A student climbs steps into the center of the University of Wyoming campus on a crisp October day. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

In September 2019, the University of Wyoming investigated a top administrator who resigned weeks later, using a secretive process that mirrored the inquiry that led to the ouster of former president Laurie Nichols and brought scrutiny to how the institution is governed.

In late August, the university’s general counsel hired a Denver law firm to investigate Sean Blackburn, then the school’s vice president for student affairs, according to documents obtained by the Star-Tribune and WyoFile. The university had used the law firm — Flynn Investigations Group — at least twice before, including during an investigation into whether Nichols had verbally abused her subordinates. 

Last month, the university turned over more than 100 pages of documents to the Star-Tribune and WyoFile in response to a request for records and communications pertaining to an investigation into Blackburn. It’s unclear from those documents what prompted the inquiry. But the records indicate an investigation took place, and they detail a swift and secretive process that concluded with Blackburn’s sudden departure from the university. 

The VP for student affairs reports directly to the university president and manages many aspects of campus life — overseeing departments that range from campus recreation to residence life to the office of the dean of students. 

Taken together, the two high-profile separations suggest a pattern of quietly investigating and pushing out top administrators. In both instances the processes were shielded almost entirely from public view, and appear to have been hidden from the subjects themselves. In neither case did the university follow its policy governing workplace investigations, which university officials argue wasn’t necessary.

Sean Blackburn (UW photo)

In the wake of the Nichols announcement in March 2019 and subsequent reporting on how it transpired, the university has come under more intense scrutiny from the Legislature, which is preparing to study how the school is governed. Lawmakers have said that they’ve heard complaints from the public about “what in the world is going on” at UW. Gov. Mark Gordon told the board in September — the same month Blackburn resigned —- that he’d fielded concerns that UW was adrift.

As with Nichols, there is no indication Blackburn was given a chance to respond to the law firm’s work or correct any behavior his colleagues or supervisors might have reported as problematic. In an email, Blackburn told reporters he was never contacted by the law firm or its representatives. He was “reasonably informed,” he wrote, that he was not investigated. 

His sudden resignation came after a meeting with acting president Neil Theobald in mid-September, which followed the conclusion of the law firm’s work and partner Mark Flynn’s attendance at a closed-door meeting of the board of trustees. That, too, mirrored the Nichols scenario: Her departure came after Flynn met with the trustees, who in turn met with Nichols days later.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the university distanced the trustees from the Blackburn matter. “Mr. Blackburn’s employment and departure were not matters for the Board of Trustees,” spokesperson Chad Baldwin wrote. “He was supervised directly by the University President.” 

Though there are similarities, Blackburn’s departure was shrouded in even more secrecy than Nichols’. While the former president’s exit was announced in a press release three months before her contract expired, Blackburn’s resignation was not publicly acknowledged until the school released a statement about his replacement on Sept. 18, a day after Blackburn submitted his resignation, which took effect immediately. Even then, the news that he had resigned was confined to five words in the middle of that statement; the rest focused on his replacement and her qualifications. Nothing was released publicly or internally that gave any indication that he was investigated; internal messages from administrators to staff instead say that Blackburn was leaving to pursue “new professional challenges and opportunities.” 

Like Nichols, Blackburn was popular with the student body. Shortly after his resignation was announced in September, the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming, the school’s student government, wrote in a statement to the board that the news was “incredibly surprising.” ASUW asked the board of trustees “for efforts of transparency and openness with the UW campus from all leadership” and referred back to the Nichols decision and the “many questions” it had raised.

Old Main, primary home to the University of Wyoming’s administrative offices (Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

Jason Wilkins, who was president of the student government at the time of Blackburn’s resignation, told the Star-Tribune and WyoFile that Blackburn was a “mentor” who had worked “super closely” with students. As president of the student body, Wilkins served as a non-voting member of the board of trustees, and he was able to attend the body’s executive sessions. Those meetings take place behind closed doors, and the proceedings are confidential. But documents indicate that at the board’s Sept. 11 board meeting, Flynn was present to report on Blackburn. 

Wilkins said he couldn’t speak to what happened with Blackburn or comment on executive session proceedings because of the confidential nature of the meetings.

In a statement responding to a list of questions, the university would not confirm or deny an investigation took place. Baldwin directed questions about what information Blackburn was given to the former UW official himself. Blackburn declined to answer several questions. 

