I covered the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees for six years in the ‘90s, through turbulent times that included academic and athletic program eliminations, proposed facility closures and controversies over academic freedom.
Those challenges of yesteryear all pale compared to the recent bungled firing of UW President Laurie Nichols.
The board chose not to renew the three-year contract of Nichols, who took the job in the wake of turmoil. The South Dakota native came to UW when the institution was facing a serious financial crisis. She had begun to not only stabilize the difficult situation but was overseeing the beginning of a major student housing replacement process.
That progress was apparently not enough to warrant a contract extension in the trustees’ minds. They decided she needed to be replaced in a closed door executive session.
Essential sectors of the university — students, faculty and staff — were kept in the dark and collectively left dumbfounded by what many felt was an extremely bad move. Neither university stakeholders nor the public at large have been given an explanation of the board’s reasoning.
And it’s unlikely that the veil will ever be lifted over the secret, closed-door process. The board made that abundantly clear when it prohibited an ex-officio member, Associated Students of UW President Alex Mulhall, from attending the session though she had a legal right to be present.
The people the board is supposed to serve are left to speculate why Nichols was told she had to go. Did she make an enemy of one or more board members or important donors? Did trustees consider her too aggressive in pushing for things she feels passionate about? Did she find herself crosswise with an increasingly activist Legislature?
ASUW is calling for transparency in the board’s presidential hiring and firing practices in the future, and I have learned we’ll hear the same call from the Faculty Senate, which this week will also consider a resolution praising Nichols’ work and expressing dismay at her firing.
Technically, Nichols was demoted. UW Board President Dave True and three other members flew to Arizona, where Nichols was on vacation, and summarily terminated her presidency after a brief conversation, according to reports in the Casper Star-Tribune. She was told her contract would expire at the end of June and it would not be renewed, but she could remain at UW in a faculty position.
How could the board not expect the uproar that ensued on campus? Or did they anticipate it and simply not care?
The departure of Nichols, the 26th leader and first woman to serve as UW’s president since its inception in 1886, continues a worrisome pattern of leadership.
Bob Sternberg was hired in 2013. He resigned 137 days into his tenure. Sternberg cited lack of board support after the resignations of three deans and five administrators raised a ruckus.
His replacement, former UW business professor and oilman Richard McGinity, was always seen as a temporary fix. He didn’t become the “permanent” president until 2014 and announced a year later he would not seek renewal of his contract.
That led to the 2016 hiring of Nichols, who was viewed as a potentially longer-lasting solution than McGinity. One of her first actions was to declare an “economic crisis” that would necessitate major budget-cutting.
Nichols’ accomplished several things that impressed students, faculty and staff, including her support of UW’s sexual assault awareness campaign, hiring a chief diversity officer and her approach to a strategic plan that included input from all segments of the university.
She was also an advocate of ensuring that credits transfer from community colleges to the university, a position that may have antagonized some board members.
ASUW’s proposed resolution for transparency states that the organization feels “immense sadness” over the incident. That emotion was eloquently summed up by student Jess Fahlsing during public comments made at the March 27 trustees’ meeting.
“As a student who experiences marginalization through multiple axes of their identity, President Nichols is a reason I’ve decided to stay at UW. … She had made a bigger impact in my life than I could possibly express,” Fahlsing said.
ASUW’s resolution says the board acted “in a manner inconsistent with the values” of the student organization. It adds that UW “students, staff and faculty have expressed growing dissatisfaction with many of the board of trustees’ decisions.”
The board cannot suppress the actions of the students or keep their words from being reported by the media. It can, however, try to effectively muzzle faculty and staff who are critical of the board’s decisions.
The board is considering two directives that, in light of what happened to Nichols, are extremely scary and have no place being practiced at a university that supposedly values free expression.
The first is a “standard administrative policy and procedure” that deals with how UW employees will interact with the press. It would require that faculty and staff notify the Institutional Marketing and Communications Department of any media requests for interviews outside their areas of expertise.
Department personnel would be required to help craft a response to the media’s questions that is in line with the administration and board’s policies and procedures. We have a word for this: censorship. Such a policy runs directly counter to Gov. Gordon’s stated aim of increasing transparency and access to public information in state institutions.
It’s not difficult to imagine what could happen when the Faculty Senate or Staff Senate are critical of edicts from the official heads of the university. But part of the duties of both representative bodies is to act as a watchdog and express dissent if actions by UW’s board or upper administration would have a negative impact on employees.
The Faculty Senate distributed a short press release after Nichols’ firing that openly questioned the move. Would such statements – or stronger ones in the future – be censored by UW?
The board is also considering proposed Regulation 2-6, which would substantially weaken protections for faculty, even tenured ones.
It adds to existing justifications for faculty termination, and would include “insubordination” and “discourteous treatment of other students, faculty or the public.”
But how will those causes be defined? What will happen to Faculty Senate or Staff Senate leaders when they issue statements that disagree with the board — a frequent, perfectly reasonable and currently protected occurrence? Does that constitute insubordination?
Will raising one’s voice during a discussion amount to discourteous treatment that could result in an employee’s termination?
The ASUW will consider a second resolution that seeks to end the practice of trustees being appointed by the governor and instead be elected by the public. If the employee senates agree with the proposal, will they be punished by the board?
The board currently includes appointees who are business professionals who act as if the university is a corporation that must be managed from the top down, whose employees can be controlled by unilateral edicts and demands.
Not explaining the board’s actions, and not allowing employees to engage in civil discourse and question its policies, are contrary to a healthy university environment. Sadly, this appears to be the path some trustees hope to mandate.
How will the board pursue a replacement for Nichols? Will it truly be a transparent search with input from students, faculty and staff, or will the current trustees close their doors and ignore them? When it comes time to decide whether to continue a president’s tenure, will what anyone else on campus thinks matter?
More to the point, how, after the way it’s handled the last three presidents during in the past six years, will UW ever attract a quality candidate to guide its future?
Maybe the trustees believe that the right person will look at the situation they created and think, “Well, the board can’t hold onto a leader, treated President Nichols shabbily and sparked dissent among all parts of the campus. Wow, that’s the perfect place for me!”