William and Mary: Getting What They Paid For
Gene Nichol is not exactly hard to read. When a man spends his career teaching constitutional law, writing for left-leaning publications and running for public office as a liberal Democrat, it should come as no surprise when he takes a stand for the separation of church and state. And when that man has been a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union and a fierce advocate of free speech, it shouldn't be a shocker when he acts to protect artistic expression that some consider outrageous or pornographic.
When the College of William and Mary's board last week decided to dump Nichol as president after less than three years, it seemed that a concerted campaign by hundreds of preternaturally perturbed alumni -- egged on by social conservatives in Virginia's House of Delegates -- had triumphed.
Finally, Nichol was to be punished for having removed the school's sacred Wren Cross from its place of honor in the campus chapel. Nichol had sought to make non-Christians more comfortable in a building regularly used for secular programs. (Never mind that Nichol compromised and allowed the cross to be put in a display case in a less prominent part of the chapel.)
Finally, he would be made to see that college approval of a traveling Sex Workers Art Show was beyond the pale. (Never mind that the performers regularly visit dozens of campuses without incident and that Nichol placed restrictions on the show that its organizers faced nowhere else on their national tour.)
So now the removal of the president plays out according to script. Students and faculty wail in protest, ginning up the melodrama in the way self-important academics know best: "They will come after my courses next," history professor LuAnn Homza told a crowd of students, winning a standing O. "They will come after the books you're allowed to buy and the courses you're allowed to take."
And the alumni who spent the past two years piling on with Web sites, petitions and lengthy reports bashing Nichol revel in their victory.
"The guy has shatteringly bad judgment," says Tom Lipscomb, a New York-based writer and college alumnus who wrote a detailed critique of Nichol's performance. (In a previous bit of agitation, in 2004, Lipscomb wrote widely in favor of the Swift Boat veterans who challenged John Kerry's Vietnam War record).
"He's not a good leader," Lipscomb said of Nichol. "He was trying to impose his personal vision of a modern college without consultation."
And then Lipscomb says this of Nichol: "He did it because he thought he was right."
"I'm not the kind of person who checks his opinions or his pen at the campus wall," Nichol said back in 2005, before taking the job in Williamsburg. "I never have been, and they know that."
The board that hired Nichol knew -- or at least should have known -- what it was buying. As a constitutional law professor, dean and political candidate, Nichol looked for ways to engage the public and draw clear lines. The Wren Cross and sex show controversies were entirely predictable.
So was Nichol's reaction when alumni and politicians geared up to tear him down. He would circle the wagons and prepare the counterattack. When Lipscomb's report called Nichol "an overweight and unkempt college president who is unlikely to build the kind of confidence wealthy donors need to have," there was no question that Nichol would charge ahead, focusing on diversifying the face of William and Mary's administrative ranks and extending 100 percent financial aid to students from low-income families.
In a searing letter of resignation, Nichol makes it clear that he is neither a subtle nor quiet man. He admits to moving "too swiftly" and without sufficient regard to process and tradition. His Wren Cross move was clumsy; he clearly failed to do the political spadework necessary to prevent widespread protests and the loss of major gifts that resulted.
But he also demonstrates an integrity too often lacking among college presidents: When the board offered him "substantial economic incentives" if he would go away without making noise about being sacked "on ideological grounds," Nichol refused to play along. He exposed the board's shameful offer.
That's not the act of a diplomat. But the school didn't hire a gentle ambassador. It went for a garrulous ex-quarterback with a litigator's love of confrontation. It got what it paid for -- a college president with a (gasp!) vision -- and lacked the spine to see where he might take it.
By Marc Fisher |
February 17, 2008; 10:39 AM ET
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