On the last day of the fall semester, University of Wyoming trustees selected Laurie Nichols as the institution’s 26th president. She will be the first woman president to lead the university since its founding in 1886.
The provost from South Dakota State University will begin work sometime before July 1, 2016. No exact date has been set.
“This is just an incredible opportunity for me, and I am beside myself with excitement at being able to come to Wyoming,” Nichols said in a UW press release. “It’s a great university and a wonderful state, and I don’t think I could have found a better place and a better fit.”
Trustees met in executive session Friday morning and heard from faculty, staff and student leaders about their assessment of each candidate. Trustees then spent four hours making final background checks and calling references of their preferred candidate before making a final decision.
The hire marks the beginning of the end of a three-year leadership transition at the University of Wyoming. The turnover began with former president Tom Buchanan’s 2012 announcement that he would retire. Trustees hired Robert Sternberg as president in 2013, who resigned after five months. Trustees then appointed provost Dick McGinity as president for a two-year term, which will likely end in summer 2016.
According to a UW press release, trustees offered Nichols a 3-year contract, “with an annual base salary of $350,000, a $48,000 housing allowance, a $25,000 retention payment and a $35,000 contribution to a deferred compensation plan.”
The contract will be finalized as soon as possible, according to trustees. Nichols will make several trips to Wyoming this spring to become more familiar with UW and meet stakeholders from around the state.
Nichols is a first-generation college graduate who was raised on a farm in South Dakota. She earned her bachelor’s degree at South Dakota State in Brookings in 1978. She earned a master’s degree in education at Colorado State University in 1984 and completed a Ph.D. in family and consumer sciences education at Ohio State University in 1988.
Returning to SDSU, Nichols became dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences in 1994. She took a break from that position to serve as interim president of Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, from 2008 to 2009, then returned to SDSU to serve as provost from 2009 to the present.
Prior to Nichols’ selection, some faculty questioned whether her lack of administrative experience outside of SDSU might be a limiting factor.
During a public forum last week, Nichols talked about her role in a senior academic administrator leadership training program offered by the American Council on Education in 2006 to 2007. As one of 38 leaders selected for the program, she visited 12 universities around the country and was mentored by the president of California State University-Fresno.
Nichols also helped create a five-year strategic plan for SDSU. UW’s own ongoing strategic planning process was again put on hold earlier this semester in anticipation of receiving input from the next president.
Nichols commented on UW’s lack of a current strategic plan during a public forum with UW stakeholders. “My sense, maybe a little bit, is the campus doesn’t know where it is heading right now,” Nichols said. “If that is the case, it is really quite fixable. You need a really good plan pulled together.”
Nichols said a new plan could generate “confidence and enthusiasm. … That’s really what will take this university to the next level,” she said.
McGinity’s transition strategy
Dick McGinity’s focus for his remaining months as president will be to draft a transition plan to prepare for Nichols’ arrival, he said.
When Nichols arrives, she will be charged with finalizing the university’s 5-year strategic plan. Nichols will also carry forward initiatives in the College of Engineering, science and the College of Education. The university is also working on agreements that attempt to ensure that credits transfer from community colleges to the university.
McGinity said Nichols’ experience in guiding SDSU through a 10 percent budget cut in 2011 will be vital for UW. He expects revenue challenges for the state and UW will likely be long-term.
“Happily, for the University of Wyoming, she has extensive experience dealing with the situation we face, and that experience will be very valuable,” McGinity told WyoFile.
Nichols will also face the challenge of below-market pay for faculty. Gov. Matt Mead has recommended a $5 million cut to UW’s standard budget, which is about $417 million for 2017-2018. That proposed cut comes in the context of faculty salaries that are 11 percent less than those of peer institutions.
McGinity said he felt honored to serve as UW’s president, and that it was a thrill after a long career in business. He served as a board member of Canada Southern Petroleum before teaching classes at UW’s College of Business.
“There is a certain NFL coach whose favorite saying is, ‘You are what your track record says you are,’” McGinity said. “I feel very good about what this group has accomplished in the last two and half years.
Campus groups praise open search process
Some faculty described the open search that led to Nichols’ hiring as a “healing process” that has vastly improved relations with the UW Board of Trustees.
“It has brought our community together and got people talking who wouldn’t otherwise,” Faculty Senate President Tucker Readdy said. “The faculty expressed excitement about the unique strengths that Dr. Nichols possesses, and we look forward to welcoming her into the University of Wyoming family.”
Staff Senate President Arron Sullivent said that many of his members have a positive view of the Board of Trustees at the close of the 2015 search.
“[Staff] are really very pleased with how it’s gone,” Sullivent said. The current search showed that campus leaders and trustees had capitalized on “learning opportunities,” he said, alluding to UW’s experience with the hiring and resignation of former president Robert Sternberg in 2013.
For most of 2015, UW faculty, staff, students and trustees have been working behind the scenes to build trust and improve relationships in preparation for the presidential search.
“We view this [search] not only as a sign of your interest in a good process in selecting a new president, but as a sign of your interest in shared governance at the University of Wyoming,” Readdy told trustees.
The Board of Trustees unanimously voted for the open search in May. “I’ve heard only positive feedback about the open search process,” trustees President Dave Palmerlee told WyoFile earlier in the week.
“I am damn grateful for this board and what we’ve accomplished,” Palmerlee said Friday as the board adjourned.