By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE – Laurie Nichols’ presidency at the University of Wyoming will come to an end June 30 after her contract was not renewed by the Board of Trustees.
Nichols said she plans to take a faculty position at the university when her three-year contract expires.
During a emotional address to Faculty Senate on Monday afternoon, Nichols made it clear she hadn’t planned for her presidency to end this year.
“I was very surprised by this decision,” Nichols said. “It wasn’t anticipated and I just learned of it very recently myself. It is indeed the board’s decision to make, and I think, as an institution, we honor that and move on. … Thank you for the opportunity to be your president. It’s been an honor and a privilege and I appreciate it.”
Her remarks earned a standing ovation from members of the Faculty Senate.
And despite the somber mood, Nichols used most of her remarks to speak optimistically about UW’s future.
“I am so proud of this institution … and all of the things that we have been able to accomplish together,” she said. “When I first came, it was kind of troubling times, and people just stood up and said, ‘Let’s move forward.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
Nichols discussed a number of accomplishments the university has recently achieved, including growing enrollment, establishing a five-year strategic plan, back-to-back years of salary increases, eliminating structural budget deficits and implementing a new financial system.
She also expressed pride over a few of her pet projects, like the implementation of UW’s anti-sexual assault campaign, part of the national “NO MORE” campaign that Nichols said does more than “make sure that sexual assault and abuse are recognized.”
“More importantly, we fought against it every day to prevent as much as we can,” she said.
She said she’ll “always be proud” of the creation of the Native American Research and Cultural Center, which opened in September 2017.
Faculty Senate President Donal O’Toole said the end of her presidency is “hard for the institution.”
“This is an institution that needs stability,” O’Toole said. “I feel particular sympathy for President Nichols because of all the challenges she faced, and it seemed like we were finally moving into more still water. We’re in a much better place now than when (she) arrived, and that’s thanks largely to (her) efforts.”
When Nichols took office in 2016, she inherited a financial crisis and helped lead a cut of $42 million from the budget in her first few months.
O’Toole praised Nichols for having “the courage to accept the challenge.”
“I was amazed at how open that process was — and how fair it was,” O’Toole said. “There was lots of whining. I was one of those whiners.”
During her presidency, Nichols has earned particular praise for being receptive and responsive to concerns of faculty, staff and students. Her populist approach followed a disastrous and short-lived presidency of Bob Sternberg, whose brief stay at the university in 2013 saw three deans and five administrators resign in a matter of months.
Nichols’ replacement, if hired this year, will be the fifth UW president in six years. Nichols’s three-year tenure is notably lengthy in Wyoming’s recent history. She’s the first president hired in an open search process to last more than a few months since 1997.
Board of Trustees Chairman Dave True would not comment on the reason Nichols was not given a new contract. He said he expects board members will discuss plans for replacing Nichols during an executive session when the board meets this week.
“The full board certainly needs to get together to process all of this and make a decision on how we go forward,” he told the Boomerang Monday.
True cited “personnel” as the reason such discussions would happen in executive session.
The Wyoming Public Meetings Act does not allow a board to go behind closed doors for any conversation regarding “personnel.” Instead, it provides that a committee, like the Board of Trustees, can — but doesn’t need to — hold meetings behind closed doors to “to consider the appointment, employment, right to practice or dismissal of a public officer, professional person or employee, or to hear complaints or charges brought against an employee, professional person or officer” or “to consider accepting or tendering offers concerning wages, salaries, benefits and terms of employment during all negotiations.”
Renee Ballard, president of Staff Senate, said she’s “disappointed from a consistency standpoint” that Nichols is leaving, noting the numerous personnel changes the university’s experienced in recent years. Both Ballard and O’Toole expressed surprise at the announcement.
“Nobody on campus knew this was coming down the pike,” O’Toole said. “I assumed that she was going to be appointed for another three-year term. Folks are pretty surprised. This is totally out of the blue.”
O’Toole said he wants trustees to explain the rationale for the decision and provide a timely explanation about what the process will be for selecting Nichols’ interim and permanent replacements.
While Ballard didn’t know until Monday’s announcement that Nichols’ presidency would be coming to an end, she “knew it was a possibility” because Nichols had not yet been given a contract extension.
“It struck me as odd that there wasn’t one signed, but I didn’t know anything definitive,” she said.
Ballard said she’s appreciated that Nichols advocated for staff and ensured there was money to provide them raises. Ballard said she also appreciates the way Nichols engaged with Staff Senate and said she hopes such dialogue continues with Nichols’ replacement.
Nichols was selected as UW’s president in December 2015 and started in May 2016 amid an economic slump in Wyoming.
As UW’s 26th president, Nichols was the first woman to serve in the position.