The Ghost of Snapped Shot

Or, welcome to my low-maintenance heck.

VICTORY: Nichol Leaves William and Mary!

It was long enough in coming, but seems to be official now:

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 [Ed.:—"Program?" You mean A SEX SHOW?] 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.


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. [Ed.:—As a proud participant in the "vicious" campaign against Gene Nichol, I can comfortably say that said campaign has never attacked his wife and 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.

And so I shall—Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Gene!

Heh! It looks like Michelle will be dancing in the streets with me this evening. Hope y'all can make it, too! ;)

Interesting— James Atticus Bowden brings to light a letter from a somewhat perturbed Delegate Bob Marshall raising the question of whether or not Gene has been telling the truth regarding a significant donation that was withheld from the College due to his atrocious handling of the Wren Chapel Cross incident.

Delegate Marshall suggests that if, in fact, Gene was dishonest with the College on this matter, he should be terminated completely from his teaching position in the Law School.

Oof, that's gonna leave a mark.

More: Bacon's Rebellion, BizzyBlog, Ace of Spades, SW Virginia Law Blog, VLW Blog, The Friar, BVBL

Related: Lulz.

Wow, leave it up to the honourable Jim Bacon to get to the bottom of things. Here's what the Board of Visitors concluded, which lends a tremendous amount of support to my comment that Virginia doesn't exactly need "controversial" leaders:

Though Nichol was an inspiring and charismatic leader, Powell said, the president's job entails many less-glamorous duties such as operational planning, fundraising, community relations and crisis management, and Nichol had "meaningful weaknesses" in some of those areas.

All the controversy in the world and $0.50 still won't buy a cup of coffee these days.



#1 DJM 12-Feb-2008
Did he ever get around to firing the instructor teaching the 'Islam is Peace' course in between her volunteer work at abused women's shelters?

I didn't think so.
#2 Gabriel 13-Feb-2008
Showing the other side of opinion, here is the letter I wrote as an alumnus of the college to Rector Powell. Keep your politics off our campus, damn it!

Rector Powell,

I cannot be more disappointed with the boards choice to not renew President Nichol's contract. I notice there is no real detail given as to what these "number of problems" have been. As a recent graduate, I suspect that the main problem is the one that has frustrated many students and faculty in the past years -- William and Mary, while a school of proud history, has frequently found itself rooted in its past rather than emboldened by it. As is so often the case, change is not something won easily or swiftly, or without cost, but it is, without a doubt, worth the effort. President Nichol was making choices that were both just and necessary to reflect the needs of the community.

After talking with many other recent graduates that I remain close to, as is the way of William and Mary alumnae, many share my view that this action by the Board of Visitors was one of cowardice, not vision. I notice how little concern there was for Timmy J, the happy drunkard president, but a president who acts in some ways unfavorable to the old-boy old guard network in pursuit of a better future is viewed as a threat. We don't want a puppet in the president's office when instead we could have a leader.

As a member of the William and Mary community, I believe we should support a president who may be controversial, but is so in a way that is clearly justified, and is certainly also an inspiration and an activist working to build a more diverse, capable institution for the future rather than rest on the reputation of the past. Would that I had the time to write more eloquently and at greater length, but brevity has its own value, and I'm certain there are many others who are sending similar messages to you, so I add my voice to theirs.

Once again, I am disappointed by the actions of the William and Mary Board of Visitors. We expect better from you.
#3 Brian C. Ledbetter 13-Feb-2008

The College has a history that's far longer than your brief tenure there, and President Nichol did a [i]great[/i] disservice to that distinguished history by pulling the stunts that he did.

"Keep your politics off of [i]our[/i] campus?"

You seem to be missing the point—The College of William and Mary is [i]the Commonwealth's[/i] campus! It was built thanks to the efforts of our Virginian ancestors, and was chartered to remain a function of the Dominion in perpetuity—so it doesn't exactly "belong" to you, as meaningful as your transient stay there may have been.

