Senior communication and journalism student Chris Miller sat down with UW President Laurie Nichols for a candid chat about growing up on a South Dakota farm, her goals and aspirations for building a better university, and the age-old question of cats or dogs?
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a farm in a rural community of South Dakota, about 35 miles north of Sioux Falls or about 20 miles south of Brookings. It was a small town called Flandreau.
What was your childhood like?
Well, it was a typical farm family. I had a rather large family: mom and dad and then there were five kids. I have one brother and three sisters, and it was a typical farm - we all worked, we all contributed to the labor. Especially in the summer when farming is very intense. You know, it was really kind of a neat family environment because we were really all in it together. I would say my family was close-knit, kind of a typical farm family, a little bit on the conservative side. We didn’t have a lot of money to be quite honest with you but, you know, we always got by and we really had everything we needed.
What did you study in college?
I went to college to be a teacher so my education was in secondary teacher education, and that’s what I did when I first left school. I was a teacher at a small school in South Dakota, Hill City, which is in the Black Hills, and then I taught in Denver afterwards too. So, my whole goal was to be a teacher when I was going through college.
Did you participate in any extracurricular activities?
I did. I was involved in women’s choir for a couple of years. I was in the marching band, which was called Pride of the Dakotas, for a year. I was involved in several student organizations that were sort of affiliated with my major, and in fact I was even president of one of those. There was a church, a campus youth church group affiliated with the university, and I was involved in that and even did a Spring Break mission trip one spring, which was great fun. So yeah, I was kind of your typical involved student. I wasn’t overly involved, but on the other hand I always had plenty to do.
What did you play in the marching band?I played French horn.
Do you have any children?
I do, I have two daughters. Jordan is my oldest daughter, and she just graduated from college. She majored in English and she will be going on to graduate school. This fall she starts St. John's University in Manhattan, so she will be moving to New York City and pursue an MFA. My second daughter, Hannah, just finished her sophomore year and will be a junior at New Mexico State University, and she is a dance major. So, I have two humanities girls.
Who is someone that you admire or look up too, and why?
One of the most influential persons in my life was my immediate former boss. His name was David Chicoine; he was the president of South Dakota State University. I worked for him, I was his provost, for the past seven years. He was a phenomenal mentor. He really taught me much of what I know today about higher ed administration. First being a lot of the things I am doing right now while starting my new job, I have to say that I learned a lot of this from him. He has been very influential in shaping my career.
Do you have any hobbies?
I have been a big gardener for probably the last 20 years, and we have really developed our acreage. It has seven perennial flower beds, so I really got into it. In fact, I really got into too much of it, to be quite honest.
I’m a runner, and I really enjoy getting up in the morning and going for a run. If I don’t run, I exercise on an elliptical. But, I am faithful to my exercise, and for me it as much about mental health as anything. I just find that when I go out and run I can clear my head, I can think about anything, and it just centers me. For me, it’s really just a part of my overall health. Those are two things that I have to say that I really love.
Beyond that, I love to read. I love to travel, I am a big traveler too. I’m a person who finds lots of interests wherever I am at. I’m looking forward to hiking here.
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
Well, we’re both. We have a little dog, and we have three cats. If you ask me which one I really love the most, I’d probably have to go with our dog. I’m probably a bit at the end of the day more of a dog person, but we do have cats, and I’m pretty devoted to them too. We are pet people, I will tell you that for sure.
What is your most prized possession?
You know, I’m not a real materialistic person, so this one I really have to think about. You know, my most prized possession would have to be our home. The house that we are selling in Brookings we’ve lived in for 22 years, and we’ve done a lot of remodeling and improvements to it. It is on an acreage, we’ve developed the garden and perennial beds. It’s just our home, and I really love it. We bought a house here, and we’ll be moving in in a couple of weeks, and I really hope to very much shape that place and make it our home too. So, I think probably my most prized possession is not “possessions” but people in my life, my husband, my children, my mom, my dad. But, if you think about a possession that I really love is probably my home.
