It’s been two months since the University of Wyoming announced that Laurie Nichols would no longer serve as the school’s president. From the start, the university has been less than candid with the public about the decision. In the initial announcement, officials said Nichols was merely moving to a faculty position instead of being honest about what this really was: a demotion that caught nearly the entire campus community off guard.
Since then, the university’s board of trustees has remained stubbornly silent on the matter. The trustees have refused repeated calls – from students, from faculty, from the public and from the press – to explain what led to the decision to unceremoniously end the tenure of the university’s first female president, leaving anyone who cares to make a guess at the reason. Was it age? Was it temperament? Was it some action, taken or not?
Nor have they been clear about how they will end what has become a distressing trend: the turnover at the top of Wyoming’s lone four-year public university. Interim President Neil Theobald is now the fifth person to lead the school in six years. He expects to serve in his new role for only a year, meaning the University of Wyoming will have six presidents in seven years – a breathtaking amount of turnover that has allowed uncertainty and instability to fester.
Trustees and the university’s attorney say personnel rules bar the university from explaining what led to Nichols’ dismissal. They’ve used the same rationale to block the Star-Tribune’s repeated requests for information – even as it pertained to how the university may have spent taxpayer money to assess the performance of one of Wyoming’s highest paid public employees.
Now that two months have passed, one might question why journalists continue to press for information about Nichols’ ouster. Why not focus on other, more positive, matters?
The answer is simple. There are few more important institutions in our state than the University of Wyoming. It is responsible for educating so many of our young people, for conducting research on subjects that are critical to our state, for housing some of Wyoming’s top thinkers and creators.
But even more than that, in a state with a scattered population separated by mountains, deserts and miles of empty prairie, the university is one of the few institutions that binds us together. We are all cowboys and cowgirls. We all bleed brown and gold. And whether we attended the school or not, we all have a stake in its success. When it struggles, so does Wyoming.
And so we need answers. We need to know why this happened. We need to know whether, as some faculty have alleged, Nichols’ leadership skills were judged differently because she was a woman. We need to know whether she was treated more harshly than other high-profile administrators. And we need to know why the same board that has overseen so much strife and uncertainty from behind closed doors is qualified now to pick a new leader – and with that person, stability – to the university.
Those questions need answers. And if officials and trustees believe they can simply wait us out, that we will give up and seek out stories that are less challenging, they are mistaken. If they think students and faculty will quietly move on to other concerns, they are wrong. The public has a right to know what happened at the university it funds richly. We won’t stop asking questions until the questions are answered. It’s up to the university’s leaders to decide how long that will take.