Nichols probe came after reports of ‘abusive’ behavior

By Daniel Bendtsen

Laramie Boomerang

Via Wyoming News Exchange

LARAMIE — Investigatory records released Tuesday morning indicate that, before former University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols was demoted, numerous university employees reported that Nichols had subjected them to “abusive conversations” in late 2018 and early 2019.

The records confirmed previous news reportage: That after trustees and Nichols finished negotiating a new contract in January 2019, UW subsequently hired an outside firm to look into the allegations against Nichols.

The investigatory records include five handwritten memos, written by then UW human resources director Jeanne Durr, who documented conversations she had with employees who complained about Nichols’ behavior.

The investigatory materials are part of 106 pages of records that Albany County district court Judge Tori Kricken ordered to be publicly released. The names and positions of Nichols’ accusers are redacted in the documents.

The memos do not present a full narrative account of the allegations against Nichols, but instead contain fragmented pieces of the employees’ accounts that were described to Durr as “abusive.”

In a statement released through her attorney, Nichols described the incomplete investigatory materials as misleading.

“I can accept that people may have had criticisms of me as a boss,” 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. 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.”

When the trustees decided Friday not to appeal Kricken’s ruling, they released a statement saying that the investigatory materials show “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.”

The release of some investigatory materials came after Kricken ruled that UW violated the Wyoming Public Records Law when it refused to hand over numerous public records to Wyoming news organizations, including the Laramie Boomerang. It follows the announcement almost a year ago that Nichols would not continue as president.

Fragments of an investigation

Not all of the memos in Tuesday’s investigatory materials are dated, but at least some of the complaints were made after the terms of a new contract with Nichols were finalized on Jan. 17, 2019.

In the memos, one employee reported that “too many people (are) subject to this abuse” and they “can’t work with Laurie.”

One employee reported that after being subjected to verbal abuse by Nichols, she “threw up all weekend” and “had a panic attack” the next time she saw the president.

Employees claimed the Nichols had a propensity to pound her desk and shake with rage while rebuking employees. One employee described her as “emotionally unbalanced” and “bipolar.”

“Words don’t described the volatile nature of the conversations,” one memo states.

“No one feels safe in this work environment,” another reports.

“Laurie Nichols is a god damn liar,” one memo states. “If I don’t report this I’m going to lose, morally and ethically.”

At least one employee reported that she left her position at the university because of treatment by Nichols.

While the documents released to reporters Tuesday contain fragments of employees’ complaints, there is no actual investigatory report from Flynn in the documents.

“The redactions of the records make it very difficult for me to really understand the substance of the complaints. The media will undoubtedly cut and paste certain words and statements for their articles,” Nichols said.“But when you look through the actual documents, it is completely unknown who was interviewed, when they were interviewed, what they were asked and what they actually said. There is only one employee statement and only a few pages of HR notes containing disjointed comments. There are no findings, no recommendations, no reports nor even a summary of allegations or conclusions. There are billing entries by this firm that indicate employees were interviewed. However, there are no notes that the interviews even occurred.”

One of the earliest complaints against Nichols comes from an employee’s letter, dated Jan. 26, 2018.

That employee, apparently a supervisor of UW’s catering office, reported that Nichols was overly hostile to her while catering an event at Nichols’ home in Laramie.

During that incident, a member of UW’s catering staff was “noticeably uncomfortable” after one of Nichols’ dogs jumped on her.

The catering supervisor wrote in her letter that that employee “does not like dogs, but has worked in the home previously with no problem.”

Nichols allegedly took issue with that employee’s discomfort.

“Laurie Nichols approached me and began yelling at me to send (the catering employee) home,” the supervisor wrote in her memo. “She raised her voice very loudly while telling me that it was unacceptable to bring an employee into their home who is afraid of dogs. Dr. Nichols then stated that we are not allowed to bring anyone into their home and we know perfectly well that they have pets and having someone work there who is afraid of dogs was not acceptable.”

The supervisor said the catering employee who was uncomfortable with Nichols’s dog was “an international student and her reaction to the dog was cultural.”

No chance to respond

Nichols has repeatedly asserted that she was never informed of the investigation, and said Monday that if she had been allowed an opportunity to participate, trustees would have received a very different impression of the allegations.

“Had I been asked about these concerns, I could have presented other background information for consideration,” she said. “For example, I could have offered that my 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. I reported the incident and theft to the Trustees in early 2018. The employee’s accounting about what supposedly happened with my dog and an international student is not at all accurate. There were witnesses at the catered events. Certainly, an investigator could have talked with them, had I been asked. What’s also unusual is that the statement is dated January 26, 2018, and HR’s notes of reviewing the situation are February 5, 2018. The complaint was made and known by UW well before my formal evaluation was performed and it was never once mentioned. More so, this complaint is over a year before I started and finished negotiating my renewed contract with the Trustees. The Trustees were well aware of this situation before they chose to finalize my renewed contract.”

She suggested that some of the frustrations that employees felt may have resulted from factors outside of her control.

“Shortly after being hired as President, I was directed by the Trustees to cut the University’s budget by $42 million dollars. Even at the end of my tenure, I was still managing the impacts of the cuts that I had been instructed to make. Naturally, people do not like losing their jobs, being short-staffed or having departments inadequately funded,” she said.

Nichols said that while she disagreed with the substance of the allegations, that’s not what troubles her most.

“I am very disappointed that I was given zero opportunity to try and work through the issues,” she said. “I would have absolutely met with the employees and tried to create a resolution. If they wanted to remain anonymous, I would have respected that too, but regardless, I would have worked to solve the problem on a larger scale. If HR or the Trustees felt I needed coaching or leadership development, 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. … 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.”

