Nichol resigns, ending shortest presidency since Civil War

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February 15, 2008

6:54 AM

On February 10, the day after the College’s Charter Day celebrations, Board of Visitors Rector Michael Powell ’85 told College President Gene Nichol that his contract would not be renewed in June.

p. The BOV held its regular meeting at the College in the days prior, but emerged from its final session with no word on Nichol’s future, which had remained in question since The Flat Hat first reported Nichol’s October 2006 decision to remove the Wren Chapel cross from permanent display.

p. But it is clear that Powell and the BOV negotiated with Nichol Sunday, offering him financial incentive to leave the College at the end of his term and to do so quietly. Nichol declined the offer and resigned Tuesday, effective immediately, making his presidency the shortest since 1848, when Robert Saunders, Jr. stepped down after one year in office.

p. Tuesday morning, Nichol notified the College’s vice presidents, and then called Powell and told him that he was stepping down. Powell asked Nichol for time to draft a statement from the Board of Visitors. Nichol declined, and said that he was about to release his statement via e-mail to the student body. The e-mail was sent shortly after 9 a.m.

p. Neither Nichol nor the BOV would release the paperwork outlining the severance offer, but according to Nichol’s resignation e-mail Tuesday, it asked Nichol “not to characterize [the non-renewal decision] as based on ideological grounds.”

p. In the e-mail, Nichol said that the offer contained “a stipulation of censorship” that neither he nor his wife, Glenn George, could accept.

p. “It would have required that I make statements I believe to be untrue and that I believe most would find non-credible,” Nichol said. “I’ve said before that the values of the College are not for sale. Neither are ours.”

p. In an interview with The Flat Hat, Powell said that the offer was a customary “transition package.”

p. “I’m not really at liberty to publicly explain the specifics,” Powell said. “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.”

p. In his e-mail, Nichol attributed the controversy surrounding his tenure to four presidential decisions — his removal of the Wren cross, his refusal to ban the Sex Workers’ Art Show, his support of the College’s Gateway Program and his commitment to the diversity.

p. Powell released a short statement soon after Nichol’s e-mail, which announced that the board would appoint College Law School Dean Taylor Reveley in interim.

p. “The Board is cognizant that its decision will be deeply disappointing to many, especially members of our faculty and student body,” Powell said, referring to Nichol’s non-renewal. “Our sacred stewardship and full insight into the affairs of the College convinced us change was necessary to advance the best interests of the College. We understand the sense of loss and will work hard to heal all wounds.”

p. Within hours, a protest movement had materialized in the Sunken Garden, where over two hundred students, faculty and staff held a rally in support of Nichol.

p. Dean of Admissions Henry Broaddus and Provost Geoff Feiss were in attendance, and both expressed disappointment with the decision.

p. “I feel deeply the pain, and it’s terribly important that people have the opportunity to express that — their anger, their frustration,” Feiss said. “What we need to do is honor the things that Gene Nichol stood for.”

p. Feiss likened Nichol’s resignation to a death in the family.

p. At 10 p.m. that night, over 1,000 students gathered in front of the President’s house in support of Nichol, who greeted and spoke to the crowd.

p. “You have taught me much more than I have taught you,” Nichol said. “I cannot say how much it means to have you here in tremendous numbers.”

p. The protests continued Wednesday, with students holding a sit-in at the College’s University Center and many College faculty canceling classes and remaining on unofficial strike.

p. By then, protesting student and faculty were calling for BOV transparency. A student group called Honest WM created a petition protesting the BOV’s decision, criticizing the process that led to the non-renewal and requesting Powell to appear before the College community and answer student questions. The petition collected 900 student signatures.

p. The contact information of the BOV members had also been released over Facebook, and many students were calling and e-mailing members to question them about the decision.

p. Despite the BOV’s communication, there was no mistaking the anger of the student protestors, who continued their outcry yesterday, holding a teach-in at the Sunken Garden where faculty held small classes on subjects of their choosing.

p. Throughout Tuesday, Reveley was working on damage control, organizing his interim administration and asking the College to move forward.

p. “An alumnus of the law school sent me an e-mail, and he didn’t know whether this was a promotion, a civic duty or a sentence,” Reveley said. “I’m focusing on the civic duty dimension. I’m doing this because I think I can help the university get through a difficult period and do some good.”

p. Reveley also said he understood why so many students were upset about the decision.

p. “I think one reason we’re having so much reaction is people care so intensely about this place, particularly the students. I mean this really is your school. You care about it so you’re responding very vigorously to something that you either don’t understand or don’t like.”

p. The undergraduate faculty of arts and sciences also held a special meeting yesterday to discuss their response to the renewal.

p. At the meeting, the faculty passed a motion requesting Powell to visit the College and answer questions regarding his decision. A motion to submit a vote of no confidence for the BOV was delayed until the faculty’s next March meeting. The faculty also referred to the Faculty Affairs Committee a motion requesting the BOV to outline how they consider staff and student input in administrative decisions.

p. Many faculty were surprised to hear that the BOV had hired a consulting firm to assess Nichol’s presidency, and that they had — presumably — only interviewed three individual faculty members in the process. These three were Dean of Arts and Sciences Carl Strikwerda, Ball Professor of Law and President of the College’s Faculty Assembly Alan Meese and Chancellor Professor of Sociology Kate Slevin.

p. Jim Jones ’82, spokesperson for Should Nichol Be Renewed, said the group does not plan to continue on as an organization. The group criticized Nichol on a number of issues and had been urging the BOV to fire Nichol.

p. Student Assembly President Zach Pilchen ’09, who serves as student representative to the BOV, sent an e-mail to students yesterday saying that the SA had requested that Powell come to campus to answer student questions. The SA set up a website where questions can be submitted.

p. “[The BOV] made this decision in a closed room, and they only informed the president on Sunday — after he had already performed for them on Sunday,” Pilchen said. “It’s pretty shameful.”

p. “Students aren’t upset with William and Mary,” he added. “Students understand that William and Mary is more than 17 people who come here four times a year and make these omnipotent decisions about how William and Mary should run.”

p. Flat Hat News Editor Austin Wright contributed to this report.

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