorney informed the lawyer for the news organizations that Nichols was again trying to see the records before they were publicly released. The news organizations opposed that effort, and as of Friday afternoon, no such request has been filed.
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