UW confirms Nichols investigation, won’t appeal court order

LARAMIE — The University of Wyoming announced Friday that its board of trustees will not appeal a court decision that requires the university to publicly release numerous documents regarding former UW President Laurie Nichols’s departure from the university.

A statement from the board of trustees confirmed that Nichols was investigated shortly before the board opted not to renew her contract.

“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 trustees stated. “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.”

In that statement, the trustees said they decided not to explain their decision last year, in part, because they had promised to maintain the confidentiality of the staff members who made HR reports about Nichols.

“While we always seek to strike a sensitive balance between the transparency required of a publicly funded institution and employees’ rights to privacy, we accept the District Court’s direction,” the trustees said. “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 trustees also said they didn’t initially explain the Nichols decision to help protect her privacy.

“The University of Wyoming Board of Trustees seeks consistently to act in the best interests of the university, the state of Wyoming and its residents, and all university employees,” the trustees stated. “Our commitment to the latter typically requires us to maintain confidentiality regarding personnel matters. We strive to respect the privacy of our faculty and staff. When the board opted in March 2019 not to renew President Nichols’ contract, we observed customary confidentiality practices.”

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.

Albany County district court Judge Tori Kricken is expected to release redacted versions of documents regarding Nichols’s departure once her 30-day protection order ends Monday — assuming that Nichols doesn’t decide to appeal the decision.

Nichols is currently the president of Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.

An attorney for Laurie Nichols has contended that the investigation was conducted counter to university regulations.

In a statement provided to Wyofile through her attorney, Nichols said she “never knew there were any ‘reported instances by university staff members” until Friday’s statement from UW.

“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.”

UW’s decision not to appeal is a reversal of the plans made immediately after the Kricken ruled against the university. At that time, UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said the university was likely to appeal.

In 2019, the Laramie Boomerang, the Casper Star-Tribune and WyFile united to petition a court review of UW’s denial of several public records requests made by Star-Tribune reporter Seth Klamann.

After UW announced in March that Nichols would not return as president for the 2019-2020 academic year, Klamann started requesting numerous records related to Nichols’s outing, beginning with a March 28 request for emails including the board of trustees’s four most powerful members that included the keywords “Nichols, Laurie, president, seep, scrape, renewal, evaluation, Steve Portch, Portch.” Portch had conducted Nichols’s performance review in 2017.

UW’s attorneys found 2,235 emails related to that search, and released just 157 pages of which to the Star-Tribune.

The university had argued the rest of the emails were not public records as defined by Wyoming law.

Kricken ruled otherwise on Jan. 4 and said that the investigatory records into Nichols also constitute public records.