“In September 2019, Vice President Blackburn indicated to President Theobald that one of his great professional joys was working for the University of Wyoming,” Baldwin wrote Thursday, “but that he was ready for new professional opportunities and challenges.”

Investigation by another name

Records indicate the investigation began in late August, after Flynn and UW’s general counsel, Tara Evans, exchanged emails and discussed retaining Flynn to conduct an unspecified inquiry. Flynn sent Evans a draft contract, and Evans returned it with a significant edit: She crossed out the word “investigation” from the document and replaced it with “assessment.” 

This “preliminary assessment” was to be conducted “in contemplation of a more formal investigation,” the agreement states. 

On Aug. 29, Flynn and acting UW president Neil Theobald signed the contract. 

The university’s careful characterization of Flynn’s work again mirrors the Nichols investigation. In that case, officials and then-board president Dave True described Flynn’s work as an “informal investigation,” once the details of it became public. Officials used that wording to explain why they didn’t follow a policy that governs investigations into hostile work environments, sexual harassment claims and other problematic personnel behavior. That policy states that the subject of the investigation has a right to review the allegations and respond to them.

Baldwin told the Star-Tribune and WyoFile that the policy “was not relevant to Vice President Blackburn’s departure.” University officials declined to provide more information as to why the matter didn’t fall under the employment policy. 

Though they don’t indicate why exactly Blackburn was investigated, the documents obtained by the Star-Tribune and WyoFile provide a day-by-day accounting of the inquiry.

Before becoming University of Wyoming President, Laurie Nichols chats with students during her first official visit to the campus.
(Thaddeus Mast/Laramie Boomerang)

On Sept. 3, five days after the contract was signed, Evans sent Flynn an email with a lengthy list of contacts and their phone numbers. On an invoice he later sent the university, Flynn charged UW $675 for “list calls” and “four interviews” that he conducted on Sept. 3. That email came days after Evans received a message from a redacted sender with the subject line “Sean Blackburn.” The email included a list of people who had “interactions” with Blackburn on various projects. The names on the list were also redacted.  

On Sept. 4, Mark Bercheni, an official in UW’s human resources division, emailed Evans to say he had been informed of “the consultant that will be on campus doing an investigation.” Evans replied that Bercheni should call her for an update, describing the situation as “extremely sensitive.” 

The invoice from Flynn indicates the law firm conducted multiple interviews between Sept. 3 and Sept. 16. For his work, totaling more than 30 hours, Flynn charged the university $6,862.50.

On Sept. 10, Evans emailed Flynn call-in information for a board executive session to be held the next day. Such sessions are held in private and aren’t subject to rules governing normal public meetings. Flynn’s invoice, turned over as part of a request seeking documents related to Blackburn’s investigation, shows he billed the university for his participation in an executive session with the board. The trustees’ agenda for that Sept. 11 meeting indicates the board discussed “personnel — employment matter,” without further detail.

Later that evening, the board’s deputy secretary emailed Evans a copy of the letter sent to Blackburn in May 2017 offering him the vice president job. The letter states that Blackburn would be an “at-will” employee, meaning that “you and the university are entitled to terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason except an unlawful one.” 

On Sept. 13, two days after Flynn spoke with the board, acting president Theobald emailed Blackburn at 9:37 p.m. to tell him that he needed to speak with Blackburn first thing the next morning, a Saturday.

More emails detail university administrators drafting public and internal statements and giving Blackburn time to notify his staff. On Sept. 17, three days after Blackburn met with Theobald, six days after the board met with Flynn, and less than three weeks after Flynn was contracted to look into him, Blackburn left the university.

An aerial shot of the University of Wyoming in 2014.

The only document included in the response to the records request that raises specific concerns about Blackburn was an email sent Sept. 23, after Blackburn resigned. The name of the person who sent the email is redacted, but the message was sent to Evans, UW’s general counsel. The subject line is “Sean Blackburn.” 

“I found out this morning that one of my co-workers had recommended a Mark Flynn (who had called and talked to several of my co-workers) also contact me,” the sender wrote. “I had contacted a lawyer last year and was told to reach back out to HR regarding my issues.”

The sender goes on to describe Blackburn delaying a raise for the employee for months, despite a recommendation that the sender be given a salary bump and a coworker receiving a raise. The sender also described a conversation where Blackburn was upset after he called the office and no one was available to talk to him. The sender described Blackburn’s reaction as “disturbing.”

