Presidential Ouster at William & Mary

Departing leader accuses board of trying to buy his silence on ideological splits; conservative critics who waged campaign against Gene Nichol celebrate his departure.

February 13, 2008

Gene R. Nichol resigned immediately Tuesday as president of the College of William & Mary, days after being told that his contract wouldn't be renewed. In leaving Nichol issued a blunt attack on those alumni and conservatives who have sought his ouster, defended his stances in a series of controversial decisions, and accused board members of seeking to offer him a "substantial" sum of money to publicly state that he wasn't losing his job for ideological reasons.

Nichol's departure prompted an immediate campus protest, with some students and faculty members saying that a great president had been treated unfairly. Meanwhile his critics were celebrating. While board members denied that they had done anything wrong or inappropriate in trying to negotiate a settlement with him, they acknowledged offering the cash and making it contingent on mutually agreeable statements, a not-uncommon practice.

Even while defending the board's conduct, the chair acknowledged the potential for the controversy to hurt the college by giving the impression (false, the chair said) that alumni or legislators can get a president canned at William & Mary.

In fact, the board voted days after some legislators urged the trustees to get rid of Nichol, citing his willingness to let a controversial art exhibit appear on campus. Nichol, a constitutional law professor before he became an administrator, defended the right of students to play host to the exhibit.

Nichol's supporters note substantial progress in efforts he started, after taking office in 2005, to increase student aid, attract more diverse students, and hire a more diverse faculty. But state political leaders have focused much less on those issues than on the controversy that to many defined Nichol's presidency -- a dispute over a cross he had removed from a prominent campus building. Vocal alumni critics have been pushing for Nichol's removal since the cross fracas started. They have been met by strong defenders, particularly among student leaders and some professors.

While Nichol's presidency has frequently been reduced to "pro" or "anti" sides, with competing Web sites, of course, there has also been a (quieter) middle ground. Many professors have said privately that they supported Nichol's goals and admired his idealism, but that he undercut his own efforts at times by moving too quickly and without consultation in a state where tradition is valued. Likewise, some alumni who have disagreed with Nichol have found some of the campaigning against him to be ugly and inaccurate.

On Tuesday, lines were drawn sharply by Nichol's statement -- which stunned many who received it. While a board decision on renewing Nichol's contract had been expected soon, an immediate resignation wasn't expected. In his announcement, Nichol said he couldn't continue in his job after the board voted not to keep him.

"A committed, relentless, frequently untruthful and vicious campaign -- on the Internet and in the press -- has been waged against me, my wife and my daughters. It has been joined, occasionally, by members of the Virginia House of Delegates -- including last week’s steps by the Privileges and Elections Committee to effectively threaten board appointees if I were not fired over decisions concerning the Wren Cross and the Sex Workers’ Art Show. That campaign has now been rendered successful. And those same voices will no doubt claim victory today," he said in the statement. And indeed some of his critics did, with press releases and Web sites praising the board (while others criticized it).

The statement from the Board of Visitors was vague on exactly why his contract was not renewed, but stressed that the decision "was not in any way based on ideology or any single public controversy." The statement praised Nichol for his work to diversify the college and for his "energy and passion," but said that "the board believed there were a number of problems that were keeping the college from reaching its full potential and concluded that those issues could not be effectively remedied without a change of leadership."

In an acknowledgment of Nichol's popularity with many on campus, the board statement said that it was "cognizant that its decision will be deeply disappointing to many, especially members of our faculty and student body. Our sacred stewardship and full insight into the affairs of the college convinced us change was necessary to advance the best interests of the college. We understand the sense of loss and will work hard to heal all wounds."

The statement also specifically criticized some of the attacks on Nichol. "The board has been repulsed by the personal attacks on the president and his family. The uncharitable personal assaults are unworthy of anyone who professes to care about the college and there should be no joy when things do not work out between good people."

In an interview Tuesday, Michael Powell, the rector (or board chair) at William & Mary, said that in some areas of presidential responsibility, Nichol was a great success. "The job of a modern president is multi-dimensional and fairly complex, and there are a number of dimensions in which this individual is the finest I've ever seen," Powell said, citing his commitment to scholarship and his "connections" with students and professors. But Powell added "the job is a lot else."

He defined the failings as being "loosely in the area of executive leadership," and said that the board had "lingering concerns" that had not been resolved despite a "healthy performance review process."

The issue of the Wren Cross was among the incidents cited in Nichol's letter as leading to his undoing. The cross is a two-foot gold altar cross, donated to the college in 1931. While the cross is relatively young in the history of William & Mary, its name comes from its place in the chapel of the Christopher Wren Building, a prized spot on the campus, and a place used for a variety of meetings and ceremonies -- most of them not of a religious nature.

