Short Nerd Chief

William and Mary gives in to conservative critics, fires Nichol

Posted by Fred on February 12, 2008

Update: In the comments, Prof. Constance Pilkington, Chair of the Psychology Department at W&M, suggests shifting donations from the school to your department so as to continue to send a message, yet not hurt current students. This is a fair point.  Major-specific giving information is available on the W&M site (Arts & Sciences, Business Administration, Education, Law, Marine Science, Public Policy).

no_speechToday is a sad day for the College of William and Mary.  A coalition of conservative and Christian Right activists (most of whom are not alumni) and members of the Virginia General Assembly have successfully threatened, coerced and otherwise badgered the Board into forcing out College President Gene Nichol.  They did this because he had the audacity to say that non-Christian students should be treated the same as Christian ones, and because he refused to censor expression that the activists found offensive.  Many colleges have gone overboard with political correctness and speech codes, but now we see the opposite is no better – a decent and honorable administrator has been fired because he wouldn’t elevate Christianity to a superior position at a public university, and that’s just wrong.

Had Nichol been forced out because the educational mission of the institution was deteriorating that would be one thing.  But it hasn’t.  US News & World Report ranks the school 33rd overall, sixth among public universities and first among small public universities. Kiplinger’s ranked W&M the fourth-best value among public colleges, behind UNC and UVa. The Financial Times ranks the business school 40th nationally, and 71st in the world. None of these rankings have deteriorated under President Nichol.  Students remain as attracted by the school as ever, with Undergraduate applications topping 11,500 last year, up 6.2% overall and up 15% in-state.

No, Nichol is being forced out because he offended the wrong people, and refused to censor speech those people found offensive. That’s bad enough, but the eternally offended then tried to buy his silence, according to the soon to be ex-President:

I add only that, on Sunday, 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.

Unlike most of the people beating their chests over Gene Nichol, I am an alumnus of the College.  I’ve supported the school financially.  Not any more.  Not because I’m a big fan of Gene Nichol, but because an institution claiming to believe that “excellence in teaching is the key to unlocking intellectual and personal possibilities for students” has no business censoring discourse or foreclosing opportunities.  The College recently sponsored a speech by evangelical attack dog Jay Sekulow, who once argued that taxpayers had no right to challenge faith-based programs on constitutional grounds because “that’s part of the deal, part of being American. You can’t simply object because your portion of your tax dollars is going to something you really don’t like. It’s just not the way the system works.”  Apparently that’s not true if it’s the evangelicals who don’t like it.

Full text of Nichol’s email follows…

Dear Members of the William & Mary Community:

I was informed by the Rector on Sunday, after our Charter Day celebrations, that my contract will not be renewed in July. Appropriately, serving the College in the wake of such a decision is beyond my imagining. Accordingly, I have advised the Rector, and announce today, effective immediately, my resignation as president of the College of William & Mary. I return to the faculty of the school of law to resume teaching and writing.
I have made four decisions, or sets of decisions, during my tenure that have stirred ample controversy.

First, 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.

Second, I have refused, now on two occasions, to ban from the campus a program funded by our student-fee-based, and student-governed, speaker series. To stop the production because I found it offensive, or unappealing, would have violated both the First Amendment and the traditions of openness and inquiry that sustain great universities. It would have been a knowing, intentional denial of the constitutional rights of our students. It is perhaps worth recalling that my very first act as president of the College was to swear on oath not to do so.

Third, in my early months here, recognizing that we likely had fewer poor, or Pell eligible, students than any public university in America, and that our record was getting worse, I introduced an aggressive Gateway scholarship program for Virginians demonstrating the strongest financial need. Under its terms, resident students from families earning $40,000 a year or less have 100% of their need met, without loans. Gateway has increased our Pell eligible students by 20% in the past two years.

Fourth, from the outset of my presidency, I have made it clear that if the College is to reach its aspirations of leadership, it is essential that it become a more diverse, less homogeneous institution. In the past two and half years we have proceeded, with surprising success, to assure that is so. Our last two entering classes have been, by good measure, the most diverse in the College’s history. We have, in the past two and a half years, more than doubled our number of faculty members of color. And we have more effectively integrated the administrative leadership of William & Mary. It is no longer the case, as it was when I arrived, that we could host a leadership retreat inviting the 35 senior administrators of the College and see, around the table, no persons of color.

As the result of these decisions, the last sixteen months have been challenging ones for me and my family. 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.

It is fair to say that, over the course of the past year, I have, more than once, considered either resigning my post or abandoning the positions I have taken on these matters — which I believe crucial to the College’s future. But as I did so, I thought of other persons as well.
I thought of those students, staff, faculty, and alumni, not of the religious majority, who have told me of the power of even small steps, like the decision over display of the Wren Cross, to recognize that they, too, are full members of this inspiring community.
I have thought of those students, faculty, and staff who, in the past three years, have joined us with explicit hopes and assurances that the College could become more effectively opened to those of different races, backgrounds, and economic circumstances — and I have thought of my own unwillingness to voluntarily abandon their efforts, and their prospects, in mid-stream.

I have thought of faculty and staff members here who have, for decades, believed that the College has, unlike many of its competitors, failed to place the challenge of becoming an effectively diverse institution center stage — and who, as a result, have been strongly encouraged by the progress of the last two years.