Evans forwarded the email to Blackburn’s replacement, Kimberly Chestnut. 

It’s not clear if that employee or any other had filed formal complaints about Blackburn. A records request from WyoFile and the Star-Tribune for complaints made to UW’s Office of Equity and Employment Practices did not turn up corresponding records, according to UW. The broader request for communications or documents relating to the investigation also turned up no other written complaints.

‘Reasonably informed’

In written statements to the Star-Tribune and WyoFile, Blackburn said he was unaware of having ever been investigated. 

“I respectfully disagree with your conclusion that my departure from UW ‘may have unfolded in a similar manner’ to that of President Nichols,” Blackburn wrote to reporters. “I am reasonably informed that I was not the subject of any investigation while employed at the University of Wyoming. In addition, I don’t know Mark Flynn, and have never spoken or communicated with him or his colleagues.”

The Star-Tribune and WyoFile provided Blackburn with the documents obtained in the records request, which indicate he was investigated and were turned over in response to a request for any records related to an investigation into him. After reviewing the documents, Blackburn repeated his previous statement that he had been “reasonably informed” that he hadn’t been investigated and that he never spoke to Flynn or anyone from his firm. Blackburn declined to answer further questions.

Scrutiny

In both the Nichols and Blackburn cases, little was publicly released about the circumstances that led to the administrators’ exits and the details only became public after records requests and reporting by the Star-Tribune and WyoFile. But the high-profile and mysterious departures sparked widespread consternation at the state university. 

Though Blackburn’s abrupt departure generated less controversy than the former president’s, it still caused bewilderment on campus and fed into the perception of many faculty that school leaders weren’t acting transparently. 

Nichols herself has been highly critical of the process that she says unfairly cost her a job she loved. “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,” she said in February.   

A longtime university president turned consultant on university governance said the trustees didn’t follow “good governance,” to the detriment of both UW and Nichols. 

“Employment matters always require the highest levels of integrity — too much is at stake for both the individual and the institution to treat them otherwise,” Ellen Chaffee, a senior consultant with Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, wrote to reporters. “The board’s decision process regarding President Nichols’ termination was unusual at best, and it certainly did not conform to principles of good governance such as following existing policy, treating the president with respect and, apparently, thoroughly considering the effects on the institution.” 

The sudden departure of high-level officials without explanation can harm morale, Chaffee wrote. 

“Faculty, staff, students, and other constituents can become anxious and distracted, with rumors and speculations eating into productive time,” Chaffee wrote. “Employees’ confidence in institutional systems goes down, and their concerns about what could happen to them goes up.”

After the details of the Nichols investigation became public last year and media outlets won a lawsuit to access documents detailing the inquiry, the university came under closer scrutiny. In September, two days before Theobald met with Blackburn, Gordon wrote to the board about the “black eye” recent turnover had caused and concern by the public that the university was adrift. 

During the 2020 Legislative session, lawmakers in the House and Senate both successfully pushed provisions to order a study into how the university governs itself. 

“You go to the coffee shop and hear, ‘Boy, you seen what they’re doing?’” Kemmerer Republican Rep. Tom Crank, a sponsor of the measure, told a reporter following debate on the study earlier this year. Recent times “have not been real tremendous for UW, with the Nichols thing and some others. Good, bad or indifferent, let’s just see — were the poor optics right, or what?”

The study is just getting started. A legislative committee meeting earlier this month was briefed on the exact details of how the university is governed. 

At that meeting, Casper Republican Sen. Bill Landen said he had heard repeated concerns from constituents about what was happening at the university. He said there were “whitecaps on the water over the past year.” Cheyenne Republican Rep. Landon Brown added that he, too, had heard concerns. Brown asked legislative staff, who would be drafting the study, to consider comparing UW’s governance structure to that of other universities, “specifically the importance of, I think the key word is transparency.”

“I’ve had a lot of constituents in my district who’ve been asking, ‘What in the world is going on over there?’” Brown said. “It really boils down to: I don’t even know. I think the only people that know are the trustees that are sitting in that room.”

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8 Comments

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  1. My thoughts:

    (1) By all accounts Nichols was not easy to work with according to the UW personnel that I know. Also, if you read the linked story in the second paragraph, the alleged conduct was very unbecoming of a UW President. I really know nothing about Mr. Blackburn, but I don’t think the decision not to renew Nichols’s tenure was wrong necessarily.