What was the last movie to make you cry?
I don't know about movie, but I can tell you that the last event I was at where I cried was up at Sheridan College at their graduation. I went to the nursing pinning ceremony and it was so touching; I cried! I mean, I literally had this huge lump in my throat and I was crying by the end of it. But, movie? What's the one with Shadow the dog? Homeward Bound! Every time I see that I cry; and I’ve seen it about 10 times. I don’t know that is the most recent, but it is one that always gets me.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Probably chocolate. I don’t eat it every day by any stretch because I’m kind of a health food nut, but at least once a week I just have to have some chocolate. I’ll either go buy a good chocolate candy bar or I’ll find a good piece and have it. I also have to say that I love coffee. If there is probably one thing that you will learn about me that I love the most, it’s coffee. I always say probably the unhealthy thing that Laurie does is drink coffee. And I probably drink too much of it. One thing I’ve enjoyed about Laramie already is finding all of the good coffee spots.
Do you have a favorite coffee shop?
I found two that I really like: I go to Coal Creek, by the Hilton Garden Inn, almost every morning. The little coffee shack, Gem City Java. There is also one downtown I like to go to that has a lot of really good baked goods, Night Heron.
What is your favorite quote?
I guess one of my favorite quotes was by John Kennedy, and it was the quote that goes, “If not now, when?” There is more to it I'm sure, but there are so many times when I’m working with someone on something and the comment is, “Well, let’s wait,” and I often come back to “If not now, when?” Why would we delay? His is one that has always resonated with me.
Describe your ideal Sunday afternoon?
If it is in the summer, I would love to either go for a run or a long walk and just get out and enjoy outside in nature a little bit and get a little exercise in. Get fresh air. Then come back and it might be making something, maybe a batch of cookies or banana bread or get in the kitchen and whip something up. Maybe make something for dinner. Then it might be just a sit down for a while and to either read or get out my bag and do a little work in my own environment. Then cap it off at about 5:00 with a glass of wine and then just a really good meal. I don’t get to do that all the time, so when I do I really value it.
Is there anything in or around Laramie that you are most excited to try or experience?I have driven past Vedauwoo several times and I have only seen it from the interstate, so I am so anxious to get back in there and do whatever you do. I’m very anxious to do that; I’ve driven past it so often that I’ve thought, “I can't wait until I can come back and do that.” I’m also anxious to go up Happy Jack and then kind of get back in the park this winter and go cross-country skiing. I really enjoy cross-country. On my bucket list, I really want to learn how to fly fish. I’ve already found someone who said they’d teach me.
Why did you decide to apply for the position as president of this university?
Well, I’d been working my way up career wise: I’d been a department head, and then a dean, and then a provost, and the next logical step if I was going to keep climbing was to apply for a presidency. Part of why I did it is because I felt like my whole career had been working towards this goal, and it was just the right time to do it. I had been in the provost job for seven years; it was a nice time from that perspective. My daughter was graduating from college, so from more of a personal angle it was the right time. That’s what kind of got me thinking about it, and then when I saw the University of Wyoming come open I just knew that this would be an excellent fit with me.
What was your previous position before taking office here at UW?
It was being provost at South Dakota State University. I had been provost for seven years, so that’s the vice president for academic affairs of all of the colleges, the deans, the curriculum with students, and just more focused on the academic side of things. I had done it for seven years and I loved it, but I was ready to move on.
How did that position prepare you for your new one at UW?
When you’re provost, you’re senior vice president. So, at least how it was set up for us at South Dakota State, that whenever the president would be gone, I was acting president. So I was probably acting president 20 or so times during my time as provost. Sometimes for a short period like a couple of days, sometimes for longer like a few weeks when he, the president, was traveling internationally. That gave me a lot of experience, because you had to jump in and really fill the role while he was away. I thought that was a great kind of entree to kind of get a taste of it. The Board of Regents in South Dakota also asked me to be interim president for a year at a small regional school, Northern State University. I did that for a year, so I was an interim president there as well. I felt that, along with the fact that as a vice president and running one whole division of the university, in this case academics, I thought the combination of those three things did prepare me to take on the role as president here.
