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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."

Precisely.

"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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Comments

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Marc, I realize that, as a reporter, you need to be fair and judicious to people across the political spectrum. However, I also think you should be honest; when one side is lying, you should just say it.

Case in point: "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."

Let's be clear: If, by "challenged", you meant "lied about and distorted", then sure, that's fine. But, I looked up "challenged" in the dictionary and "lied about" and "distorted" were not synonyms. As we all know, the Swift Boat Veterans did not "challenge" so much as distort, lie about, and pretend their way to a completely different story about John Kerry's Vietnam War record.

Please be honest in the future. Your columns, of all places, should be somewhere where you can cut through all the bull-crap -- not create more of it.

Posted by: Ryan | February 17, 2008 12:05 PM

Conservative Christians upset over the sex worker's exhibit are kind of like Jesus' followers who got upset when he hung around with a prostitute.

Posted by: webg | February 17, 2008 12:48 PM

In three years he: dismantled a recognized icon of the university, invited sex workers to perform on campus, and caused donations from alumni to plummet.

That's some vision. It sounds like he was doing an awesome job.

Posted by: sa | February 17, 2008 1:39 PM

Maybe they can get George Allen. They sound like they like his kind of Virginia.

Hey W & M, drag yourself into the 21st century. Welcome to America and the real world.

Disgraceful.

Posted by: Lauren M | February 17, 2008 3:55 PM

Hi Mr. Fisher and his readers,

I'm the William and Mary professor with the alleged taste for melodrama whom you've quoted in your 2/17/08 column: thank you for accurately reporting my remarks, which I voiced at the campus's Commonwealth Auditorium on 2/13. Unfortunately, we have no reason to believe that the small proportion of alumni (along with "outside" agitators) who've attacked President Nichol for the last two years has any intention of quitting their campaign now. And considering their remarkably narrow interpretation of what the College of William and Mary should be -- and their apparent inability to grasp historical change -- our courses, books, and assignments may be next on their list of targets.

Posted by: Lu Ann Homza | February 17, 2008 3:55 PM

this whole episode makes William & Mary look like a 3rd rate backwater school, not a quality, semi-elite institution of higher education... had I graduated from there I'd just think that my degree &c. had just been devalued greatly ... all in all a pretty embarrassing display from an institution supposedly devoted to inquiry of different points of view, higher learning, liberal arts, etc.

It all smacks of a narrowminded and fearful community, not a pretty sight.

Posted by: fendertweed | February 17, 2008 4:29 PM

Hey, Marc, after your previous blog/column bashing the social workers in D.C., what do you think of the recent article in the Post on caseload and danger issues? http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/16/AR2008021602306.html?hpid=sec-metro

The article was, unfortunately, rather shallowly investigated. Much more could have been written about the problems caseworkers encounter. Instead, people like you just climb on top of their backs and bash them for not being able to do the impossible. Is it any surprise that morale goes down when 6 people get fired for not doing the impossible? What an awful job! Is it any surprise that 5 years is considered a long time to be a caseworker? Marc, your column did not help matters and I hope that you re-think your knee-jerk response to the murders of those children by the mother -- by reassigning blame to the person who did the murdering.

Posted by: Ryan | February 17, 2008 4:43 PM

Hey, Ryan: Did you know you could leave comments on the specific article you're writing about, rather than whatever article happens to be the most recent?

Oh, and too bad for William and Mary that they lost a leader AND some funding.

I guess their obvious willingness to be bought tools of some regressive hacks might affect the quality of their future prospective students. A shame all around, to be sure.

Posted by: Mark | February 17, 2008 4:56 PM

As an alum who was down there for the transition from Timmy Sullivan to Nichol, I can tell you that Nichol's predecessor was just as principled without the deaf ear that brought the latter down.

Posted by: Stephen Braunlich | February 17, 2008 5:18 PM

Bringing up the swift boaters claims only tell half the story.

Why hasn't Kerry released his full military records? As he promised. Even someone who scored lower than Bush at Yale should be able to figure out how to put this to rest once and for all.

If the good senator would be so kind to release his full records, we could all sleep better tonight.

But he won't - that is for sure.

What are you hiding Kerry? I would think you would leap at the chance to display your heroic record for all to see.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 17, 2008 6:04 PM

What would you expect in Virginia?

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | February 17, 2008 6:28 PM

What's the problem with firing a president whose actions directly lead to the loss of many dollars for the University? The most important part of his job is raising money. Sounds like he majorly screwed that up.

Posted by: George Smith | February 17, 2008 7:28 PM

As an alum, I must say that I don't feel my degree has been devalued in the least. It seems there has always been a disconnect between the students & professors and the administration. Nichol did a commendable job of bringing the two groups closer together. Timmy, while an institution, didn't make the headway Nichol did, but wisely, he was more in tune with the political nature of his job. Please don't let the actions of the BOV and a select group of alums fool you into thinking the student body and professors aren't top notch and forward thinking. Hopefully, it will stay that way.

