WHEN THE FORMER DEAN of the School of Law at the University of North Carolina was hired as president of the College of William and Mary, I said to my wife (and I think these are my exact words): "I hope the guy doesn't wreck the place." I wish my hope could have been more hopeful -- and my prescience had turned out a little less prescient.
If you haven't been reading the papers closely lately, Gene Nichol has left the presidency of William and Mary, the second oldest college in America -- and left the school in disarray.
Nichol's tenure was marked by repeated controversies which began in earnest when he had a historic cross removed from Wren Chapel. While Nichol said that he intended to make the campus chapel "more welcoming to those of other faiths," the action was taken without consultation from the campus community. Nearly 20,000 alumni and students signed a petition seeking the cross's restoration to the structure, which has been used for religious services since 1732, at an institution that began as a Christian ministry.
Nichol also implemented the "Gateway Initiative" proposed by his predecessor, similar to UNC's Carolina Covenant, to increase socio-economic diversity. But he announced the program without obtaining the endorsement of the W&M's Board of Visitors or gaining sufficient funding to ensure its future.
Some advocates of free speech were disturbed as the Nichol administration instituted an anonymous "Bias Reporting System" in October 2007, harkening to the now generally discredited speech codes of the 1990s, in which vague accusations of speech bias against a laundry list of "conditions" (such as gender, race, sexual orientation and, curiously, pregnancy) could be reported and investigated.
Then came the student-fee funded performance of the Sex Workers' Art Show, which stopped by Duke recently to much less fanfare. Nichol declined to ban it because he didn't want to infringe on free speech. But the juxtaposition of an inert cross being offensive enough to be put away from sight while the public demonstration of the use of sex toys was not, seemed a little much for the non-nuanced.
The College of William and Mary's Board of Visitors, in not renewing Gene Nichol's contract, effectively fired him at the end of his first term. The Flat Hat, W&M's student newspaper, which just four months earlier called for his contract renewal, said the day after Nichol's contract wasn't renewed that the BOV has "done the right thing."
The BOV decision wasn't primarily about politics; it was about politicization -- for which Gene Nichol was primarily responsible.
During his tenure one donor revoked his $10 million to $12 million pledge, and numerous other alumni threatened to withdraw their support as well if Nichol was not removed. Meanwhile, other alumni and some current students are now threatening to withhold their financial support because he was removed. All this in the context of one the greatest challenges to the university being an endowment that was not up to par with its peer institutions.
If you think that what the Board of Visitors did in not renewing Gene Nichol's contract was the wrong thing, just look at what he did when his contract was not renewed: abruptly resigned rather than finishing his term. Adding to that, upon resigning he immediately sent out a defensive, accusatory and combative letter to the college's entire email list (faculty, staff, students and alumni) before the BOV could even respond to his resignation -- even though the head of BOV asked to him to give a chance to do so.
A patently self-serving move, this email guaranteed the divisions he helped create would be magnified. And, to add insult to injury, he will stay at the university -- talk about promoting the festering of a wound -- moving over to join his wife, Glenn George, on the law school faculty.
Undeniably, the W&M BOV made a mistake in regard to Gene Nichol, but it wasn't in unanimously voting to fire him. It was in unanimously voting to hire him in the first place. From his resume they should have seen that he is sincere and dedicated man better suited to be the head of the ACLU (a state chapter of which he once led) or a candidate for partisan political office (such as the senate seat for which he once ran.)
The College of William and Mary, which has survived the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and Great Depression, will also survive this debacle, and I hope somehow for the better.
And a final word, to the UNC Chancellor Search Committee: Please don't recommend Gene Nichol for the job if he applies. It was hard to write this column and I really don't want to do it again.
Gary D. Gaddy, a native Virginian, has great fondness for fine, old things, like the College of William and Mary.
A version of this article was published in the Chapel Hill Herald Thursday February 21, 2008.
Copyright 2008 Gary D. Gaddy