Furthermore, the Cross that Gene Nichol so ineptly yanked from the Wren Chapel (which [i]is[/i] a Christian institution, by the way) was one that was donated to the college as the Corporation's efforts to restore the Wren Building's appearance to its historic state. In a sense, it was an effort to make the Wren Chapel a [i]living museum[/i], something that was blatantly disregarded by Nichol and his political-correctness police. By going through such efforts to "de-Christianise" the Chapel, Nichol clearly violated the wishes of those who built it, and those who paid dearly to [i]restore[/i] it to its former glory.

Personally, I think the Commonwealth of Virginia can do a [i]lot[/i] better than "controversial" leaders.

#4 Andrew M. 13-Feb-2008
For all I know, the Board of Visitors may have had awesome reasons to get rid of Nichol. Here are two not-so-good reasons:

1. The "Sex Show"

If you go to college, you have access to the Internet. If you are an upper/middle class college student in your late teens/early twenties, chances are that you are already familiar with pornography. I doubt that anyone who attended the program learned anything mindblowing or earthshattering about human sexuality. It is true that sexuality has become more visible in America; the question is "How do we deal with it?" I can't give a wholesale answer, but I'm not sure what is particularly objectionable about such a program, whatever its content, given that the audience has been steeped in information about sexual risks since childhood; most of them attended public school in Virginia after all.

Sexuality should be approached with caution, not fear. We have a responsibility to our children to educate them about sexuality, just like anything else that is potentially harmful. However, most WM students are legally adults! If irresponsible promiscuity is its own punishment, then we must have the courage to trust our young adults with their own destinies.

2. The Wren Cross

Judges 6:28-32, The Living Bible:

Early the next morning, as the city began to stir, someone discovered that the altar of Baal was knocked apart, the idol beside it was gone, and a new altar had been built instead, with the remains of a sacrifice on it.

"Who did this?" everyone demanded. Finally they learned that it was Gideon, the son of Joash.

"Bring out your son," they shouted to Joash. "He must die for insulting the altar of Baal, and for cutting down the Asherah idol."

But Joash retorted to the whole mob, "Does Baal need your help? What an insult to a god! You are the ones who should die for insulting Baal! If Baal is really a god, let him take care of himself and destroy the one who broke apart his altar!"

From then on Gideon was called "Jerubbaal", a nickname meaning "Let Baal take care of himself!"

Nichol is no Gideon, but this little story has many analogues with the Wren Cross controversy. Those who would object so strongly to the removal of an idol of bronze must worship a very small god indeed if they perceive it as a threat to their faith. Even in a crossless chapel (and indeed, the cross has only been on loan from Bruton Parish Church to the Wren building for about 60 years) the spirit of God could not be extinguished. After all, Yahweh is a man of war. If He can endure the destruction of two of His temples in Jerusalem, He doesn't need your help.

Also, big ups to Gabriel.
#5 Gabriel 13-Feb-2008

Rather than asking what makes your opinion count more than any other citizen/taxpayer, and certainly more than both a taxepayer and former student of the stated institution, I'm going to assume that you are innocent of blatant bias and make a case based on logic, and would invite you to do the same, in the pursuit of an open dialogue rather than the sort of partisan sniping that too often is the norm. Perhaps you will find that it is not the case of me "missing the point" but rather that I am arguing there is a more prevalent point that should be considered here.

The subtleties of this case have been conveniently under-, mis-, or un-represented by major media, which, given the short attention span of entertainment media consumers (thank you, Neil Postman) is not surprising but is lamentable.

Regarding the cross, it was at not at any point slated for permanent removal from the chapel, but rather moved to display case to make a clear separation between private Christian services (where the cross was intended to be retrieved) and secular uses of the space. Further, to my knowledge, none of the campus ministers disagreed with the removal to a display case of the cross and several of them in fact supported it as an effort to provide a place more welcoming to the student body, and I will be more than happy to refer you to several of them personally if you would like to confirm this statement.

