After more than 10 months of waiting, we finally learned what led the University of Wyoming board of trustees to conclude Laurie Nichols should no longer serve as president. University documents released Monday after a public records lawsuit showed that an investigation into Nichols’ conduct began after she was accused of verbally abusing a UW foundation employee and yelling at a staff member.
On the same day that the allegations became public, the university said the behavior at the center of the investigation was part of a larger pattern. Nichols, meanwhile, wrote a lengthy response denying the allegations and criticizing the board of trustees for failing to interview her as part of the inquiry.
The revelations included in the documents touched off an immediate debate over whether Nichols’ apparent behavior was viewed differently because she was a woman. Nichols herself accused the trustees of “giving far less attention or care to far more serious and egregious complaints” leveled against others who worked for Wyoming’s only four-year public university.
Based on the information that’s so far been released, it’s hard to know whether either of those charges are correct. But what we do know is the controversy that’s again roiling our state would have been over by now, and could have largely been avoided, if the school’s leaders had been more transparent and explained the situation at the time that they decided to part ways with Nichols.
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Remember that the university’s first statement to the public gave no indication that the trustees had investigated serious allegations against one of Wyoming’s top – and most highly paid – officials. Instead, the school said the president was simply moving to a faculty position and thanked her for her service.
But that story began to crumble within hours. After all, the campus community was shocked to learn that its popular president, who had steered the university through a difficult round of budget cuts, would no longer be at the helm. The board of trustees remained tight-lipped, but Nichols told the Faculty Senate that she was surprised by the decision, which, she said, she had only recently learned of.
Without good information, the campus community — and people around the state — continued to wonder what had happened at one of Wyoming’s most important institutions. Trustees maintained they could not discuss the decision – or release documents related to it – because it was a personnel matter.
A judge disagreed, reasoning that public officials can’t expect the same degree of privacy that a normal citizen might. Or put another way, the public has a right to know about major decisions surrounding the behavior of leaders at institutions funded by the citizens of Wyoming.
By then, though, the trustees’ choice to maintain a wall of secrecy prompted questions and skepticism. Even Gov. Mark Gordon acknowledged that Nichols’ exit, along with the hasty departure of former UW President Bob Sternberg, had prompted many to wonder if the university was adrift.
While the path we took to this point has been winding, the conclusions are simple. First, officials in the highest perches of public life cannot expect to avoid scrutiny. Second, for citizens to have confidence in a public institution, they must be kept informed. In the absence of good information, rumors and skepticism grow like mold left ignored in a darkened basement. The solution is transparency. The disinfectant is sunshine.