Staff Editorial: A painful, proper decision

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February 15, 2008

6:20 AM

No college wishes for a week like this. No president rises each morning hoping to find his days numbered. No board looks forward to firing a man who won its highest praise only two years prior.

p. But today, this hardship is necessary. Painful as it is, the Board of Visitors was right not to renew College President Gene Nichol’s contract.

p. Months of discussion, independent research and outside input have proved one thing: Nichol’s executive failures and a pattern of mismanagement clearly indicate that he is no longer qualified for the job. Now comes the time for reconciliation — for moving on.

p. Two and a half years ago, Nichol swept onto campus with a presence almost too large to be allowed. His eloquence enraptured. His passion inspired. Without him, programs like the Gateway Initiative might still be a pleasant idea in search of funding, but today dozens of students have been granted an incredible opportunity to attend the College.

p. Just four months ago, we were calling for Nichol’s renewal.

p. But our opinion on Nichol evolved as we studied his presidency, with recent editorials expressing deep skepticism. His relationships with donors soured and serious ethical questions arose concerning whether he knowingly misrepresented fundraising figures. Controversy made Nichol himself the issue, and this has impeded his ability to lead effectively.

p. His decision to remove the Wren cross without prior consultation represented the most high-profile action in what became a pattern of unilateral policy-making. This pattern included decisions such as implementing multi-million dollar, though admittedly worthy, programs like the Gateway Initiative without consulting the governing board or securing consistent funding sources.

p. While we understand those who overlooked Nichol’s administrative missteps and admired him for his passion and energy, it is in the management of the College, its finances and its image that he was charged to lead, and it is in these areas that he failed.

p. The BOV resisted the temptation of an indefensible knee-jerk reaction, and instead deliberated for four ponderous months. The BOV reached out, seeking input via e-mail from those wishing to contribute to the debate.

p. What’s more, the BOV hired an independent consulting firm to assess the situation. That firm reached the same conclusion: As an executive, Nichol had performed poorly. A unanimous consensus from the board sealed his fate. The investigation was fair and its assessments were accurate. We may never know the extent to which ideological concerns were a factor in the decision not to renew Nichol, but it is clear that his administrative failures alone warrant the BOV’s decision. We hope those disillusioned with the outcome will, in time, come to agree.

p. The current vilification of the BOV is disheartening, but anticipated. Many of the attacks on the members’ characters and their decision are unfair. Most BOV members are Democrats, and all were either appointed or reappointed by Democratic governors. Many give considerable sums to liberal candidates’ campaigns. Despite what protesters have not-so-subtly intimated, the group is in no way a conservative cabal. Ideology, it appears, was not the driving factor.

p. Although we worry about the dangers of this mischaracterization of the board, we are far more concerned with the decision’s potential to foment further conflict between alumni and students. If one thing has been made abundantly clear in recent days and weeks, it’s that both groups possess a deep love for the College.

p. Continued dedication to the College is paramount. We admire the civility and passion of the demonstrators. However, student strikes, class cancellations and especially withheld donations do little to further any educational mission. The College has suffered enough during the year and a half leading up to this decision. If potential donors, including members of the senior class, harbor ideological concerns, contributing directly to programs like the Gateway Initiative will do more to promote the continuation of Nichol’s ideals than not donating.

p. The College will move on. We must remember that Nichol’s presidency represents just three out of 315 years of this institution’s history. A university that has survived the Civil War and Great Depression can likely endure this period of turmoil. We must come together and trust Interim President Taylor Reveley to steady the ship. United support from students, faculty and alumni will help bring the College through this troubled time.

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