Many of the complaints against Nichols involve employees at the UW Foundation. Around the time that the Foundation’s head, Ben Blalock, was the subject of a retaliation lawsuit in 2018, the memos indicate that Nichols repeatedly expressed frustration at the actions of UW’s fundraising arm.

Several of the memos indicate that Nichols repeatedly lambasted Foundation employees and said the Foundation was “single-handedly destroying UW.”

UW starts investigation

After Durr met with one employee from the Foundation, the former HR director requested a meeting with trustees and UW General Counsel Tara Evans on Jan. 30.

After receiving two complaints about Nichols, the trustees launched an investigation.

On Feb. 15, Board of Trustees Chairman Dave True signed a contract with Flynn Investigations Group to have Nichols investigated.

According to that agreement, Flynn was hired to conduct a “preliminary investigation” and then possibly conduct a “more formal investigation” that was expected to be subject to attorney-client privilege.

“Should a more formal investigation be indicated at your direction, the investigator will develop a record of allegations and relevant evidence to enable the UW Board with support of its legal counsel to make informed decisions regarding the circumstances, including potential remedial action,” the contract with Flynn states.

Any employees who participated with Flynn’s investigation were given the “expectation of confidentiality,” according to that agreement.

In March, Evans provided Flynn with a list of employees to contact as part of the investigation.

According to a redacted list of the employees released Tuesday, the witness list apparently included six employees in the Office of the President and five contacts within the UW Foundation.

Employees within the offices of Academic Affairs, Finance and Administration, IT, Research and Economic Development, Enrollment Management, Budget & Institutional Planning, Communications and Marketing, the College of Agriculture, the College of Business, Governmental and Community Affairs, and the College of Education are also listed as contracts for Flynn’s investigation.

Nichols excluded

In an email from Evans to Flynn on Feb. 13, 2019, the university lawyer told the outside investigator that the investigation would be governed by a 2016 Presidential Directive issued by former UW President Dick McGinity. That directive outlines investigations of harassment, hostile workplace environments and retaliation.

That regulations states that the respondent of such as investigation has the right to “receive written notice of the report or complaint, including a statement of the allegations, as soon after the commencement of the investigation as is practicable and to the extent permitted by law.”

The regulations also state that respondents have the right to “present relevant information to the investigators and receive, at the conclusion of the investigation, a copy of the investigator’s report.”

Nichols was never given that opportunity.

“It’s clear the Trustees did not follow their own policy, despite paying a Colorado company thousands of dollars,” Nichols said Monday.

However, UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said Nichols was not entitled to those rights because Flynn did not conduct a “formal investigation,” only a “preliminary” one.

“Ultimately, the Board of Trustees retained the firm to conduct preliminary interviews and inquiry, rather than to conduct a formal investigation,” Baldwin said. “The firm reported that the resulting inquiry identified multiple individual accounts or perspectives of a similar and consistent nature. 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. … If the firm had conducted such a (formal) investigation, the presidential directive that was emailed to the firm prior to its actual engagement would have applied."

Salary negotiations

Before the investigation that led the trustees not to renew Nichols’s contract, the president and trustees had fully negotiated a three-year contract extension to her first contract that was set to expire June 31, 2019. During Nichols’s first three-year contract, she had received a total annual compensation package of $496,266.

Negotiations for a new contract began as early as November 2018, when Nichols’s attorney, Megan Overmann Goetz, sought a significant pay raise for her employee after researching “peer presidential benefits.”

Trustees initially offered a new salary of $516,266.

On Jan. 3, 2019, the trustees offered Nichols a new total compensation package of $552,666 — an 11.4% increase from her previous contract.

At the time, True said in an email that trustees were hesitant to offer a larger salary, saying it would “generate even more adverse publicity.”

“Considering that many at the university received an average of 4 increase in the recent past, this 11.36% is certainly generous in comparison,” True said. “We look forward to continue working with Laurie in the future.”

However, trustees later offered a 13.8% increase — which would have brought her salary up to $564,666 for the 2019-2020 academic year. Under that deal, Nichols’s salary would’ve increased to $594,666 by 2021-2022.

Nichols accepted that offer on Jan. 17, which True described as “positive news.”

However, after the investigation against Nichols, the trustees opted not to renew her contract and flew to her vacation home in Arizona in mid-March to give her the news.

On March 18, Wyofile reporter Andrew Graham began making several inquiries with trustees after being tipped off to their decision.

Soon after, trustees and university officials began rushing to create plans to announce the news.

“We can’t expect to keep the lid on this for much longer,” John McKinley said in a March 19 email.

Nichols asked for the announcement to be delayed until March 25, when she planned to meet with her executive team in the morning. UW released a press release immediately after announcing the trustees’ decision.

Before the announcement, Evans made it clear to Goetz that the trustees had no intention of telling Nichols the reason for their decision.

On Monday, Baldwin declined to answer why the trustees refused to explain their reasoning.

After trustees informed Nichols in March 2019 they would not renew her contract, Goetz suggested that Nichols should receive some compensation, considering that a new contract had been negotiated and agreed to.

“Dr. Nichols was heavily recruited for other university presidencies, which she did not pursue in reliance upon the negotiated terms with UW,” Goetz said in a March 20 email. “She has now missed the hiring cycles, as well as other professional opportunities.”

Nichols said Monday that she had been recruited for two other university presidencies in early 2019, and declined both because she already had a contract negotiated with the trustees.

“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,” Nichols said.

Nichols is now the president of Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.