President Ousted ‘Totally Out of the Blue’

She won praise from professors even as she managed a large state-ordered budget cut, but University of Wyoming leader gets surprise notice her contract won't be renewed.

March 28, 2019
 
Laurie Nichols

For the fourth time in six years, the University of Wyoming is looking for a president.

The university’s Board of Trustees on Monday said it won’t renew the contract of Laurie Nichols when her tenure ends in June. Nichols was a well-regarded leader with western roots and an open-door policy who gained a measure of respect from faculty by closely consulting them as she cut a required $42 million from the university’s budget.

Her ouster has prompted faculty members to wonder exactly what qualifications trustees are searching for in a leader.

After Monday's announcement, Nichols herself told the Faculty Senate that she was “very surprised by this decision,” adding, “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.” She plans to take a faculty position when her three-year term as president ends, the Laramie Boomerang reported.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, the board chair, Dave True, said he couldn’t talk about the details of Nichols’s dismissal, citing confidentiality requirements regarding personnel. Asked of Nichols’s and others’ surprise surrounding the move, True said, “I don’t know that I can comment on other people’s surprises. Everybody takes information at their own pace, and if some found it to be a surprise, that’s certainly fair from their perspective.”

In the absence of more information from True or others, two leading faculty members said they remain perplexed. One of them, Donal O’Toole, a veterinary sciences professor who chairs the Faculty Senate, said he's left questioning whether the board is withholding key information about the move, since there were no signs of trouble before Monday.

“I don’t think I’ve met anyone who did not think she would be reappointed,” said O’Toole. “We met with her briefly, and that was her sense, too.”

The move, he said, was “totally out of the blue,” especially since Nichols had spent much of her tenure making difficult but mandated budget-trimming decisions in what he described as an “astonishingly open process.” O’Toole said he served on the panel weighing the cuts and remembered, “Anybody could come in and sit and watch” the discussion.

“She was admired for toughing it out,” he said. “We found her very approachable, and we knew she was engaged in some very difficult sledding.”

A native South Dakotan and first-generation college graduate, Nichols began her career at the University of Idaho and spent 22 years in South Dakota public higher education, first as dean of the South Dakota State University College of Education and Human Sciences. More recently she was interim president of Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., and provost of South Dakota State.

Nichols was the Wyoming university’s 26th president but its first female leader. For many, her 2016 appointment stood in sharp contrast to the university’s 2013 decision to appoint as president Robert Sternberg, who stepped down after just four months.

A renowned psychologist who began his career at Yale University and was a onetime president of the American Psychological Association, he said publicly at the time that Wyoming “may not be the best fit for me as president.”

But Ken Chestek, a law professor and chair-elect of the Wyoming Faculty Senate, said Sternberg’s brief tenure holds no lessons for understanding why Nichols’s presidency ended after just one term. He said Sternberg "was instantly controversial" at Wyoming. "That’s the opposite of what’s going on here."

Sternberg, who now teaches at Cornell, declined to comment on his tenure at Wyoming.

By contrast, Chestek said, Nichols arrived literally the day before Wyoming’s governor demanded the university trim its budget by $42 million over two years. “Her first job was to start cutting things and finding ways to save money and laying people off,” he said. “And it was a retrenchment that she had to manage, which was a very difficult job, and she did it very fairly.”

The required cuts came a year after the state's only public four-year institution broke ground on a $53.5 million research facility for its energy programs.

Three years later, Chestek said, Nichols “was leading us in a good direction. She had a lot of support.” He added, “She was open with us, she was honest with us, she was candid with us when she had to be candid. We had a good working relationship with her.”

Last summer, the university garnered a bit of negative attention after it unveiled a new marketing campaign that included the tagline "The World Needs More Cowboys." At the time, a few critics questioned whether the term included women, and whether the term “cowboy” suggested not just rugged individualism, but white male rugged individualism.

Nichols defended the slogan, saying in a statement that “cowboys” is far more inclusive than critics suggest. “Drawing upon Wyoming’s proud heritage, this campaign redefines what it means to be a Cowboy in this day and age, distilling it down to the inner spirit of curiosity and boldness that all who call themselves Cowboys and Cowgirls can identify with -- no matter their race or gender, or whether they’re students, employees, alumni or other supporters,” she said. “The Cowboy spirit is what the University of Wyoming helps instill in students, giving them the skills and support they need to make the breakthroughs that benefit our state and the world.”

A video released as part of the campaign emphasized that cowboys may be found among all genders, races and ethnicities, and suggests it challenges conventional wisdom about being a trailblazer. O’Toole, the Faculty Senate chair, said he thought the slogan was “very clever,” especially when the word “cowboy” was superimposed on images of women and people of color. Ultimately, the university stood behind the campaign, and it remains in place on the university home page.

True, the board chair, said trustees, who are meeting through Friday, haven’t decided on a process for selecting a new president, but he said the university “is in a great position right now. There’s a lot of new initiatives going on in different stages.” Enrollment is growing, he said, and public support of the university remains high. “I’m excited about where the institution is. It’s a great opportunity going forward for those who want to be part of this team.”

O’Toole said most faculty are simply longing for “predictability and stability so that we can just get on with things.” He noted that Thomas Buchanan, the last president who remained for more than a single term, stepped down in 2013, making the upcoming search the fourth since then. He and colleagues are also currently searching for a new dean, and Nichols's surprise firing doesn't help. “I can’t but believe it’ll make the searches a lot harder,” he said.

Despite its abundant natural beauty, he said, Wyoming is a hard place to recruit high-quality scholars. The state’s long winters, high elevation and political conservatism, among other factors, make it more difficult than at a public university in California, for instance. “Getting good people here is hard, and something like this, especially when it comes out of the blue, complicates those searches.”

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