Legislators pushed a pair of amendments into the state’s proposed budget that would require a study into the University of Wyoming’s governance, with the lawmakers sponsoring the measures tying the proposal to the Laurie Nichols saga and the “poor optics” that came after.
The amendments, nearly identical in both the House and Senate, call for the Legislative Service Office to hire a third-party consultant to “study, provide recommendations and provide a report on the University of Wyoming’s governance structure and administrative practices.” The study would examine the “roles, powers and duties” of both the university’s board and its president and as originally proposed would have cost $1 million.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (R-Laramie), a visiting professor at the university, brought the amendment in the Senate and secured more than a quarter of the chamber’s body as cosponsors. He hoped the study got at the heart of the board of trustees’ authority, he said, suggesting his colleagues at UW are concerned by overreach.
“What is the role of a board of trustees?” Rothfuss asked. “I see concerns where less decisions are being made within the colleges by the deans and below,” he said. “It’s hurting efficiency and it’s frustrating a lot of the employees.”
The amendment in the Senate passed overwhelmingly, with 23 ayes and five nos.
In the House, where debate was more robust, the sponsor was more direct on the reasons for the study. House sponsor Rep. Tom Crank (R-Kemmerer) said his constituents were concerned about the state’s only university.
“You go to the coffee shop and hear ‘Boy, you seen what they’re doing?’” the representative from the western edge Wyoming said. The amendments sent a strong message from the Legislature, Crank said. Recent times “have not been real tremendous for UW, with the Nichols thing and some others,” he said. “Good, bad or indifferent, let’s just see, were the poor optics right or what?”
Some lawmakers — Reps. Tom Walters (R-Casper) and Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) specifically — questioned if it was proper to study how an independent entity governs itself. Both said the Legislature didn’t conduct similar studies into individual cities or counties. Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) noted that the governance structure of the university is laid out in the constitution. All three of those lawmakers are on the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Tyler Lindholm said the Legislature should be looking at UW, as it sends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the school and that lawmakers should make sure “the wheels are still going.”
House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie), another professor at the school, noted the amendment’s desire to look at “shared governance.” Another lawmaker had questioned why the study would do that, but Connolly said how faculty, students and staff are involved in university governance was a critical part of the university’s mission and important to its accreditation.
“It’s something that certainly has been up in the air and of very serious concern in a place where the turnover in presidents has been enormous in the past five years,” she said.
The university is looking for its fifth permanent president since late 2013.
“What we’re all talking about is a leadership issue,” Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said. He, too, noted the high presidential turnover. He said he had “no idea” what happened with Nichols and that he only knew what he read in the paper. But he thought the university would be fine, he said, and he opposed the study.
The House split the amendment and removed the $1 million price tag for the study. Representatives then very narrowly approved the study itself with a 29 to 28 vote.
High profile and controversial actions by the university board, like Nichols’ sudden demotion and an April 2018 sweep of department accounts into pools controlled by the trustees, are driving staff frustration and his desire for the study, Rothfuss said.
“Those are all the kinds of things I’m hearing about and so I think it’s probably a good time for us to have that conversation,” he said.
The amendments could still be tweaked during negotiations between the two chambers. However, it would be surprising if lawmakers ditch an amendment that has been ratified in both chambers. Gordon will also have an opportunity to veto the measure if it remains in the budget bill.
The two proposals weren’t the only warnings levied at the school’s leaders. Last year, UW’s student government considered a resolution calling on the board to be elected. The Faculty Senate had its own legislation asking for an explanation for the Nichols’ decision.
Casper Republican Rep. Chuck Gray sponsored a bill that would’ve made the school’s 12 governing trustees elected, instead of governor-appointed. That effort failed introduction by 24 votes. Gray voted against the study amendment.
Meredith Asay, the school’s lobbyist, declined to comment on Gray’s bill. UW spokesman Chad Baldwin declined to comment on the amendments ordering the study.
Gray also tied his legislation to the Nichols saga, which unwound over a period of 11 months. In March 2019, the board announced in a brief press release that Nichols would not return as president after her contract expired in June. They declined to provide any details on that decision, and Nichols said publicly that she was never given an explanation. The school rejected public records requests by WyoFile and the Star-Tribune that sought to shake loose details about the decision.
After those denials, the Star-Tribune, WyoFile, the Laramie Boomerang and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle sued the university in June. In September, WyoFile and the Star-Tribune reported that the board investigated Nichols in the weeks before UW announced she wouldn’t continue. In January, an Albany County judge ruled in favor of the news organizations; a batch of documents were released earlier this month. They showed that Nichols was investigated and that the inquiry was prompted by two reports of verbal abuse. Nichols has denied those allegations.
The records indicated Nichols was never offered a chance to respond.
Crank said he wondered how frequently the university conducted these quiet investigations. “It just seemed like the end of that was pretty ugly looking,” he said. “Do they do that all the time, or was that a one-time deal?”
The board spent $42,000 fighting the media outlets’ lawsuit.
The amendments would require that reports be presented to Gov. Mark Gordon and to the education and appropriations committees in October. The Senate version would take $500,000 from the school’s block grant to fund the effort; Rothfuss said the intent is to have the university dip into its $50 million reserve account to pay for it.