BOV Rector discusses Nichol’s resignation with The Flat Hat
February 12, 2008
p. Flat Hat: What did you think of President Nichol’s e-mail?
p. Powell: He begins his e-mail with three or four points that are about policy, not politics, and they are policy that the students care about, the faculty care about, but most importantly, so does the Board of Visitors. We are as deeply committed to the agenda on diversity as anybody, and we have no intention for those efforts to stall or not be advanced. We believe in civic engagement and internationalization in the Gateway program. I think we are even looking at putting it on stronger financial footing by coming up with an endowment for it. So a lot of the e-mail talks about progressive policies that I would say are College policies, not just the policies of one person.
p. FH: So the three to four policies he listed had nothing to do with the decision?
p. They did not have anything to do with our decision, and I think that is demonstrated by the fact that we are saying in our statement quite clearly that we actually embrace and commend him for them. We now need to continue to insist on and promote them. We never had a disagreement about the values of diversity at the College of William and Mary. The board itself developed the College’s first diversity statement last year. We’ve been celebrating and providing resources and support for the efforts to improve finding bigger pools of students of color and hiring more faculty. I personally have been involved at least one major decision about hiring somebody at this to improve our diversity base. It’s important for all of us—the students in particular—to understand that no one should expect any changes in those policies.
p. I know that there are ideologically-based criticisms of the president. Some of them are quite despicable personal attacks, and I mean that word sincerely. And I know that there are also unflinching supporters. I’ve tried to make clear for the better part of this year that the board will not make decisions premised on those kinds of considerations. We don’t believe our decision was based on his ideology, and we don’t believe our decision was based on his policies. And we don’t believe that the board somehow, being threatened or pressured by any element, was the source of the decision. And we know because we were there for the deliberations that those were not the basis [of the decision]. So, to the extent that there’s a suggestion that that’s all that happened here, that sells to board a little short, and it would be wrong for our students and our direct family to think that what’s running the school is some sort of struggle over politics or ideological considerations. That’s not true. …
p. FH: What was the board’s decision based on?
p. P: It was based principally on an objective and very thorough review of performance as an executive. The job of chief executive of an institution as big as William and Mary has many, many facets, and that’s why it has taken us so long and been so thorough. I think President Nichol in certain aspects is the best I’ve ever seen. I think his energy and enthusiasm and his standing with the faculty are A-plus and extraordinary. But being a public advocator and intellectual or a visionary is only one of the subsets of the total job. It’s also a job where the train has to run, and all kind of other things have to happen for this school to be successful. Those were the areas we most focused on. Recognizing and giving him credit for strength in the one dimension, we looked at strengths in other dimensions….
p. We looked at the challenges for William and Mary. The challenges are severe financially…. We found that the weaknesses we found in executive skills were costing us and were continue to cost us, and the efforts to try to find ways around those issues, working with him and working on structure, but regrettably at the end of the day we felt that we couldn’t make enough progress without making a change.
p. FH: What was the economic incentive Nichol referred to in his e-mail?
p. P: I’m not going to give the details, but it’s completely customary for the board and the chief executive to offer a transition package as a way of recognizing their service as a way to make the transition easy, graceful and dignified. I think that the board, particularly because we care about him personally, tried to put together what we thought was a very generous and gracious package, and he alludes to that slightly. However that’s interpreted as something more than what it was, and I’m not really at liberty to publicly explain the specifics, but it was basically a package that would allow him to transition from the position and hopefully find really rewarding and great future employment, which he deserves. But he doesn’t have to take it, and he chose not to.
p. FH: Do you think that he characterized it unfairly?
p. P: I don’t really want to get in direct dispute with anything he says. I will only say that it was not the board’s intention to censure him or unfairly restrict him. We were hopeful that we would work together toward a mutual, agreeable public explanation and in a manner that was harming the school as little as possible and harming him personally as little as possible. So, yes, we had that objective, but I don’t think that was censorship, I think that’s a responsible commitment for people to try to, as gracefully as they can, let the institution move forward. And to me there’s nothing whatsoever illicit inappropriate about attempting to do that. If the board didn’t try to do that, they’re not doing their job. He preferred this course.
p. FH: When did the board plan to release the decision?
p. P: There was no specific timetable for that. We hoped that the best course was for him to remain president through the end of his term.
p. FH: And you made the decision on Friday?
p. P: We’ve been discussing this for months of course. We reached our final view about this over the course of the last week, and as soon as we did we felt an obligation to let him know. We did let him know a day or so ago, and had hoped that we’d work through it.
p. FH: Was the BOV’s vote unanimous?
p. P: I think it’s fair to say that it was unanimous, yes.
p. FH: Why was Taylor Reveley chosen as the interim?
p. P: As you recall, Taylor was a finalist for the presidency himself. He’s an extraordinarily gifted leader or he wouldn’t have been in the final three a few years ago. Taylor has a remarkable history of outstanding executive and managerial skills….He has run the law school beautifully, and he knows the place. We don’t think it’s a time where we need to have a lot of confusion. We need a smooth transition. We need somebody who can go to work on day one, who could work with the students, the faculty, the vice presidents, the administration and the board. We had other possible candidates, but we ultimately believe he was the very, very best choice, and the fact is he’s somebody that can be more than just a caretaker—we don’t have the luxury at William and Mary to tread water. It’s a school that’s got challenges and needs to move forward….
p. FH: When will the search for a new president begin and how long will it take?
p. P: It’s essentially begun. We will not waste one second in beginning to organize it….It will take as long as it takes to get a powerful and important leader for this school….
p. FH: If Nichol had not made the decision in 2006 to remove the Wren cross, do you think there still would have been controversy and do you think we’d still be facing his resignation right now?
p. P: There have been other controversies. The cross doesn’t necessarily stand alone. Controversies are to be expected at any major university. The bigger question for executive leadership is when there are controversies, how do we get them handled? How do we get them quieted down and turned into positive energy and move the school forward? I would tell you that I think the pattern of things that concerned us would have been evident to us even if the cross had never happened because, even for a very long time, we have not thought the cross was a significant part of our concern. That’s why I tried to go out of my way in my statement to say that the compromise stands, and we are not entertaining [reversing] that decision. People can say [the cross] was the beginning of things, but a lot has happened in between, and I think even if it weren’t for the cross, this things would have come to a head a long time ago.