What would you say is the main motivation for your work?
Mostly it is to impact students and to shape a university so that when they come here they will have absolutely the best experience possible. I’m a really student-centered person. I always have been, I was as dean, I was as provost, and I know I will be as president. I love working with faculty as well, but at the end of the day when you think about why are we here, it is to provide an outstanding education to students - today’s students and future students who will come to this university. If I can spend eight to 10 years here and really try to take the University of Wyoming to the next level so that it provides even that much stronger of an education, it will have been worth my time.
What are you most excited about in your new position?
For me, I think it’s the opportunity to come into a university that is really good and really solid, and has a very good reputation but clearly needs some attention to detail on several fronts right now. I can see them, and I think I have what it takes to be able to impact that, and I’m really excited to get after that. One of those, for example, is a long-range strategic plan. Where is the university going to go in five years? I’m so excited to get after that, and I think this university could really benefit from a strong plan.
What are your immediate goals in your position as university president?
Right now I’m working on a budget cut, and that hit me right away. It actually hit me the week before I came! So, we’re working through the details on that right now. We are getting pretty good on year one, but we have year two yet to come. That is still going to take some attention and time; I’ve been spending quite a lot of time on that. Also this week, in addition to the budget cut, we’ve moved on and we are really focusing on enrollment as well. I’ve been working with the vice president for student affairs, the Admissions Office, and so forth, and we’re really trying to work on impacting on the numbers yet this fall. Quite a bit of work is being done as we speak on reaching out to students who have not yet registered, or who have not come to orientation yet, and really trying to pull in another group of students so they are in fact here this fall once school starts.
What would you like students to know about the financial cutbacks facing the university?
I think that they should be aware that it is going on. We are taking an 8% budget cut, and I think everyone needs to be aware that it’s not anything that we should hide. I think students should also need to know that it’s not going to impact the quality of the education they receive. They are still going to have great faculty. They are still going to have really strong programs to major in when they come. In all ways we’re trying to not impact the student experience. In other words, we really want them to have great organizations to participate in, have a beautiful campus, and we're really trying to hang on to student experience and try to leave it as is. We want to make sure it is not harmed and leave it undamaged by these budget cuts.
What changes should students expect to see?
One of the things that I hope they see we’re going to get after is a renovation plan for the dormitories. I think in the next few years you’ll see us working through a planning process, a funding process for it, and then eventually working on major, major renovations or at the end of the day we might take them down and build new residence halls. That’s one thing they should see that will be very, very visible. I think that they will see we will take some components of the university that are here and that are good, but we’re going to try to take them up to the next level. The Honors Program would be one of those I’m very interested in what we can do to strengthen. I think that they will see some changes. Not that we’re going to dramatically change the program, but we’re going to change the profile, make it more visible and provide more options.
Where do you see the university being this time next year?Through the budget cuts. A strategic plan rolled out and underway, so we will be in year one of a new strategic plan, and I hope that you will see all kinds of interesting and additional work that will be done because we have this plan in front of us and we’re moving forward with it.
Do you have any advice for students at this university that you would like to give?
I would just say embrace the college experience. Take advantage of all the opportunities this university has to offer. Make sure that you get to know faculty, and not only get to know them, but work with them, because they love working with students; but sometimes students have to reach out and make that extra effort as well, and don’t ever hesitate to do that. Join and get involved. One thing I heard from students at South Dakota State is “I wish I would have gotten more involved,” so try to take that to heart and get involved to the extent that you can and that you want to. I would also just say to take your studies seriously. Do well, because this education will serve you so well into the future, but the more you learn here the better it will serve you later down the road.