Wyoming PBS - Capitol Outlook Week Two (2016) Web Extra

Feb. 19, 2016 - CHEYENNE, WY

Dr. Laurie Nichols, newly appointed President, University of Wyoming


Craig Blumenshine, Wyoming PBS:  Continuing our discussion now with Dr. Laurie Nichols. She'll be the 26th president at the University of Wyoming, its first woman president. Dr. Nichols, what do you see really is the central purpose of the University of Wyoming in its role, in its function or duty to the people of Wyoming? Is the university best understood in terms of a business with ideals of profit efficiency and customer satisfaction? Or is there maybe a more appropriate metaphor to describe the University's mission?

- There may be a more appropriate... I mean there are parts of the University that need to be business-oriented and run like a strong business, so, there is some truth to that. But, I think the mission of the university is different from the business; businesses usually operate for a profit, and I think universities, their mission is really to create opportunity for the citizens of the state. And so, when I think about what a university does, there's a few things that come to mind. First of all, it provides higher education to the citizens of the state, and with that, of course opens doors of opportunity. I mean I know when I reflect on my life, the fact that I went to college and earned my bachelor's degree changed my whole life trajectory, and strengthened it. And I think that's exactly what the University of Wyoming does for the citizens of Wyoming is it gives that opportunity for a higher education which can change their career outlook which changes their life. And so, that's a very important part is is that it just really develops human capital, and human capital is such an important part of any state in any economy. The other thing that I think of when I think of higher education in the University of Wyoming is is that we need a workforce in Wyoming. And who do you look to for a workforce is typically technical schools and universities, and so, we provide that. So, we need to be very in tune to Wyoming in terms of the economy and the job outlook, and we need to be responsive to that, so, we're providing those professionals who can walk right into those jobs and continue to drive the economy of the state in that way as well. And then, finally, I also think about a university in terms of its research and economic development. And that's actually becoming a bigger part of a mission of University as we move forward. So, again, being very responsive to the state in terms of the research that's being conducted at the University of Wyoming, and then, taking that research, and then turning it out into the economy as those new discoveries are being made. We often call it "tech transfer," but, it's the transfer of knowledge out into the economy. And I know Wyoming has really grown in that in the last, maybe, decade or so, but, I see that as a huge area of growth in the future.


- In your transition planning, you have come to understand many things about the university I'm sure. Certainly, you've probably thought about faculty pay and staff pay, and the notion that Wyoming might be slightly below market in terms of what it pays faculty. And the anecdotal reports that we all hear that good faculty are leaving and that salary is a reason why they are leaving. What have you learned about that? What are your thoughts about it in your planning for the future? Where is it on your plate?

- Right. I've heard about it, and so, what I've learned so far is that really it's a concern and it needs attention. So, I would say those are the two biggest things that I've engaged in dialogue at this point in time. What my thoughts are about it is that in fact, it's not something that I should ignore, I need to pay attention to it. I've asked about are we doing a good strong market analysis, so we really know exactly where salaries are with the University of Wyoming as compared to regional peers. Because I think that's the best way to gauge it is is when you look regionally at our peer institutions, how do we do in comparison to them? And I've gotten some feedback, but, not a lot. So, I think a better stronger analysis needs to be done, and it's something I'll get after right away as I get there. And then, what you begin to identify is the gap. So, once you see where your peers are at, you begin to get a feel of are we 5% behind, are we 10% behind, where are we at? And then, I think you'd need to put in place a plan to start working towards filling that gap. And I have told people it is not a one-year plan. I mean you will not address salary gaps in a year, it could be up to a 10-year plan to try to put something together.

- Did you experience salary/faculty pay issues at South Dakota State University?

- We did.

- So, what was your approach then?

- Yes, very much so. We put in place a very strong salary policy at South Dakota State. I'd love to see if it would be something that might work here. But, it really had a couple of different components to it, the first of which is we redid our annual evaluation process. So, because that is linked to salary increases. So, we do not use across-the-board or cost-of-living increases at all, we use a merit salary increase which is tied to performance. And again, I'm not familiar with what Wyoming is doing right now, but, I think that needs to be looked at because those two have to be linked. And then, the second thing we did is just what I talked about; we did an analysis. We use what's called the "Oklahoma Faculty Salary Survey," which is a national survey. We also then looked at our peers, and we have identified 13 peer institutions. Actually, University of Wyoming is one of them. And we've compared there too, and we have put together a plan to try to do as much as we can to address that gap and that goes to our legislature, and they've been very supportive. We're looking at a 3.2% salary increase this year at South Dakota State.


