Finalist: Laurie Stenberg Nichols

Laurie Stenberg Nichols, finalist for the position of President of the University of North Dakota, visited the UND campus on Nov. 18-19

Laurie Stenberg Nichols, finalist for the position of President of UND. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Laurie Stenberg Nichols has more than once been introduced as a North Dakotan.

“I’m from the balmy Dakota,” Nichols said, adding she grew up on a farm in South Dakota that’s now bisected by Interstate 29 near Flandreau and Coleman.

Nichols has spent her entire life in education, first as a K-12 teacher and then in higher education. Her heart and soul is serving at public flagship and land grant institutions, she said, noting that she spent 22 years at South Dakota State University. This devotion stems from the institutions’ mission, which, as Nichols described, is to provide access to higher education, apply research to solve problems, and provide outreach to the state.

Nichols is interested in UND because she loves this part of the country and working in rural states.

“That’s where I’m most comfortable, and where I want to be,” Nichols said. “I think I would love living in North Dakota.” She added that UND was considered a “peer institution” when she was at SDSU, and she has looked at UND in depth as she led two strategic planning efforts.

“I admire and respect UND,” she said. “There’s a lot you do well here.”

Nichols spoke at a public forum on the UND campus on Nov. 19. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Nichols then took questions from the audience, the answers to which are summarized below.

  • The most dominant characteristic of her leadership style is her ability to listen, a skill she believes is necessary for a good leader. That, along with her ability to think beyond the present and see what’s possible, would lead to forming a vision for UND.
  • About employee morale, Nichols said that on her first day as president of the University of Wyoming, she was given six weeks to cut $50 million from the budget. Morale was extremely low, and the campus didn’t know her, Nichols said. She met with every unit on campus – 140 meetings in six months – which helped reduce tensions. She implemented a national campus employee satisfaction survey her second year, then a task force to respond to issues. That task force still exists.
  • About relationships with the city and nonprofits, Nichols said her meeting with Grand Forks leaders led to a great discussion. “They said the relationship between Grand Forks and UND has never been better,” she said, and she would continue that relationship. She added that for students, the more hands-on experience (such as internships, volunteerism, and service learning), the better. “It enriches their education,” she said.
  • Diversity should always start at home, Nichols said. “Look at the composition of the state. That’s where you start.” South Dakota, she said, has a Native American population of between 10 and 12 percent, but SDSU had only 2 percent Native Americans. As an SDSU administrator, Nichols worked with the reservations and tribal colleges to develop a “2+2+2” program, which began with high school juniors and seniors, then two years at tribal colleges, and a final two years at SDSU. That morphed into the “Prairie Ph.D.” program, which has so far helped 32 tribal college professors earn a Ph.D. at a distance, she said.
  • Nichols emphasized that you also need to pay attention to the diversity needs of the state and serve other groups. “Provide access to higher education in state, then outside the state and internationally,” she said.
  • One questioner asked why enrollment increased but tuition revenue decreased while she was at Wyoming. Nichols said that when she started there, enrollment was down 600 students. “I just about had a heart attack,” she said. “I pulled out all the stops to close the gap.” She was able to reduce the enrollment decline to 200-250 students, then led the development of a strategic enrollment plan. By the fall of 2017, they were up 30 students; by the third fall, they were up 150. “I’m not sure tuition revenue was down,” Nichols said. “In-state tuition at the University of Wyoming is the lowest in the country.” With tuition at just $5,800 per year, she said, you can grow enrollment but not see a huge uptick in tuition revenue.
  • Regarding UND’s enrollment, Nichols said developing a strategic enrollment plan is well worth the time. She recommended bringing in a consultant and forming a task force. “If you implement the master plan, I’d be shocked if you couldn’t grow.”
  • Fulfilling flagship missions of teaching and learning along with economic development is a necessary balancing act, Nichols said, adding that the University must do an outstanding job of helping students succeed and earn degrees. Tech transfer and economic development are also components of the mission, and this would include commercializing research that can help generate state revenue.
  • Increasing enrollment and staffing for women and STEM disciplines is challenging, Nichols said, and serious efforts should include outreach as early as 5th and 6th grades with camps and other activities that continue into high school. She detailed strategies which included setting aside funds to hire women in STEM, putting role models in place, scholarships, and more.
  • In response to how she handled a situation with a conflict, Nichols said that when she was at Wyoming, a group of women staged a demonstration about sexual assault awareness, saying that Nichols and the administration had not been responsive to them earlier. Nichols said that she had not received any communication from them before that. She talked to the leaders that day, and said she was sorry she hadn’t received their communications. That prompted her to start a sexual assault committee on campus.
  • To make students feel welcome, a university should have a really good onboarding process. “How welcome a first-year student feels sets the tone for the year and the whole experience,” Nichols said. The first six to eight weeks of the semester communicate campus culture. “Warm and welcoming” makes all the difference versus unavailable faculty and unwelcoming staff. “Set the tone that students matter,” she said.
  • Alumni often stay connected through athletics, an alumna said, asking how Nichols would ensure that connection. Nichols replied that athletics are a critical “front door” to a university, and can inspire enthusiasm and excitement. She added she’s explained the importance of athletics to non-supporters, then discussed the move at SDSU from NCAA Division II to Division I, which she described as very painful but well worth it. Ten years from now, she said, UND’s move to NCAA Division I will pay off “big time.”
  • Her previous institutions have about 1,000 to 1,300 fewer students than UND.
  • Regarding budget models, Nichols said they transitioned to an RCM (Responsibility Center Model) budget. “It was a bumpy transition,” she said. “Hang in there.” She recommended staying with the budget incentive model while fine-tuning it and addressing concerns. She also recommended implementing a strategic investment fund, using the money to drive forward the strategic plan and incentivize priorities.

To watch a video of Nichols’ public forum, visit the UND Presidential Search page.