Controversy surrounds Gateway

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February 27, 2008

6:28 PM

The College’s Gateway program — which offers debt relief to low-income Virginia residents — has now become as much a source of controversy as it has of financial aid.

p. Former College President Gene Nichol says he was fired because of it. The BOV says that it’s a necessary program, but severely under-funded. Some even say that that Gateway is old news, part of the presidential initiative of Nichol’s predecessor, Timothy J. Sullivan.

p. But Gateway — in name and in practice — took off with Nichol. It is the idea that came before.

p. “Previous President Tim Sullivan was very concerned with the availability of financial aid and saw that we were lagging behind,” College Provost Geoff Feiss said. “He felt a new initiative would be appropriate and left with the ground[work] prepared and preliminary discussions that ultimately led to the Gateway Program.”

p. Gateway William and Mary, announced by Nichol Aug. 26, 2005, has received a lot of attention over the past few weeks. Gateway offers in-state students whose families’ income is below $40,000 a financial aid package free of student loans, allowing students to graduate from the College without the burden of debt.

p. Feiss also mentioned that three years ago, schools like the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina — which compete with the College for students — both announced similarly aggressive programs to provide additional financial aid to students of a low socioeconomic means.

p. Nichol expressed his commitment to the program within his first or second conversation with the provost, according to Feiss.

p. “Nichol was passionate about the cause from the start. He was first in his family to attend college, so that may be why it resonated so deeply with him,” Feiss said.

p. To secure the $4 million per year required to provide its benefits to 150 students in each class, the program will ultimately require an $80 million endowment. Nichol announced the program before consulting with the Board of Visitors and before an initiative to accrue the endowment was in place. Feiss explained Nichol’s reasoning.

p. “If we waited until the $80 million endowment was secure, it may have taken 10 years, and then it would be $150 million,” he said. “We identified the funding for the first and second years through allocation and new money. The president felt he could go out and raise the $80 million, particularly if Gateway was a demonstratively successful program.”

p. Despite initial controversy due to Nichol’s starting the program before securing funding, everyone in the College administration, including the BOV, supports the program.

p. “We’ve been learning a lot,” he said. “We’ve learned that the Gateway students do just as well here, succeeding at the same rate, with the same wherewithal and intellectual capacity.”
Law professor Alan Meese ’86, president of the Faculty Assembly, was a member of the FA when Gateway was announced in the summer of 2005.

p. “I do not know of any consultation of the Assembly before the creation of this $4 million program,” he said. From Meese’s perspective, “much of the opposition to Gateway has nothing to do with ideology but instead rests on a disagreement about how to spend the College’s very scarce resources.”

p. Despite criticisms of the program’s financing and the loss of Nichol as president, Feiss assured that Gateway is on track to meet its stated goal of providing 600 students with a debt-free education by 2012.

p. “It will certainly be a real project as we move forward,” he said. “But we have been able to maintain momentum and commitment.”

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