For those unaware of William and Mary, the Wren building is an academic building (and yes, I have taken classes in it), it is where incoming students take their honor pledge (which is mandatory), and also, the chapel has been designated as a non-denominational place for quiet reflection when not in use. Further, prior to World War Two, there was no cross in the Wren chapel. It doesn’t take a legal scholar to see a potentially offensive link of forcing students of other faiths to take oaths under the auspices of a Christian icon. I make no claim of knowing your stance on the issue of the separation of Church and State, but William and Mary, as you clearly stated, is a public institution, not a private one. Adherents of any faith are welcome in any building of the campus, including the Wren building.

There is no functional difference between forcing students to take oaths in front of the cross than Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore refusing to remove the monument of the Ten Commandments from the state judicial rotunda, the main difference in fact being that the solution for the Wren cross is that it was not permanently removed, but rather on display, in museum-like fashion, except during times of specific worship, in which case it was restored to the alter. Again, Nichol acted to provide a more welcoming public space for the entire college community rather than show bias and in the process alienate groups of students. I believe this was the right thing (regardless of my belief as a Christian) to do because of the clear public function of the building.

Now, let’s briefly discuss the other “stunts”:

• Refusal to ban a student-organized, student-funded speaker-series.

This was not, as this site’s editor claims, “a Sex Show” – I’ll be glad to get any number of students who choose to attend this event to give you specifics first hand. Claiming bias doesn’t really work either, as those same student funds resulted in bringing Pat Buchanan to the campus to speak. No students were forced to attend, it was the free choice of adults. How about Columbia allowing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the college? Does that force anyone to attend? No, but it does, in the tradition of great education, engender dialogue.

• The Gateway scholarship program for Virginia Residents

Since the site above saw fit to not include the entirety of Nichol’s statement, I will include the deleted sections.

“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.”

This program is an effort at serving the Commonwealth of Virginia by providing education as a public good, not as a nicety for those who can afford it. I will assume that you would not protest this as a rational program, but will be glad to debate it in greater detail if need be.

• Increasing Diversity in Leadership

“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.”

Yes, the college DOES have a history far longer than either of our own lives, but do I really need to remind you of the days of Jefferson and others, who thought nothing of having slaves on campus to serve their needs? Further, if William & Mary is to produce outstanding young men and women to serve and excel in an increasingly diverse yet interconnected global market, it will be difficult to do so from a position of relative homogeny (and, should you debate that, I challenge you to look at the relative admissions data from even the past 20 years).

I respect your right to the belief that "the Commonwealth of Virginia can do a lot better than 'controversial' leaders". It is your right to prefer someone who won't rock the boat. I choose to disagree with you, but don't expect you to change your mind.


#6 Brian C. Ledbetter 13-Feb-2008

I've covered my take on the Wren Chapel incident in detail here, with followups here, here, and here. Rather than rehash what I've said before, I'll just present this to you as evidence that I've done my best to be "fair and balanced" about the entire issue (and still celebrate Gene's departure—though I'm not among those calling for him to be terminated from the College).

I have purposefully [i]not[/i] written about the "sex show" controversy, nor the Gateway scholarships, nor his "diversity in leadership" proposals, as none of those issues are of immediate interest to me. I tend to be more historically minded than those issues are,

Hope this helps clarify my position,

#7 Gabriel 14-Feb-2008

I'm sorry, I can't help but read "fair and balanced" and chuckle (referring to fox "news" not at your expense).

So from what it looks like, the biggest issue is that Nichol went against the wishes of some people giving money by moving the cross to a display case (consistent with a museum), except in cases of specific, Christian worship, in the attempt to be more inclusive of a diverse campus...

It's a piece of shiny metal. People attach meaning to it by their own choice. It's pretty clear that the motives are to follow the guidelines set by the bill of rights -- and this is the sort of thing that gets an otherwise outstanding president (see those other things he's done, that are demonstrably good choices) the door?

I'm just not sure why people can get so up in arms over such a tiny object, especially given the intentions and letter of the law -- but then again, that's been an issue of mine for most of the 20+ years I've lived in Virginia.
You celebrate Nichol's dismissal, I celebrated Jerry Falwell joining the choir invisible (open to some debate, but forgiveness is a good thing).
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