I have thought of the students who define and personify the College’s belief in community, in service, in openness, in idealism — those who make William & Mary a unique repository of the American promise. And I have believed it unworthy, regardless of burden, to break our bonds of partnership.

And I have thought, perhaps most acutely, of my wife and three remarkable daughters. I’ve believed it vital to understand, with them, that though defeat may at times come, it is crucial not to surrender to the loud and the vitriolic and the angry — just because they are loud and vitriolic and angry. Recalling the old Methodist hymn that commands us “not to be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong,” nor “afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.” So I have sought not to yield. The Board’s decision, of course, changes that.

To my faculty colleagues, who have here created a distinctive culture of engaged, student-centered teaching and research, I will remember your strong and steadfast support until the end of my days.

To those staff members and alumni of this accomplished and heartening community, who have struggled to make the William & Mary of the future worthy of its distinctive past, I regret that I will no longer be part of that uplifting cause. But I have little doubt where the course of history lies.

And, finally, to the life-changing and soul-inspiring students of the College, the largest surprise of my professional life, those who have created in me a surpassing faith not only in an institution, but in a generation, I have not words to touch my affections. My belief in your promise has been the central and defining focus of my presidency. The too-quick ending of our work together is among the most profound and wrenching disappointments in my life. Your support, particularly of the past few weeks and days, will remain the strongest balm I’ve known. I am confident of the triumphs and contributions the future holds for women and men of such power and commitment.

I add only that, on Sunday, 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.

Mine, to be sure, has not been a perfect presidency. I have sometimes moved too swiftly, and perhaps paid insufficient attention to the processes and practices of a strong and complex university. A wiser leader would likely have done otherwise. But I have believed, and attempted to explain, from even before my arrival on the campus, that an emboldened future for the College of William & Mary requires wider horizons, more fully opened doors, a broader membership, and a more engaging clash of perspectives than the sometimes narrowed gauges of the past have allowed. I step down today believing it still.
I have also hoped that this noble College might one day claim not only Thomas Jefferson’s pedigree, but his political philosophy as well. It was Jefferson who argued for a “wall of separation between church and state” — putting all religious sects “on an equal footing.” He expressly rejected the claim that speech should be suppressed because “it might influence others to do evil,” insisting instead that “we have nothing to fear from the demoralizing reasonings of some if others are left free to demonstrate their errors.” And he averred powerfully that “worth and genius” should “be sought from every condition” of society.

The College of William & Mary is a singular place of invention, rigor, commitment, character, and heart. I have been proud that even in a short term we have engaged a marvelous new Chancellor, successfully concluded a hugely-promising capital campaign, secured surprising support for a cutting-edge school of education and other essential physical facilities, seen the most vibrant applicant pools in our history, fostered path-breaking achievements in undergraduate research, more potently internationalized our programs and opportunities, led the nation in an explosion of civic engagement, invigorated the fruitful marriage of athletics and academics, lifted the salaries of our lowest-paid employees, and even hosted a queen. None of this compares, though, to the magic and the inspiration of the people — young and older — who Glenn and I have come to know here. You will remain always and forever at the center of our hearts.

Go Tribe. And hark upon the gale.

Gene Nichol


5 Responses to “William and Mary gives in to conservative critics, fires Nichol”

  1. Concerned Alumnus said

    Boohoo. So sad. He was a failure in any way that matters for a college president.

  2. Sarah said

    I, too, am sad. Gene Nichol doesn’t deserve the vitriol and smear campaigns that have been leveled against him. As an alumna, my ongoing donation to the College (meager as it might be) will be suspended indefinitely – until the presidential search is completed and I feel secure that the good things that Gene Nichol started will not be thrown by the wayside.

  3. Fred said

    @Concerned Alumnus:

    A failure in what way? The job of a college president is to ensure that the college has students to teach, ensure that the college has resources with which to teach them, ensure that the college has faculty to do the teaching, and to ensure that the academic environment is open, allowing the free exchange of ideas.

    Undergraduate applications have continued to increase, setting another record last year. The College just wrapped a development campaign that raised over $500 million from alumni. The College continues to be highly ranked for both undergraduate and graduate educational programs. Nichols’ singular failure was his failure to recognize that he needed to appease James Dobson and Pat Robertson and their toadies in the General Assembly.

    Make no mistake – had Nichols not touched the Wren Cross, had he unilaterally rejected the Sex Workers Show, had he not attempted to make the College less white and less male, he’d still have a job. The College would be a lesser place for it, but he’d still be employed.

  4. C. Pilkington said

    As a faculty member at W&M, I urge people not to respond to this decision by electing to no longer donate to the College. To do so only hurts the current and future students and faculty at W&M, who largely support Nichol. Might I suggest that you donate directly to the department in which you majored (easily done on the donation page of the College’s website)? You would still be benefitting the heart of the university, but would take those funds out of the purview of the the BOV.

  5. wheezer said

    What a load of bull. William & Mary’s Board of Visitors is full of Democratic party donors and overwhelmingly liberal. They just appointed three more Democratic members making it even MORE liberal! So much for Gene Nichol delusional crap about being rail-roaded by a right wing conspiracy. He used his office to further his political agenda, was a poor leader (losing track of a $12,000,000 donation) and behaved like a spoiled child. That’s why he was fired: end of story.

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