Posted by: WMAlum 03 | February 17, 2008 9:17 PM

Nichol is just on the wrong side of the political spectrum. No one has criticized the George Mason law school for accepting a $1 million grant from the National Rifle Association to fund the Patrick Henry professorship on constitutional law and the Second Amendment. The "gun scholar" who occupies that position has the benefit of knowing where his research will take him before he starts it.

Posted by: esch | February 17, 2008 9:41 PM

I don't feel my William and Mary master's degree is devalued because the date is 1977-not 2008 or later. At this point, however, I find it odd that William and Mary, once an institution where revolutionaries studied and taught, can't move into the present day. I'm disgusted by trustees who are so spineless as to cave in to political pressure from a bunch of people proudly entrenched in the 17th century--and then try to get others to lie to cover their lack of integrity.

Posted by: wmalum77 | February 17, 2008 10:52 PM

I'm sure the various fulminators in this comment thread would be equally outraged were a "conservative" (i.e., not left-wing enough) college president to be removed after pressure from, say, the faculty and various student groups. Or, would that be a courageous act of standing up to authority, rather than "cav[ing] to political pressure?"

Posted by: Jay | February 18, 2008 1:16 AM

I hate how most of us W&M alumni who opposed Nichol all get lumped into with those "proudly entrenched in the 17th century." When it comes to the Wren cross a number of us couldn't care less about the cross itself, but are upset about how autocratic Nichol dealt with the issue from the outset. Marc Fisher correctly points out that it was "clumsy" not to engage other stakeholders in the cross debate (i.e. the alumni in particular). As a politcal progressive, I strongly reject the "my way or the highway" approach that Nichol seemed to have adhered to in the cross debate. Moreover, while I greatly appreciate Nichol's attempts to diversify the campus and making everyone feel welcome (a process that was already well underway during President Sullivan's tenure), the Wren chapel cross hardly seems worth picking a fight over. Yes, the chapel is "regularly used for secular purposes," but let's not act as if the Wren chapel (or the Wren building itself) is a regular student hangout (only a few philosophy classes were taught in the Wren building when I attended in the early 90s).

Part of being a college president (or leader in general) is to be mindful of all the different interest groups that have to be kept satisfied or at least have to be informed or consulted. It's a difficult balancing act and not everyone will be happy all the time. Gene Nichol wasn't able to strike that balance. Before Gene Nichol became president, I regularly received updates from the college (President Sullivan in particular) informing the alumni about student achievements, opening of a new building, and other noteworthy accomplishments. The only thing I can remember hearing about W&M these past couple of years has been regarding all the silly ruckus about the Wren cross and now the sex show. Sadly all other worthwhile achievements that Nichol accomplished during his short tenure (for example, the aforementioned increase in diversity and the apparently very good rapport he had with most of the W&M students) all have been drowned out by what should have been peripheral matters if handled correctly. For the sake of my alma mater, I hope we are able to find a successor who takes a more diplomatic approach.

Posted by: Tribe95 | February 18, 2008 3:30 PM

Tribe95 rightly points out that some of Nichol's detractors have taken issue with how he did things, and not necessarily what he did, including the Wren Cross removal. In fairness, though, Nichol himself acknowledged--several weeks after the Wren Cross brouhaha began in October 2006 and numerous times since then--that he had moved too quickly and without adequate consultation. That December, he agreed to appoint a committee to study the issue and to develop a recommendation. In early 2007, that committee decided to return the Cross to Wren Chapel--not on the altar, but in a case with a plaque explaining its historical significance. So I'm not sure that characterizing Nichol's Wren Cross actions as "my way or the highway" is accurate. I suspect that had he had his way, the cross would be in the closet, where he wanted it in the first place. Was it a silly fight to pick? Probably. Should Nichol--18 months and many mea culpas later--still be getting clobbered over the head with the Wren Cross? One would hope that once a mistake is admitted and rectified, everyone would see the value in moving forward. Sadly, that has not been the case. Once the Wren Cross issue was "settled," Nichol's opponents moved on to more fertile ground--he (gasp!) allowed the students to host a sex worker show on campus (Note to the Presidents of VCU and George Mason, where the show was also held: Watch your backs.) You're correct, Tribe95, that these things (and more) distracted attention away from Nichol's achievements and cast the College in a negative light. It's too simple to lay the blame squarely on Nichol's shoulders though--because the voices that were drowning out the good emanating from Williamsburg were mainly those of his detractors, who apparently thought nothing of dumping on the College's reputation in their effort to get rid of him. Now that he's gone, one would have thought that we could finally move forward. Apparently not, if you believe the quote in today's Metro section from one disgruntled alum, who warned that Nichol's departure is just "the beginning."

Posted by: tribe fan | February 18, 2008 4:58 PM

This is a tempest in a teapot. Here's the story: a well-qualified man gets hired to do a demanding job and, while earnest and well-meaning, alienates many and doesn't measure up to the job he was hired to do. It happens every day and doesn't merit a column in anything other than the student newspaper.

Posted by: Tribe73 | February 19, 2008 12:30 PM

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