Va. urges president resignation
For the past two weeks, protests, vandalisms, resignations, and two-day-long sit-ins have been the norm at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. On Feb. 12, the college’s president, Gene Nichol, resigned after he was told his contract would not be renewed over the summer. This decision regarding the contract was initiated by the Virginia House of Delegates, a group of conservative alumni, and members of the Board of Visitors, the college’s governing body.
Met with shock by students and faculty, the decision to not renew Nichol’s contract, and his subsequent resignation, have raised many questions as to the power of a small group of individuals in governing a university.
“The faculty is deeply troubled and a little disoriented,” said Jennifer Bickham Mendez, associate professor in the department of sociology at William and Mary.
Mendez has participated in the university demonstrations over the past two weeks, including the first held at the college on the day of Nichol’s resignation, when at least 1500 students turned up to protest the news.
Kate Tedesco, a junior English major at William and Mary, spoke on the campus environment over the past two weeks. She mentioned a two-day strike by both faculty and staff last Wednesday and Thursday, a vigil ceremony held in front of Nichol’s house the day of his resignation, and acts of vandalism on academic buildings last weekend that criticized the Board of Visitors for not renewing Nichol’s contract.
“My real issue with the situation is that Gene really prided himself on being a president for the students but when he found out his contract wasn’t being renewed he picked up and left us all in the dust,” Tedesco said.
The university’s student body president, Zach Pilchen, issued an e-mail statement to the college on the day of Nichol’s resignation.
“We are particularly ashamed of the way the Board of Visitors handled the situation,” Pilchen wrote, ending his e-mail with “As we said before: Gene Ray Nichol will always be our president.”
Rector Michael Powell, the head of the Board of Visitors, explained the reasoning behind not renewing Nichol’s contract after his three-year term in a Feb. 12 e-mail to the college.
“The Board believed there were a number of problems that were keeping the College from reaching its full potential and concluded that those issues could not be effectively remedied without a change in leadership,” he wrote.
The “issues” Powell speaks of include several campus controversies that occurred in the past three years of Nichol’s presidency. The first of these was the Wren Cross controversy, in which Nichol removed a Christian cross from the main room of the Wren Chapel on campus in an effort to accommodate other religions.
Nichol’s reluctance to ban controversial programs funded by students has also been a point of contention for the college. For the past three years, for example, Nichol has allowed a censored version of what is known as the “Sex Workers’ Art Show,” featuring monologues and performances by strippers, homosexual prostitutes, and other sex workers, to be shown at the school.
“It would have been a knowing, intentional denial of the constitutional rights of our students,” Nichol said in an e-mail to the college on the day of his resignation, regarding his move to not ban the show.
According to Tedesco, Nichol’s liberal policies have denied the school millions of dollars from alumni, who are generally more conservative.
However, the Board did applaud a few of Nichol’s policies.
They praised him for his efforts at diversifying the college through more varied applicant pools for student, faculty, and staff positions, as well as aggressive financial aid policies to accommodate needy students.
Yet the negative aspects of Nichol’s presidency outweighed the positive ones when the Board ultimately made the decision not to renew his contract.
The manner in which the Board made the decision was not without controversy itself. According to Mendez, the Board had hired a consulting firm to investigate Nichol, of which the faculty was not aware until Nichol’s resignation.
“The Board offered both me and my wife substantial economic incentives if we would agree ‘not to characterize [the decision] as based on ideological grounds’ or make any other statement about my departure without their approval,” Nichol wrote in the e-mail.
Nichol also wrote of the people behind this decision. According to Nichol, the Virginia House of Delegates had been threatening the Board about the security of their own appointments, based particularly on the Wren cross and sex show scandals.
As a public university, William and Mary’s campus is owned by the state and state funding is provided. However, as Mendez noted and according to university data, state funding accounts for only 17 percent of the university’s total funding.
Mendez also noted that a group of wealthy, conservative alumni had a considerable role in influencing Board opinions. She insisted that the issue was more than public-versus-private institutions and asked, “What’s the role of dollars in all this?”
Yet despite the small amount of funding it receives from the state, William and Mary remains a chartered public institution, with its board members appointed by the House of Delegates.
A private institution such as Carnegie Mellon cannot be directly influenced by the state. However, in a previous interview, Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon noted that the role of a university president may be becoming increasingly political.
“More boards are looking to people [for university presidents] who have experiences in state political and management roles,” Cohon said.
The controversy at William and Mary remains far from over. In light of Nichol’s resignation, a board member has resigned, faculty members have resigned from committees such as the diversity committee, and an interim president was immediately instated, to the surprise of the college community.