- I wanted turn the page to something you wrote in your application letter that you've talked about and relationship to one segment here. You said that "Today's University is one in which "diversity enhances excellence." You've discussed diversity in terms of Wyoming's Native American population I guess I've heard.

- Yes.

- But, also, Dr. Nichols, a set of statistics I have seen is that 43% of doctoral degrees at the University of Wyoming in STEM fields, science, technology, engineering, and math fields go to international students.

- Right.

- So, my question is is what is the proper balance of diversity and how is that defined in both undergraduate and graduate programs? And where is the university, to your knowledge, based on your knowledge of transition relative to its diversity?

- Right. So, to the first part of that question is kind of lost beyond diversity. Think diversity, you really need to look at both domestic diversity, so, I've kind of talked about diversity starts at home. And by that, I simply mean look within the state and what is the diversity of Wyoming. And then, are we reflecting that at the University of Wyoming? Because we should be. So, that's been some of my comments about really working with Native American audiences. But, actually, there may be other underrepresented audiences in Wyoming that also need attention, whether it be the Hispanic population or other such populations. And I would say that would be something to really take a look at and I hope to do that. But, the other part to it is international students. And all universities are growing in international students, this is not unique to the University of Wyoming. And it's actually a very important part of the whole recruitment/enrollment picture is to make sure you are bringing in international students as well to help diversify the campus, it really helps. But, also to make sure that you really are giving our students, Wyoming students, a global perspective. Because many of them are going to go out and work and very global context as well. And we want to be preparing our students to be very competent in that area. So, that's kind of my philosophy on it is IS you need a really good mix, you need to be reflecting the domestic diversity, you also need to have an international audience. You are right about STEM, that STEM is very popular with international students. It is what they come here to get. You don't see a lot of international students pursuing social sciences or humanities, mostly you see them in the STEM fields. And good for them. I mean they're pursuing careers that are going to serve them well. I think our challenge in the United States is getting US citizens to pursue STEM fields as well, and we are challenged there. That is a tougher pipeline to develop for whatever reason. And so, I think some of the work that's happening at the University of Wyoming now with this science initiative in particular, but, also the engineering initiative is trying to get at that. If you look at their plan, they are working very hard to develop that pipeline with actually Wyoming secondary students and trying to get them to come to Wyoming and pursue those STEM fields that we know are much needed in our economy.


- Last topic we'll talk about today is where we started kind of. You're becoming a Cowgirl.

- Yes.

- Cowboys and certainly, you paid attention to the discussion relative to athletic funding at the University of Wyoming. How do you perceive that your leadership will influence athletics at the University of Wyoming in the state's perception of the relative importance of athletics at the University of Wyoming?

- Well, I've been asked that the few times, and I will just say athletics is really important to a vibrant university. It's true at Wyoming, it's true at other places as well. Because people get so excited about athletics, and I know you experienced that in this state. I've heard it many times from people about how passionate they are about the Cowboys or the Cowgirls, and how people really follow the athletic programs from the University of Wyoming. And that, I think, is evidence that this is an important part of the university. It's important to the whole state. Because it really kind of rallies the troops. I mean people become very, very excited about the athletic programs and will follow them, will come to the university to the games, and just really become excited over it. And so, you want to keep that strong. it's a point of pride. It becomes part of the reputation of a university. And I think it's really important that you don't let that slide backwards or turn your back to it. Because, in many ways, it would hurt the whole university if that happened. Having said that, I also think that you really need to keep academics front and center at a university as well, and keep pushing that forward, too. So, I don't see it being one or the other, I think you do it all together. Because really, when you look at great universities, that's what they've done; they've pushed together, they pushed academics, and developed strong, strong academic programs that have these big reputations, and have great athletic teams as well.

- Do you have a sense of what your travel plan's going to be in your first few months of your tenure? Do you plan to get out and about, certainly in the state of Wyoming in the summer and the fall?

- Yes, I do, summer in particular. I do plan to do a statewide tour of Wyoming and we're just starting to put that together now. But, I have really said, "I want to be out in Wyoming this summer." I'm new to the state, so, I need to meet the state and I want them to meet me. And it will be a great education for me as I get into the communities and really learn what Wyoming is all about. So, these won't to be fancy events, these would just be me coming into a community, maybe being able to meet with the alumni, hopefully community leaders, legislators from that area, and just spending maybe a few hours, a half a day learning a little bit more about what drives that community, what are there points of pride, and hopefully just really strengthening the relationship across the state.

- [Craig] Dr. Laurie Nichols, best wishes.

- Thank you.

- Congratulations on your appointment.

- Thank you.

- Thank you so much for joining us on Capitol Outlook.

- Thank you for having me.