As the state’s only four-year university, the University of Wyoming holds a special place in the hearts of many. It’s hard to find a person in this state who doesn’t have a connection to the university — and it’s perhaps just as hard to find folks who don’t take some pride in the Wyoming institution.
But lately, UW’s Board of Trustees seems to be creating as much confusion as pride.
In March, news broke that the board had decided UW President Laurie Nichols’ tenure as the university’s leader would end on June 30, when her current contract expires.
The news caught many off-guard — apparently including Nichols, who had been working with the board on a new contract; she told both the Faculty Senate and Wyoming Public Radio she was surprised by the board’s decision.
According to reporting by the Casper Star-Tribune, UW’s four highest-ranking trustees flew to Arizona on March 15, where Nichols had just started a vacation a day earlier. It’s unclear what urgent news the trustees had to discuss with her, but it’s not hard to read between the lines, given that the university announced Nichols’ pending departure just 10 days later.
Nichols indicated to Wyoming Public Radio that she didn’t think the trustees’ decision had to do with the terms of the new contract, “so I would have to only imagine it was something else.”
“... I have not gotten any explanation,” she told the station late last month.
The university’s Faculty Senate is proposing a resolution that would call on trustees to provide an explanation, but in a right-to-work state where “personnel” information is broadly treated as confidential, the trustees may never explain why they opted to part ways with Nichols.
However, they should account for their methods. The trustees’ roughly 6.5-hour trip to Arizona last month cost an astounding $9,100, according to the Star-Tribune. Maybe that’s a bargain for a chartered flight, but, for comparison, the four trustees could have taken a week-long Caribbean cruise this summer for less than half that cost. It’s real money — and it’s taxpayer money that could have been spent elsewhere.
The board of trustees worked with and observed Nichols for nearly three years. Why couldn’t they have made a decision either before or after she went to Arizona?
Given the secrecy with which Wyoming treats terminations of public employees, it’s admittedly hard for us to fairly judge the trustees’ actions; maybe the circumstances really did justify an emergency trip to Arizona. Still, it’s hard to imagine such a scenario with the facts made public — especially considering that Nichols is staying on as a UW faculty member for the 2019-2020 school year.
Board president Dave True has praised Nichols’ “dedicated service” and “hard work” to put the university on a positive path, hinting to the Casper Star-Tribune that the trustees are doing some “fine tuning.” True said the board “has no desire to change direction in any significant way” and that UW is headed “in a very, very strong trajectory.”
It seems a little contradictory that things are both great and in need of change; True said he could appreciate that folks are confused about what’s going on.
But we’re also troubled: When the board of trustees finds a replacement for Nichols, he or she will be UW’s fifth president in only six years.
In 2013, trustees infamously conducted a closed-door hiring process and selected Robert Sternberg as UW’s next president. Sternberg lasted less than five months before he resigned in the face of concerns raised by faculty and the board. The mistake was costly: Beyond damaging the university’s reputation, Sternberg still received $325,000 in compensation in 2014 — effectively being paid not to be UW’s president.
Dick McGinity then led UW on a temporary basis. When trustees launched their next full-blown presidential search in 2015, the process was much more open and it resulted in Nichols’ hiring as the university’s first female leader.
Certainly from afar, she seemed like the right choice for the job, helping navigate budget cuts and layoffs and boosting enrollment. Then, inexplicably, she was terminated, resulting in a slew of speculation and distraction.
Trustees must stop this revolving door at the top of the university.
We’re encouraged that, in searching for Nichols’ successor, UW trustees are promising an “open and transparent search.” We hope that means many stakeholders and the general public will have a chance to weigh in — and that the board will clearly explain what it wants from the next president. If not, we can all expect to find ourselves — and our university — right back in this position once again.