After Nichols records release, criticism greets UW’s handling

In the wake of revelations about the University of Wyoming board of trustees’ investigations into former president Laurie Nichols, ex-trustees, lawmakers and others questioned why the board did not give Nichols a chance to respond to allegations against her. 

Board chairman Dave True, on the other hand, called on the public and the state’s press corps to move on. 

Records released to news organizations by the Albany County District Court on Tuesday contained allegations that Nichols mistreated or verbally abused her subordinates. The documents provide insight into how those accusations were secretly investigated and led the trustees to cancel a planned renewal of Nichols’ contract. 

In a phone interview Wednesday, True declined for the most part to elaborate on the trustees’ thinking. “I still believe it’s a personnel topic that deserves some privacy,” he said. 

True expressed hope that people could soon put the Nichols’ episode behind them. “I hope sooner rather than later you and others in the press corps as well as the public in general redirects their attention and efforts to the future,” he said.

“We are where we are and the history is what it is,” True said. “We’re not going to change any of that. We need to focus on moving forward and continuing to improve our university.”

The documents chronicled investigations by UW human resources director E. Jeanne Durr into allegations Nichols was “verbally abusive” toward an employee of UW’s fundraising arm, the UW Foundation. The records also included a January 2018 report that Nichols had yelled at a student on UW’s catering staff over an incident involving the president’s dog. 

Nichols denies being abusive toward employees. Had she been given a chance to respond, she said, her perspective as well as contradicting witness accounts would have painted a different picture.

Those interviewed by WyoFile and the Star-Tribune after the records were released said the allegations against Nichols were troublesome and that the described behavior would require redress if true. More pressing to officials past and present, however, was the trustees’ process.

“If there were people who felt treated unfairly by President Nichols, I wish the Trustees had invested in best practices instead of the skullduggery that we got,” Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Cheyenne) wrote in an email. 

“It makes it hard to have faith in the process,” she said. “I want women at the top of their field to feel like Wyoming is a place they can make home and be treated fairly and professionally. If we want that to be true, we have to make it true and that means transparency and accountability.”

Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie), who’s also a professor at UW, said that if the allegations were true, she’d be “very disappointed” in Nichols. But she, too, criticized the board for not giving the former president an opportunity to respond.

The board would likely have performed a more thorough investigation if allegations had come up in the middle of Nichols’ tenure, Connolly wrote in an email. “Instead, they chose to use the timing of the contract renewal as a means to ignore an obligation of thorough due diligence,” Connolly wrote. “Such actions by the Board deeply concern me. Any UW president (and any employee for that matter) deserves better treatment.”

Two ex-trustees also criticized the process.

“Let’s say everything was true that they allege, which I would question but that’s OK … that’s not the way to handle it,” said Pete Jorgensen, an ex-trustee and former member of the Wyoming House of Representatives. 

“These incidents were unfortunate and disturbing,” said Mike Massie, a former trustee and a former state senator. He was concerned in particular by the report of Nichols’ alleged treatment of the student. “It was clearly a very big gap there in the power between those two individuals,” he said. 

However, he said, the allegations in the documents represent only one side of the story. 

“Laurie was never given an opportunity to offer her perspective, including with the trustees,” Massie said. 

Massie questioned whether the trustees determined that Nichols demonstrated a pattern of harmful behavior. On Tuesday, a university spokesperson asserted the investigations had uncovered such a pattern. 

In a statement yesterday, Nichols argued that investigators had tapped into frustrations typical of university campuses and enhanced by tough times. Nichols had to cut $42 million out of the school’s budget immediately when she took over, further impacting her popularity, she said.

“Frankly, as a boss of thousands of employees of the only university in the state, you expect that not everyone will like you or what you do, especially when you are eliminating positions and cutting resources,” she wrote. “But to be clear – I never treated anyone in an ‘abusive’ way.”

A pattern of behavior “would maybe excuse UW’s position a little more,” Massie said. But, “it still doesn’t excuse that they didn’t talk to her about it.”

The documents, and further statements from both UW and True, demonstrate the university chose to pursue an “informal” investigation, as UW spokesman Chad Baldwin put it in an email to reporters Tuesday. The university says the distinction exempts them from a policy that required responses from Nichols.

In a Feb. 12 email to the law firm the board hired to investigate Nichols, UW general counsel Tara Evans included that policy and wrote “Attached is the policy that governs this type of investigation.” But an agreement signed three days later with the law firm called for only a “preliminary investigation.” 

“There was no formal complaint and consequently no driver for a formal investigation,” True said Wednesday morning, “but the board did take those conversations [around allegations] seriously and thought we should do a little more checking on those and on job performance.”

Invoices previously obtained by WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune show the firm interviewed more than a dozen people. The law firm made “a verbal report” to the full board of trustees on special meetings held on March 11 and 13, Baldwin wrote Wednesday. 

