Dave Simpson: I’ve Got Just the Solution for UW President

About a year ago, trustees from the University of Wyoming got on a plane and flew down to Arizona to interrupt the university president's vacation with the news that they wouldn't be renewing her contract. Surprise! Enjoy the rest of your vacation!

Dave Simpson

February 11, 20204 min read

(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight.

About a year ago, trustees from the University of Wyoming got on a plane and flew down to Arizona to interrupt the university president’s vacation with the news that they wouldn’t be renewing her contract.

Surprise! Enjoy the rest of your vacation!

A lot of us were surprised. I think most of us figured Laurie Nichols had been doing OK under some pretty tough conditions, cutting approximately $42 million out of  the university budget in the three years she had been on the job.

We figured Nichols was likely to continue at UW, and maybe things were finally settling down over in Laramie.

When the news hit the papers that Nichols would not be offered a new contract, the reasoning was treated with Manhattan Project-type secrecy. The stories about her ouster made it clear that whatever happened regarding Nichols was one of those personnel matters that qualify for Area 51-type confidentiality.

Some news organizations took UW to court to release details, and that dragged on for almost a year. While that was going on, it was reported that UW had hired a company from Colorado to investigate Nichols, and what they found led to the trustees’ decision.

A judge in Laramie ruled that UW couldn’t keep everything secret. And while UW officials thought about appealing that decision, they ultimately released some details.

They claim there were numerous complaints about Nichols’ management style. She made people feel bad when she chewed them out. One staffer said she threw up all weekend after Nichols criticized her. Nichols allegedly was upset by an international student who helped cater an event at Nichols’ home, and didn’t like Nichols’ dog. We’re left with the image of a short-fused diva who made people throw up.

Nichols, who is now president of Black Hills State University in South Dakota, says that when you cut $42 million out of a university budget, there will be some unhappy campers. And, she says, the UW trustees never let her know about the complaints against her, which violates their own personnel policies. She never got a chance to improve her performance.

Meanwhile, the obligatory “nationwide search” is going on to find the next president of UW, with the help, of course, of consultants. But you have to wonder about anyone who would want the job. The guy two presidents before Nichols lasted six months. The trustees had Nichols investigated without telling her. And they canned her while she was on vacation. Doesn’t sound like the best university president gig out there, if you ask me.

Who do we believe? Nichols? The trustees? The faculty? The food service employee who doesn’t like dogs? The person who threw up all weekend?

I write this as a guy who spent two years at the University of Wyoming (eighth floor of Orr Hall one year, fourth floor the second), but went on to graduate from a small college in Wisconsin. My wife has an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree from UW. My daughter and her husband have degrees from UW. My first newspaper job was at the Laramie Boomerang. We all love Laramie, root for the Cowboys, and have fond memories of UW and the Buckhorn Bar.

That said, I have a suggestion. I think one of our former governors should be asked to take one for the home team, become university president for a few years, and get things settled down over there.

I’ve never met Dave Freudenthal, but he’s got the kind of common sense that would give us confidence that a steady hand was at the tiller, and we could trust whatever he had to say. He’s a Democrat that even Republicans (like me) kind of like. And he looks like he might have some good years left in him.

I met Mike Sullivan once, years before he became governor, and I think he’d make a good choice for this special assignment as well. Again, a common sense, even keel, honest guy.

As a retired guy myself, I’d hate to ask anyone to give up the absolute wonderfulness of retirement. But it seems to me they could do a lot to get the university we all love through these rocky times.

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Dave Simpson

Political, Wyoming Life Columnist

Dave has written a weekly column about a wide variety of topics for 39 years, winning top columnist awards in Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois and Nebraska.