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UW Stunned By Trustees' Decision To Demote Nichols

Tennessee Watson
Students, faculty, staff and community members lined up for a chance to speak at a recent UW Board of Trustees meeting. Some spoke about the university's relationship with the city of Laramie. Most spoke about President Nichols.

This week the University of Wyoming announced that President Laurie Nichols will serve out her three-year contract, which ends on June 30. At that point, she'll transition to a faculty position. For many, the news came out of the blue. The 150-word email sent out to faculty, staff and students offered no explanation of the UW Board of Trustees' decision not to renew Nichols' contract.

The announcement came on Monday, just days before a scheduled meeting of the trustees. 

On Thursday morning, a line of people stretched out the door during the board's 30-minute public comment period. Only a handful of people got to speak. Renee Ballard, the UW Staff Senate president, was one of them.

"A new president will be the fifth president in six years," Ballard told the board. "Consistency at the presidential level can lead to consistency at the employee level. Employees want a leader they can stand behind and will know that will be there."

Ballard asked the board to consider the destabilizing impact of their decision on staff. Alex Mulhall, president of the Associated Students of the University Of Wyoming, told the trustees that students are rattled too.

"I feel it is my duty to note that with this recent news the students did feel a sense of shock and a sense of not understanding what was happening."

She said students feel connected to Nichols, which adds to the confusion about why she needs replacing.

"Of course, not every decision is going to be popular in every constituency," Muhall said. "But overall President Nichols has done a fantastic job of actively listening to students, encouraging shared governance and making sure that people are listened to."

Another student, Jess Fahlsing expressed concern about what might happen to all that Nichols has accomplished when she's no longer president.

"I am concerned for many of the people I know and love," said Fahlsing who is an LGBTQ+ activist.

Fahlsing said Nichols was one of the reasons they've stayed at UW.

"Her initiatives such as the No More committee and the Native American Education Research and Cultural Center have made this campus a more inclusive place."

There are theories floating around campus that Nichols' attention to social justice issues might have something to do with why she's being stripped of her power.

"It looks bad," said Faculty Senate Chair Donal O'Toole during a break in the meeting. "The trustees need to pay some attention to how things look, even if they are completely justified, and I don't know if they are or not."

He said the rumor mill will keep churning until the board is transparent about their motivation.

"They'll quench a lot of rumors if they simply say an event happened or there was a pattern in terms of what Laurie Nichols did, and they were responding to that. They don't need to go into any kind of details."

Back in the meeting, UW archivist Molly Marcusse told trustees she does want the details.

"We are a public land grant institution. People that lead these institutions know they are in positions where there is an expectation of accountability," said Marcusse. "I think that the members of the campus community, and our state community and people all over the world that care about our university deserve an answer on this."

But a desire for openness isn't just about a love for Nichols.

"I have disagreed with many of her decisions and still do," said Professor Merav Ben-David. "Having said that I think the way she has been treated was [and] is unacceptable."

Of course, those who take time out of their day to come to speak to the board are going to have strong opinions. Across campus in the student union, Gabriela Ingrahm is tabling for her sorority, trying to get folks to sign up for a blood drive.

She appreciates Nichols strong support for Greek life on campus and the way she engages students.

"I just think it's super sad," said Ingram. "She's such a great president and she does so much for our community."

Bryson Delbridge, on the other hand, hadn't heard the news and said he's ok being out of the loop.

"I'm not nervous about it just cause you know things probably weren't working," said Delbridge. "So they're probably making the best decision for both parties and we have to move forward and find the best next candidate."

But questions do remain about whether Nichols did something wrong or whether this is simply about a difference in vision. Board Chairman Dave True continues to oppose disclosing any details, calling it a personnel matter.

At the conclusion of the trustees meeting Friday, True announced that an interim president will be appointed when Nichols' contract is up, but they're still in the process of mapping a precise plan for a future without her.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.

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