The agreement between Flynn and the board allowed for a “formal” investigation. But following the law firm’s verbal report, the board took action without ordering further investigation. Emails show True texted Nichols on March 13 to set up the meeting where trustees told her they would not renew her contract. 

“After speaking with the firm, the board believed it had enough information to move forward with nonrenewal without a more formal investigation, especially because the contract was about to expire,” Baldwin wrote on Wednesday.

True declined to comment on any decision the board made not to seek a response from Nichols. “I’m not going to get into that. It’s a personnel topic,” he said. “Plus I’m not going to speak for any one of the trustees.”  

True and other trustees have said only the chair — True — can speak for the board. 

In an email through her attorney on Wednesday, Nichols scoffed at the university’s distinction. “Regardless of what you call it, the investigation was ‘formal’ or ‘final’ enough for the Trustees to not honor my renewed contract,” she wrote. “Whether the Trustees call it ‘informal’ or ‘preliminary,’ doesn’t diminish the fact that an investigation was done about me, but never once included me.” 

The board’s tactics throughout the 10-month saga are difficult to understand, the former trustees said. 

“The cloak-and-dagger approach and the unilateral action the trustees took did not benefit anyone,” Massie said. “It certainly is out of touch with a face to face, handshake state like Wyoming.” 

“I don’t know how they’re going to get a new president that’s decent,” Jorgensen said. 

True was confident in the ongoing search process: “There was concern expressed with our recent history that we might not have either very many or high quality applicants,” he said. “Based on what I’ve been told the very opposite was the result.” 

Under the search process established by the board, True does not yet know who is being considered, he said, and won’t until semifinalists are selected in the coming weeks. 

Massie, the longtime veteran of political and academic life, said conflict and tempers are not unusual in high offices and that Nichols appears to have been treated differently.

“Every governor since [Ed] Herschler has had these kinds of run-ins,” Massie said. “I’ve seen it with other legislators and statewide officials. It’s impossible for people, especially in rather high-pressure, high-profile positions, to not [lose their temper], and it doesn’t excuse it, but it makes it a little more understandable.” Massie had also witnessed outbursts from past UW presidents, he said.

UW Foundation President Ben Blalock faced scrutiny in 2016 when the foundation’s human resources manager accused him of using discriminatory and vulgar language toward employees. UW investigators gave Blalock a chance to respond to the allegations, records requested by WyoFile in April 2017 show. He retained his position and was the subject of a lawsuit by his former employee. The lawsuit was settled out of court. 

Like Massie, Nichols suggested the trustees had treated her differently. 

“If HR or the Trustees felt I needed coaching or leadership development,” Nichols wrote on Tuesday, “I would have gladly taken the opportunity to learn and improve. But I was never given the chance. During my time as President, I watched the Trustees give far less attention or care to far more serious and egregious complaints made against other University employees than the two which have apparently made against me. And never did the Trustees react or respond like they have with me.” 

Criticism has dogged the trustees since they attempted to quietly announce the departure of the president in March 2019. In April, UW’s student government, the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming, proposed a resolution praising Nichols and criticizing the board as acting “in a manner inconsistent with the values of ASUW.” It added that many “students, staff, and faculty have expressed growing dissatisfaction with many of the recent BOT decisions.”

That piece of legislation also called for members of the board to be elected, rather than appointed by the governor. Two weeks later, in late April, the school’s Faculty Senate proposed a resolution that called for the board to explain the decision to both campus and to Nichols herself.

In September, Gordon sent a pointed letter to the board, saying the trustees’ handling of recent events “can only degrade the confidence students, faculty, and the people of Wyoming have in their lone public university.”  

Last week, Casper Republican Rep. Chuck Gray released a bill that would make the trustees accountable to voters. Under the measure, voters from across the state would select two potential trustees from within a district and the governor would choose one. The bill has a tough road to hoe — in the upcoming budget session, it will need a two-thirds majority in the House just to be introduced. 

In a statement to the Star-Tribune, Gray directly tied the bill to the Nichols saga and “an overall lack of accountability and direction” from the board.

“There have been numerous issues, including four vacancies in the office of the President in six years,” Gray wrote. “The termination of President Lori (sic) Nichols occurred without any transparency or explanation. Since then, the UW board has used taxpayer funds to try to block the release of the details of the termination. The board eventually relented, but it was not acceptable that a lawsuit was required for that basic transparency.”

This week, in two columns published in UW’s student newspaper, the Branding Iron, a pair of student journalists unleashed successive salvos at the board.

“It is time for some answers from the Trustees of the University of Wyoming,” Kaleb Poor wrote. “It is time for the people who make up this school to have a say in how it is run, where it goes, and why it goes there. It is time for the future of Wyoming to be placed in the hands of those who will one day become the People of Wyoming.”

“If things are going to get better, it needs to be soon,” wrote Kylee Harless, who had publicly asked Gordon last month what he was going to do about the trustees. “These unanswered questions and lack of comments are becoming the normal answer, which is not okay. The university needs answers, and they need them now, before tensions rise even higher.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.