The Wren Cross


Nichol ordered the cross removed from permanent display in 2006, saying that it was inappropriate for such a prominent space at a public college to be identified with any single faith. He noted that William & Mary is no longer an institution where there is a common religious background for most students, and said that he had heard from non-Christian students who felt unwelcome or uncomfortable participating in events in the chapel.

The response was immediate and intense -- with angry alumni barraging legislators and board members with complaints, and some large gifts were withdrawn. Nichol was accused of disrupting history by altering the chapel (even though the cross wasn't part of Wren's design and wouldn't have been consistent with Wren's approach to religious symbols). Nichol was accused of being hostile to religion, with critics going out of their way to tell reporters that he had done legal work for the American Civil Liberties Union, as if that would make his views clearly wrong.

Many students reported that the cross furor did not dominate campus life nearly as much as the outside debate would have suggested. Last March, in what was described as a compromise but was largely a reversal of Nichol's decision, the cross was returned to permanent display, although other groups were invited to place objects in the chapel as well. At the time that decision was announced, Nichol was publicly on board. But on Tuesday, he made clear that he was not.

"As is widely known, I altered the way a Christian cross was displayed in a public facility, on a public university campus, in a chapel used regularly for secular college events -- both voluntary and mandatory -- in order to help Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other religious minorities feel more meaningfully included as members of our broad community. The decision was likely required by any effective notion of separation of church and state. And it was certainly motivated by the desire to extend the college’s welcome more generously to all. We are charged, as state actors, to respect and accommodate all religions, and to endorse none. The decision did no more," he said.

Nichol also noted controversies -- most recently involving an art exhibit by sex industry workers -- that offended legislators. Here he said his First Amendment obligations required that he let these events take place.

On the proposed deal with the board for him to leave quietly, Nichol's statement said this: "The Board of Visitors offered both my wife and me substantial economic incentives if we would agree 'not to characterize [the non-renewal decision] as based on ideological grounds' or make any other statement about my departure without their approval. Some members may have intended this as a gesture of generosity to ease my transition. But the stipulation of censorship made it seem like something else entirely. We, of course, rejected the offer. It would have required that I make statements I believe to be untrue and that I believe most would find non-credible. I’ve said before that the values of the college are not for sale. Neither are ours."

Powell, the board chair, said that funds were offered and that they were contingent on an agreement that both sides would agree on language to describe the departure. Powell noted that such agreements are "absolutely customary" in such cases, and said that board members wanted a "graceful and dignified" transition for the college.

The agreement envisioned, Powell said, would have helped Nichol by giving him some say over how the college described events. "We thought we were protecting his future," Powell said. "I think it was completely legitimate," and would have allowed "the community to go forward."

On Tuesday, the community wasn't going forward. Students were wearing T-shirts and posting Facebook illustrations that said "If President Nichol is not welcome here, then neither am I." A rally was held in the afternoon and supporters were planning a candlelight vigil outside the president's home at night.

Zach Pilchen, student body president, said in an interview that he was "furious, devastated and disillusioned" by the board's decision not to keep Nichol. "As far as I can tell, our Board of Visitors bending over the political pressures, and that's not how higher education should be run."

Pilchen said that he didn't believe the board's statement that this wasn't about any one controversy. "If the Wren Cross had never occurred, this would not have happened today," he said. And Pilchen said that Nichol was correct about the cross.

Noting that he is Jewish, Pilchen said that when he arrived on the campus, he felt that the cross sent a message that the Wren Chapel was "a place intended for other people, and not for me." He added: "For me, to have a president who is Christian who recognized that was remarkable."

From his freshman year, Pilchen said, he was struck by how much Nichol interacted with students, speaking in dormitories, answering questions on any topic, and listening. "This wasn't one of those presidents who is a robot fund raiser," he said.

One of the issues Nichol heard about was concern about college costs, and Pilchen said that the Gateway program, which Nichol pushed, made it possible for low-income students to attend. In his resignation statement, Nichol said that in the two years since the program was created, the number of Pell Grant eligible students at the college had increased by 20 percent.

Pilchen said that the ouster of Nichol sent a terrible message about who influences college decisions.

Powell, the rector, acknowledged the perception that Nichol lost his job because of the alumni anger of the Wren Cross and the sex exhibit. He said that Nichol's critics overstated their influence in the process. "Anyone can issue a press release," he said. As for alumni, he said that they are "important," but do not have "exclusive" power over the college.

He predicted that perceptions would change over time, and urged people to judge the board not just by the decision on Nichol, but on "the choices we'll make, the decisions we'll make."


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