The University of Wyoming acknowledged Friday that its board investigated former president Laurie Nichols last year after receiving two complaints against her, the first time the board has given public reason for the end of Nichols’ tenure.
The admission came in the same statement in which the university announced it won’t appeal an Albany County judge’s ruling earlier this month. In that ruling, Judge Tori Kricken ordered UW to release a batch of documents — including some related to the investigation — to a group of news outlets that sued the university last June. The judge had set a Feb. 3 deadline to appeal the decision to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
“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 statement said. “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.”
The exact nature of the reports — and what prompted them — is unclear. In September, the Star-Tribune and WyoFile jointly reported that the board had quietly investigated Nichols in early 2019. The investigation took place in the weeks before the trustees informed Nichols — and the rest of the state — that her contract would be allowed to run out on June 30.
Frank Mendicino II, who sits on the board of the UW Foundation, told a reporter last year there was an incident between Nichols and a foundation employee that caused the employee to leave. The incident, which he described as a “brouhaha,” may have led to a complaint being filed, he said at the time.
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. The investigation entailed contacting at least 14 people.
In interviews and court filings, Nichols has consistently denied that she knew of any investigation or was ever given a reason for the board’s decision to demote her. The former president, who is now leading Black Hills State University, is also a party to the public records lawsuit; she had also sought to have the records blocked. Nichols could still appeal by Feb. 3.
Board of trustees chairman Dave True did not respond to a voicemail by Friday evening.
Through an attorney, Nichols said Friday she remains unaware of what is in the records, and the board still has not told her why her contract was not renewed. The comments she had received about her performance were “quite positive,” she said, and her contract renewal was “fully negotiated” when the board informed her she wouldn’t continue.
Nichols was not made aware of the complaints, nor was she involved in the investigation at all, she said in the statement.
Before UW released its statement Friday, Nichols “never knew there were any ‘reported instances by university staff members,’” nor was she “ever asked to respond or reply to the reports,” she said. She repeatedly asked UW for an explanation and never received one, she said.
“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.”
In a statement, WyoFile editor Matt Copeland praised the board’s decision not to appeal.
“We commend the board of trustees’ decision to discontinue its secrecy and to share its reasoning,” he said. “Let’s hope the position they’ve adopted today, and the costs incurred to get there, will inform the decisions of future boards on similar matters. If by pursuing these questions for more than a year we arrive at more responsive, transparent and accountable public institutions, everyone’s efforts will have been well spent.”
The Star-Tribune and WyoFile have an outstanding records request regarding how the university has spent to fight the news organizations in court.
Until Friday, the board staunchly refused to shed light on its decision to effectively dismiss Nichols, a broadly popular president who’d steered the university through tough times. After UW announced in late March that Nichols wouldn’t continue, none of the parties involved would provide details. Board members declined to comment and Nichols said she was never given an explanation.
But three sources with knowledge of the circumstances told the Star-Tribune and WyoFile that Nichols was the subject of a weeks-long investigation, beginning in February and ending just days before the board’s four leaders interrupted Nichols’ vacation in Arizona to tell her she wouldn’t continue. One source said the investigation was into Nichols’ conduct.
In the days and weeks after the decision was announced, the Star-Tribune and WyoFile filed several public records request attempting to obtain information about the decision, including requests specific to an investigation. The university blocked most of the documents, claiming they were protected records. WyoFile and the Star-Tribune, joined by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and the Laramie Boomerang, filed a lawsuit in June, alleging the records were improperly withheld.
Nichols joined the lawsuit in October, adding her voice to UW’s request that the court block the records. But in early January, Judge Kricken sided with the news organizations and ordered nearly all of the records to be released.
On Friday, after a special executive session meeting of the board, the UW announced it was conceding.
“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 statement said.
In court filings, Nichols suggested UW violated its own policies by investigating her without her knowledge and without giving her an opportunity to respond. She was not specific about the exact policy. But a presidential directive from 2016 lays out how an investigation would occur, including that the respondent — Nichols in this case — should have the chance to participate in the process.