    (2) This entire process has not been transparent in the least. The UW Trustees should involve Wyomingites and alumni more in its decisions. They also spent a significant amount of money to give themselves a black eye.

    (3) If the Trustees felt the “assessment” was warranted they should have been up-front about the process and let the public know what was going on instead of leaving it up to the newspapers to speculate about the situation. This is the only university in a state of 500K people and we deserve a little transparency.

  2. The process used by the Trustees is NEVER right. The Trustees are just that, Trustees. They are not charged with day-to-day responsibility of “running” the University. They set policy period. They have done a great disservice to the institution and to the state.

  3. There’s the right way, and there’s the Wyoming way. Milward Simpson told me a story about ex-governor Nels Smith phoning him about the new president of the University. He began by asking Milward if he thought the guy might not be a little too far to the left, and Milward hedged by observing that the guy was probably a Democrat, but worked well within the bounds of his office. Nels snorted. “Mil’ard, I think you should move him out!” Again, Milward hedged. “I’m not sure that I understand what ‘moving him out’ means, exactly. “Dammit, Mil’ard” Nels thundered, “I’m tellin’ ya to FAHR the pig- (expletive)!”

  4. Not sure how to think about this. Any business or university wants to know all it can about the people it hires, and the subsequent activities. From both ends, the conversation touches on the old adage “if you don’t want anyone to know about it, you probably shouldn’t do it.” I don’t think the trustees who probably have no skills toward vetting people, should be snooping, but its possible we all watch too many crime and detective shows – maybe professional firm is the right way. I really don’t know what’s right here. But asking questions is usually right – making accusations often is not.

    1. ” … how to think about this …” might include assessing the consequences to the UW red robed cardinals towards any future hires. Why would any potential Presidential candidate want to apply to work for the University of Wyoming knowing full well how Laurie Nichols was treated ? Qualified experienced administrators would take one look at this sordid affair and likely decide to advance their career somewhere else… the secrecy , the backstabbing, the obfuscation … who wants any of that hanging over them ?

      The time to ask the important questions is before and during the hiring and vetting, not in the middle of the term. Or to use a crude sports analogy that UW trustees might relate to , Who fires the UW Cowboy football coach at halftime of the game without warning ?

  5. To an outsider like me, the lack of any information about why they were investigated and terminated stinks. The only reason I can see for such secrecy is that the reason for termination wouldn’t withstand scrutiny. Maybe they were terminated for standing up for academic freedom.

  6. Interesting way to deal with HR issues as it seems to allow the university to rid itself of “meddlesome priests” or agents no longer viable in the UW setting without going through the formalized removal or firing processes. It appears UW wanted them (Blackburn & Nichols) gone and instead of just firing them, investigated them and found a few things that the individuals did not want exposed and they acquiesced to the pressure. If one looks hard enough everyone has something they do not want revealed, especially if they want a job in the future. Very Black Cube if anyone gets that reference.

    These decisions smack of someone that understands power in a corporate setting that decided to apply it to a public setting with less than perfect results. In the corporate world there is much less potential exposure to making these moves compared to public setting as UW and its personnel are finding this out

    Geez I wish we could get rid of a Deputy that kills for 6700.00 dollars, it would be a great deal and better for Wyoming.

  7. Good article and glad there are journalists pursing these questions. I was very troubled with how Laurie Nichols was treated. Having been involved with the UW Parent Council through 4 presidents, Dr. Nichols really seemed like someone who could lead for years to come. She came in at a hard time of budget cuts and managed to be very above board about what was happening and it was a given not everyone would like what she had to do. However, after the worse was over she appeared to not ruffle too many feathers and was moving forward with UW in a very good position.
    This whole process of investigating staff but saying it’s not an investigation – especially not including the staff or allowing them to give their side of things seems very inappropriate and against the universities own policies. I don’t see how you can hire a firm to do an investigation and say you are not investigating. My impression really has been that, at least in Nichols’ case, she made the wrong person mad and it may have been a personal, not professional, vendetta that caused her contract not to be renewed. I could be wrong, but when there is so much secrecy it’s left to everyone to come to their own conclusion. I really hope these “secret, not really an investigation” investigations come to an end.