Long awaited documents released yesterday by court order reveal the origins of a secret investigation into former University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols and her eventual demotion by the board of trustees. Nichols was accused of verbally abusing a UW Foundation employee and yelling at a staff member over a student’s interaction with her dog, according to the records.
Nichols denies the allegations and says she was never notified of any such complaints, or the fact that she was being investigated. Hours after the documents were released, a UW spokesperson said investigators determined Nichols’ alleged behavior was part of a pattern.
A group of media organizations sued the university in June 2019 for withholding the documents. The records, which span more than 100 pages, detail the board of trustees’ process prior to canceling a planned renewal of Nichols’ contract, and depict the trustees’ decision to stay mum on their reasoning — both with the public and, it appears, with Nichols herself. The released records also detail allegations of verbal abuse by Nichols, who left the university in June after her contract expired.
Documents indicate the process played out quickly. On Jan. 17, 2019, UW’s general council Tara Evans told the board that Nichols accepted a contract to stay on as president. It would have paid the widely popular president more than $560,000 in total compensation. Before the month was out, Chairman Dave True was discussing accusations of a confrontation between Nichols and a UW Foundation staffer with UW’s HR department, which began interviewing those involved. Internal interviews continued until mid-February, the documents show. On Feb. 15, True signed an “engagement agreement” with Employment Matters Flynn Investigations Group, a Colorado law firm which began its inquiry on Feb. 18.
On March 13, True texted Nichols, who was vacationing in Arizona, and told her to meet him and three other board members at a local airport. It was then that they informed her she wouldn’t continue as president.
It’s unclear what Flynn’s work uncovered, as none of its documents, if they exist, were included in the release.
In an email sent to media, UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said the Flynn investigation was “informal” and that it “identified multiple individual accounts or perspectives of a similar and consistent nature.”
Notes from the HR department do not indicate they interviewed Nichols. There is no written response from the former president in the documents released by the court or notes.
An unredacted invoice obtained last fall by WyoFile and the Star-Tribune doesn’t indicate Nichols was contacted by Flynn. The invoice shows that the investigation included interviews of more than a dozen people between mid-February and March. The invoice, and the board and university’s statements since, suggest the board considered the firm’s findings in its decision making.
Nichols has said she was never given a chance to respond or an explanation for the decision not to renew her contract.
In a lengthy statement sent via her attorney, Nichols criticized the trustees and denied the allegations.
“I can accept that people may have had criticisms of me as a boss,” she wrote. “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. But to be clear — I never treated anyone in an ‘abusive’ way. As a part of my initial contract, I insisted on a mid-term evaluation which occurred in 2018. Nothing of this nature was ever remotely disclosed or implied. I sorely regret that the Trustees decided to hide these complaints from me and never ask for my response. Instead for months, I was led to believe I would be at UW for another 3 years. I wanted to continue as UW’s President. The documents confirm that the terms of my renewed contract were negotiated and finalized with the Trustees. During the time of this secret investigation, I was being recruited for two other university presidential positions. I passed on them because my renewed contract with UW was negotiated and done.”
True did not respond to messages seeking comment on Tuesday.
‘This has gone too far’
Handwritten interview notes made by UW’s human resources director Jeanne Durr in late January 2019 detail reports of an incident involving Nichols and the UW foundation employee. The employee’s name is redacted from the records. The notes echo spokesman Baldwin’s assertion that Nichols’ alleged behavior reflected a pattern, rather than a one-off event.
“Too many people subject to this abuse — [name redacted] witnessed abusive conversations with an employee,” one note from an interview states. “Word is already out on the street. Trustees need to take ownership.”
“I can’t let this pass,” Durr noted another employee saying. “This has gone too far.”
In September, the Star-Tribune and WyoFile reported that Nichols had a “brouhaha” — as a UW Foundation board member described it — with a foundation employee that prompted the staff member to leave her job.
Internal staff interview notes continue to support that narrative. The notes chronicle multiple unnamed staffers relating incidents of verbal abuse by Nichols. One staffer told HR about several incidents involving Nichols, including one where an employee was left “destroyed and humiliated.”
Another staffer describes Nichols’ alleged abuse as “stunning” and the former president as “emotionally unbalanced.”
One confrontation appears to have involved a disagreement about an agriculture school initiative.
On Jan. 18 — the day after Nichols’ contract agreement was announced to the board — a group of foundation and UW agriculture school employees were scheduled to meet with Nichols about a cheatgrass initiative, according to emails previously obtained by the Star-Tribune and WyoFile. Around that time, according to interview notes released Tuesday, one of the foundation staffers went to Nichols’ office to pick up a business card.
