Alumni | Trusteeship

William and Mary’s President Exits on His Own Terms

Gene R. Nichol calls it a clash over free speech; the board questions his management
CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  February 22, 2008 by Paul Fain

The president and governing board at the College of William and Mary have parted ways in an unusually public split with a deeply partisan undercurrent. Gene R. Nichol says that the Board of Visitors forced him out for defending free speech and diversity on the campus, and that he turned down a generous severance package to go quietly.

Board members blame weaknesses in Mr. Nichol’s management abilities for his resignation, which came two days after the board informed him that his contract would not be renewed. (The three-year contract was set to expire in June.)

Reactions to the departure varied. Hundreds of students and faculty members held a candlelight vigil outside Mr. Nichol’s home hours after his resignation was announced. Meanwhile, some alumni and conservative commentators praised the board’s action.

Mr. Nichol announced his immediate resignation in a remarkably blunt letter sent campuswide and to alumni on February 12. He says he was forced out for several decisions he made during his two and a half years at the public college in Williamsburg, Va. He cited his move in 2006 to remove a cross from permanent display in the college’s chapel and, more recently, to allow an art show featuring sex workers to visit the campus.

In the letter, Mr. Nichol, who is 56, says a “committed, relentless, frequently untruthful, and vicious campaign” had been waged against him and his family. He says state lawmakers had threatened appointees to the college’s Board of Visitors and demanded that he be fired.

“That campaign has now been rendered successful,” wrote Mr. Nichol, who was a law professor and dean at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before going to William and Mary in 2005.

He also says the board had offered him and his wife “substantial economic incentives” if he would agree to not blame his ouster on ideological motives.

Mr. Nichol, who declined further comment through a university spokesman, says the severance package he was offered would have required board approval for any statement he made about his departure.

In a written statement, the board said the decision not to renew Mr. Nichol’s contract “was not in any way based on ideology or any single public controversy.”

The board’s top official, Michael K. Powell, told The Chronicle that the contract was not renewed because of concerns about Mr. Nichol’s “executive management and leadership.”

Mr. Powell also says Mr. Nichol’s characterization of the severance discussion was “flatly wrong.” He says the board sought to work with Mr. Nichol to come up with a “mutually agreeable public explanation” for his resignation, an effort he says was intended to protect both the college and Mr. Nichol’s reputation.

“There is no animosity toward this man” among board members, says Mr. Powell, who is a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He says Mr. Nichol did not respond to the board’s severance-agreement offer.

“He chose never to have that conversation,” Mr. Powell says.

W. Taylor Reveley III, the law school’s dean, has been appointed interim president. Mr. Nichol, meanwhile, says he will join the faculty at William and Mary’s law school. His wife, Glenn George, is a law-school faculty member. A search for Mr. Nichol’s permanent replacement will begin immediately.

Stirring Controversy

Mr. Nichol earned the ire of conservatives on the Williamsburg campus and beyond with his decision in October 2006 to remove an 18-inch brass cross from the college’s Wren Chapel. The cross remained available upon request for use on the altar for religious services or other events. Mr. Nichol says he removed it from permanent display to make the chapel more welcoming to students of different faiths.

Some students and alumni were angry about his decision, however, arguing that the cross was part of William and Mary’s Christian past and should always be on display. The protest caught fire on the Internet, attracting bloggers and conservative commentators. It also led to a donor’s withdrawal of a $12-million pledge.

A committee created by Mr. Nichol came up with a compromise, under which the cross was returned to the chapel in a transparent case.

But partisan-tinged scrutiny continued to follow Mr. Nichol. In his letter, he said he had stirred controversy with his efforts to expand financial aid for lower-income students and to increase the number of students, faculty members, and administrators from minority groups.

It is unclear if those decisions were viewed unfavorably on the campus. His approach to the Sex Workers’ Art Show, however, certainly did draw complaints.

The show, which visited William and Mary on February 4 in the midst of a tour that includes at least a dozen other campuses, features what was billed as “an eye-popping evening of visual and performance art” by strippers, prostitutes, and other sex-industry workers.

After trying to have the student-sponsored show moved off campus, Mr. Nichol reluctantly agreed late last month to allow it, citing the First Amendment and academic freedom.

The show provoked rage among several state legislators, who aimed their criticism squarely at Mr. Nichol. “If any president of a college has put Virginia in a bad light, it’s Mr. Nichol,” Jeffrey M. Frederick, a Republican member of the House of Delegates, said, according to news reports. “Perhaps we should reconsider Mr. Nichol’s tenure.”

Lawmakers turned the screws on Mr. Nichol on February 7, when a committee of the House of Delegates made the extraordinary move of calling four recently appointed William and Mary board members to a meeting at the State Capitol. Members of the committee—which confirms appointments made by the governor, including to higher-education boards—grilled the board members about the art show and the cross controversy, according to news accounts, and pressed them to protect William and Mary’s reputation.

Robert M. O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, calls the lawmakers’ interrogation of board members “most unusual.”

Mr. O’Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia, says Mr. Nichol took the proper course in allowing the art show on the campus. A public-university chief may not “intervene on the basis of content,” he says, “unless there is clear evidence of illegal activity.”

As for the cross issue, Mr. O’Neil says that Mr. Nichol’s intentions “were wholly understandable,” but that with the removal of the cross, the Board of Visitors’ “concerns might have been heightened.”

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is active on academic-freedom issues, says Mr. Nichol made a unilateral decision to remove the cross. In a letter to Mr. Powell in January 2007, the council wrote that the president had “disregarded the opinions of thousands of concerned alumni.”

The group praised the board last week for considering alumni input in deciding not to renew Mr. Nichol’s contract.

“Good boards let presidents do their jobs—but also hold them accountable for their performance,” Anne D. Neal, the council’s president, said in a written statement. “That’s exactly what William and Mary’s board has done here.”

Large Personality

The board’s rector, Mr. Powell, says board members heard feedback from a broad range of constituents about Mr. Nichol’s performance.

“We took it all into account,” he says. “But this is not a public referendum.”

Mr. Powell acknowledges that some of the criticism was mean-spirited, and says personal attacks on Mr. Nichol and his family were “quite despicable.” But he says that the board had long ago blocked out those complaints, and that it was wrong to allege that the college “is a place that’s been taken over by fringe” interests.

Mr. Nichol was in many ways a strong president, according to Mr. Powell, who points to his enthusiasm, commitment to the faculty, and ability to connect with students.

“If that were all the job required, we had the best president in the nation,” Mr. Powell says.

But the board believed that Mr. Nichol had weaknesses. Mr. Powell would not describe specific problems but said the board felt Mr. Nichol lacked the “right suite of skills” to help the college reach its potential. He says the board and Mr. Nichol had discussed his perceived areas of insufficiency for some time.

“We were not confident anymore that these issues could be resolved,” Mr. Powell says.

Mr. Nichol does not fit the stereotype of either a crusading liberal or an aloof college president. A former football player at Oklahoma State University, he is both a large man and a large personality. His charisma made him popular on the campus but appears to have also been key to his undoing.

In his letter, Mr. Nichol says he had not been perfect as president.

“I have sometimes moved too swiftly and perhaps paid insufficient attention to the processes and practices of a strong and complex university,” he says. “A wiser leader would likely have done otherwise.”

Some faculty members planned to meet late last week to discuss Mr. Nichol’s ouster. Glenn D. Shean, a professor of psychology, says he and his colleagues were “were uniformly negative and angry.” He was particularly frustrated with the board, which he said was subject to the whims of off-campus forces.

“I think political pressure by wealthy, conservative alumni and state politicians were a big part of this,” says Mr. Shean.


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