A visit from the board
February 27, 2008
p. Over the course of three town hall meetings last Friday Board of Visitors Rector Michael Powell ’85 and other members of the BOV defended their decision not to renew former College President Gene Nichol’s contract and answered questions from staff, faculty and students.
p. “We tried … he tried,” Powell said of the breakdown that took place between the BOV and Nichol. “The failure’s ours too.”
Student leaders said they felt the BOV’s meetings represented an olive branch.
p. “They showed they really do care about the College,” Student Assembly Vice President Valerie Hopkins said. “I think a lot of students feel more certain of their decision.”
p. The decision not to renew Nichol’s contract, coupled with his sudden resignation announced via e-mail Feb. 5, generated a highly vocal protest movement on campus.
p. The BOV’s decision faced further scrutiny in light of the transitional package offered to Nichol, the resignation of BOV member Robert Blair ’68 — who revealed that the decision not to renew Nichol was not unanimous and contradicted statements made by Powell — and the perceived lack of transparency and communication with the campus community.
p. The three meetings took place consecutively in the University Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. The first meeting was for staff, followed by one for faculty and then students.
p. At the meeting with students, questions taken from online submissions were compiled into eight composite questions meant to address the general attitude of concerned students.
p. Powell and other BOV members declined to give specifics regarding the criterion used in determining Nichol’s renewal, but instead implied that, although Nichol was talented in creating ties with the student body and faculty, his skills as a fundraiser and manager were less than inspired.
p. “You can’t be perfect,” Powell said, in his assessment of Nichol’s presidency. “But it’s also not enough to say you can be A-plus on two-fifths of it, and have [low grades] on the rest.”
p. BOV Secretary Suzann Matthews ’71 agreed.
p. “The next president, as a package of skills, must be a fundraiser,” she said.
p. However, in smaller group meetings following the town hall meetings, Powell said that Nichol’s political leanings had a negligible effect on fundraising. He dismissed the withdrawal of a $12 million donation by James McGlothlin ’62. “Donors who have big money have big egos,” he said.
p. Powell’s repeated characterization of the BOV’s decision as unanimous was brought into question following Blair’s resignation.
p. In his announcement, Blair said that he and two other BOV members actively fought for Nichol’s renewal.
p. When asked if calling the decision unanimous complied with the College’s Honor Code, Powell, along with Matthews and Anita Poston J.D. ’74, apologized for any confusion that the characterization may have caused. Powell explained that governing boards often attempt to convey a decision as unanimous if it is believed that it may cause controversy. He was unaware that any other BOV member disagreed with the characterization until Blair’s resignation.
p. “[Blair] did not say ‘note my objection,’” BOV member John Charles Thomas said. In the meeting with faculty, Thomas described Blair’s e-mail as “nasty,” and said that he appeared to support characterizing the decision as unanimous when it became clear Nichol would not renewed.
p. A frequent theme of the many protests that took place in the wake of Nichol’s resignation was the belief that the voices of student and faculty had not been weighed during the decision-making process.
p. Powell said that there was no attempt to devalue the input of students, staff and faculty during the process but that the administration’s flawed “strategical [sic] operating planning process” may not have been as visible to those outside the BOV.
Powell added that he held meetings with various student groups in the months prior to Nichol’s resignation to discuss the former president’s performance, and that the BOV did consider the potential student reaction in their deliberations.
p. Later in the meeting, several BOV members said that students, faculty and staff would have input in the process of finding a new president. However, the prospect of getting a voting member representing students, staff or faculty does not appear likely, given that the process requires a governor’s appointment and the approval of the General Assembly.
p. In his Feb. 12 e-mail announcing his resignation, Nichol wrote that the BOV offered him and his wife “significant economic incentives” to not characterize their decision as based on ideology.
p. Many considered the nature of this offer as hush-money after Nichol himself referred to the proposed transition package as a potential act of censorship.
p. Powell detailed the specifics of the offer, saying that non-disclosed transitional or severance packages are common in business and college communities.
p. Included in Nichol’s proposed package was one year paid faculty leave with benefits, use of university housing through the summer, and a third, final investment of $10,000 into an account established by the BOV at the beginning of Nichol’s term. Had he accepted the agreement, the BOV would also have been contractually obligated not to disclose the reasons for his non-renewal.
p. According to Powell, at the time the offer was made, the BOV was counting on Nichol continuing to serve as president at least until a “mutually agreeable public announcement” had been made Powell added that the board had been concerned that if the decision was announced unexpectedly, the situation might have become less than amicable.
p. During the faculty meeting, Powell read an e-mail he sent to Nichol after notifying him that his contract would not be renewed.
p. In the e-mail, Powell offered to moderate the proposed transition package and urged Nichol to “talk with those you trust to give sound advice and give this the time you need to work it out.”
p. The limited communication in the aftermath of Nichol’s resignation was seen by many as a lack of transparency.
p. “We’re as transparent in a process like this that you can be,” Thomas said, when asked why the BOV had not disclosed information behind their decision. “We didn’t want to rip this man apart, tear him down.”
p. BOV member Kathy Hornsby ’79 said that Nichol was given the same privacy as any other College employee during a performance review.
p. Powell said that the legal constraints placed on the BOV in disclosing information regarding individual employees makes it difficult to reach the level of transparency desired by many on campus.
p. Powell’s closing remarks addressed the behavior and actions of Nichol’s highly vocal conservative critics.
p. “We don’t think they won,” Powell said, characterizing the actions of the General Assembly members who publicly attacked Nichol in recent weeks as “despicable.” He went on to say that he would not allow outside influence to impact BOV decisions.
p. Powell closed the meeting by promising the continuation of the Gateway Program and a commitment to diversity on campus.
p. Although the conclusion of each meeting was met with a round of applause, and several student leaders stated that they feel students obtained a greater understanding of the board, many in the audience made clear that they were not satisfied with the BOV’s answers.
p. Sociology Professor Kate Slevin called for Powell’s resignation at one point during the faculty meeting, saying that as rector he has “compromised his legitimacy.”
p. One graduate student said that she found the BOV’s language highly patronizing. Another student, Eric Newman ’10, pulled his shirt up toward the end of the meeting. The words “Wardrobe Malfunction” were written across his chest in reference to Powell’s former position as chairman of the FCC and the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show controversy involving Janet Jackson.
p. “I think the BOV did a good job addressing student concern,” Sarah Rojas ’10, a member of pro-Nichol group Tribe United, said, adding that she wished that the meeting had taken place sooner rather than later.
p. SA Sen. Devan Barber ’08, a leader of many of the student demonstrations that took place on campus in the days following Nichol’s resignation, described the meeting as a step in the right direction, but said that this should not be the end of communication between the student body and the BOV.
p. “There needs to be a more institutionalized means of communication,” Barber said. “I think students are dissatisfied we can’t get a more complete picture.”
p. Powell ultimately confirmed his accountability to the College.
p. “I’m accountable to the school,” Powell said in an interview with reporters following the meetings. “This can’t be a one-shot thing.”
p. Interim College President Taylor Reveley has been working since Nichol’s resignation to unite the campus. To that end, Reveley announced Monday he will hold an open meeting with students in the UC Commonwealth tomorrow at 7 p.m. to discuss the first two weeks of his presidency.