The HR notes describe what allegedly happened next from the staffer’s perspective:
After a brief exchange, Nichols began “shaking.” She leaned over her desk and began yelling at the employee. The foundation employee said she felt sick but decided to just “let her do her thing and get through it.”
“UW has a tendency to get ahead of presidency. This will stop,” Nichols allegedly said, in a tone that was “abusive.” She pounded the desk with her fingers and allegedly said she wouldn’t support the initiative because staffers were “getting ahead of her.”
Nichols is also quoted as saying that the “Foundation (is) destroying this university.”
Nichols allegedly asked the employee why she had been at Gov. Mark Gordon’s inaugural ball — which had been held in the days prior to the meeting — saying: “You are a fundraiser, not a lobbyist.”
“It was bigger than ‘mad,’” the employee told the interviewer, according to the notes. “It was different.”
The staffer said she had a panic attack after the exchange and “threw up all weekend.” The notes include the words “dictator” and “pissing match.”
“Words don’t describe the volatile nature of the conversation,” a quote in the interview notes reads.
“How can I do my job now?” said the employee, who is described as a “rock star” in other notes. “I can’t fake it.”
Records show that “an informal complaint of verbal abuse/hostile environment” was made to a supervisor at the foundation, who made a mandatory report.
The staffer resigned shortly after the encounter. The notes also suggest the foundation’s board met with Nichols “re: conversations she had w/ [name redacted] about Foundation.”
The UW Foundation is UW’s fundraising arm, but it is an independent nonprofit. It has its own board of directors.
Records show that the UW board of trustees was quickly informed of the incident — it’s unclear by whom or through what channel. HR head Durr emailed board chairman True on Jan. 28, 2019, noting that vice-chair Jeff Marsh had advised her “that the board had become aware of an interaction between Nichols and a foundation employee.” True asked Durr to keep him apprised on her investigation, which she did.
In her statement, Nichols said that at the time of the alleged incident, she was working on a “match appropriation request for the College of Agriculture.”
“I was trying very hard to coordinate efforts, and I was concerned that the Foundation may get in front or ahead of the campus and legislative request,” she said. “Timing was very critical for the success of the match request. There were some people at the Foundation who disagreed with the timing and strategy.”
Hours after Durr’s Jan. 30 interview with the foundation staffer concluded, Durr wrote True and Evans, UW’s general counsel.
“Dave, I met personally for over an hour with [name redacted] from the University Foundation,” Durr wrote. “Based on our discussion, I feel it necessary for you and I, along with other Trustees you deem appropriate, to meet with General Counsel, Tara Evans.”
Nichols told the Star-Tribune in June that she had not had a negative exchange with a foundation employee. She reiterated that position in court documents and in public statements. Durr’s interviews, however, quote an unnamed employee alleging a conversation with Nichols about the incident. Nichols denied saying “that” — it’s unclear what “that” refers to — and told the employee she’d call the foundation employee and apologize, according to the notes.
The quote “Laurie Nichols is a goddamn liar,” is noted in the same interview, where the employee said he was “morally and ethically required” to report the incident.
A second alleged incident
The other Nichols confrontation that received trustee attention involved a student and was reported more than a year before the foundation employee incident.
On Feb. 5, 2018, a university HR official met with an unnamed employee, who described “an incident that had happened at the President’s house involving an international student.” The employee was afraid to speak up for fear of losing her job, according to the HR official. Indeed, she told her interviewer that she “doesn’t want to do anything further — she just wanted someone to know about the event and how upsetting it was.”
According to interview notes and a handwritten statement from the reporting staffer, one of Nichols’ dogs had jumped on a student who was working as a caterer at Nichols’ home. The student “does not like dogs, but has worked in the home previously with no problem.” The reporting staffer told another caterer to grab the dog while the student went outside.
“At this point, Laurie Nichols approached me and began yelling at me to send [the student] home,” the staffer told HR. “She raised her voice very loudly while telling me that it was unacceptable to bring anyone into their home who is allergic to cats or afraid of dogs and that it is a privelege (sic) to work in their home and we know perfectly well that they have pets and having someone work there who is afraid of dogs was not acceptable.”
In a follow-up statement, the staffer said the student’s reaction “was cultural.”
“It was made to seem like myself and my employee did something wrong when we did not,” the staffer said.
Nichols wrote in her statement to media that “personal property was stolen from my home during UW catered events which took place at the exact same time as the statement made by the one employee.” She called the characterization of the dog incident “not at all accurate.” She added that the incident took place in early 2018, when an outside evaluator was conducting a performance review of Nichols. The former president said the catering incident was not mentioned in her evaluation and that it took place a year before she agreed to a new contract with the school.
After UW’s informal investigation into the foundation employee incident, True signed a contract on Feb. 18, 2019, with Flynn to investigate the allegations. Beyond an invoice showing an $8,550 bill, whatever work Flynn conducted and produced is not included in the released documents. Judge Tori Kricken, in ordering the records be released, allowed more than a dozen pages to remain secret, citing attorney-client privilege.
Evans sent the firm’s founder Mark Flynn a list of roughly 20 people to contact; their names are redacted in the documents released to the media. In addition to four foundation employees, there are at least six people identified as working in the Office of the President. Another is with the office of catering and events.
The invoice indicates that Flynn investigators held a document review and teleconference on March 13, the same day True texted Nichols to arrange a meeting at an Arizona airport. The day before, True had emailed other top members of the board to arrange a March 15 flight to Arizona to talk to Nichols.
On March 15, UW counsel Evans passed around a “draft PR message and a draft message to the voting members of the board” reminding the board that only True “can speak on behalf of the trustees.”
On March 20, Nichols’ attorney, Megan Goetz, sent a message to Evans to ask why Nichols’ contract wasn’t being extended. After the board held another special meeting, Evans reiterated to Goetz in an email what True and other top members had told Nichols at the airport: that “they will not discuss the reasons for not renewing her contract.”
The records show board members then workshopped a public statement with Goetz, who told the board that Nichols planned to become a faculty member.
Nichols has maintained publicly and in court documents that she was never informed of any investigation. The emails support Nichols’ assertions that the board did not give her an explanation behind their decision. Nichols has also contended that if she was investigated, the board violated its own policies in how that investigation was conducted.
The emails show that Evans sent investigators at Flynn a 2016 presidential directive that should guide the investigation, in addition to a list of potential contacts within the university. That directive includes instructions that the person being investigated should be given a chance to participate. The university has denied that it violated its own policy, but Nichols has maintained that investigators never offered her the chance to be involved, despite the directive’s explicit instructions.
In an email to media, Baldwin, the UW spokesman, said the agreement with Flynn was for an informal investigation that, had the board wanted it, could’ve turned into a more formal process. Baldwin said the formal process would’ve called for the use of the directive that called for Nichols’ involvement.
“The firm reported that the resulting inquiry identified multiple individual accounts or perspectives of a similar and consistent nature,” Baldwin wrote. “Because President Nichols’ contract was ending June 30, 2019, the university did not ask the firm to conduct a formal investigation and did not otherwise conduct one, and President Nichols’ contract was not renewed.”
Nichols said that she is most troubled that she wasn’t allowed to respond to the allegations and that the board had not followed its own policies in investigating her. She said she would’ve taken any opportunity “to learn and improve.”
“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 [been] made against me,” Nichols wrote. “And never did the Trustees react or respond like they have with me.”
‘Only True can speak’
In the days and weeks after UW announced that Nichols would not continue, there was intense public and media pressure for an explanation. The Star-Tribune and WyoFile sent several public records requests to the university seeking more information. Those requests were largely denied.
Numerous trustees also declined interview requests, deferring to True, who declined to comment. The silence and True’s refusal to comment continued even after the Star-Tribune and WyoFile reported that Nichols had indeed been investigated.
One email indicates Evans took pains to ensure silence by the governor-appointed board. A March 15 email reminded the board “that only Chairman True can speak on behalf of the Board of Trustees.” The letter also reminded the trustees that meetings held in executive session “are confidential by law” and that the information delivered in those meetings “must not be shared with anyone” outside of the board.
The university’s leadership and True maintained their silence for more than 10 months until Friday, when they issued a statement conceding the lawsuit and admitting to their investigation.
“We are confident the material shows our decision not to renew President Nichols’ contract reflected prudent judgment and was in the best interest of the University of Wyoming and its people,” that statement said.
Nichols said she was disappointed with the trustees’ handling of the situation.
“Yes, I am bothered that two employees had concerns that were hidden from me,” she wrote Tuesday. “Yes, I am very disappointed in how poorly I was treated by the Trustees. However, I continue to wish the people of Wyoming nothing but the best.”
UW Nichols Records Released by Albany County District Court 2:4 (PDF)