Nichol presidency: Still open to debate on and off campus

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November 4, 2008

12:31 AM

Gene Nichol’s controversial tenure as president of the College of William and Mary has ended, but it remains painfully clear that the controversy is far from over.

Two articles recently published in the William and Mary Law Review analyzed the Wren cross issue from a legal perspective, one siding with Nichol’s decision and the other opposing it. Both articles conclude that although the Wren cross debate became national news because of the always-interesting clash between church and state, it would not set any legal precedent. One of the authors, University of California-Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, told The Flat Hat that “the controversy is a powerful reminder that there are many who do not believe in a wall separating church and state.”

Then there’s Nichol himself, who, despite declining multiple interview requests from The Flat Hat, doesn’t seem too shy about sounding off from his quiet exile in Chapel Hill, N.C. In the most recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nichol wrote a book review that referenced his time at the College, including statements on the negative campaign mounted against him. “I’ve seen at close hand the impact that battling bloggers, right-wing donors, fevered Fox News firebrands, demagogic legislators and trustees unschooled in and uncommitted to the core values of a university can have upon a presidency and an institution,” he wrote. “They are nothing to scoff at.”

Following these stories, the debate continued on The Flat Hat’s website, as supporters and critics of Nichol returned to their former perches, trading barbs like it was 2007. Even former ShouldNicholBeRenewed.org spokesman Jim Jones ’82 made an appearance.

Why are people still talking about this? Because there’s still a lot to be said.
Let’s rewind to November of 2007. Gene Nichol is in serious trouble. The Wren Cross issue continues to snowball after an e-mail sent to Nichol from his predecessor, Timothy J. Sullivan ’66, seems to indicate that Nichol knew of James McGlothlin’s ’62 J.D. ’64 intention to revoke a $12 million pledge to the College. The major implication of this e-mail is the possibility that Nichol had announced the successful completion of the Campaign for William & Mary’s $500 million goal in February knowing that McGlothlin’s decision would put the College below that plateau. There are voices from the blogosphere and conservative campus publications calling him a liar and demanding his resignation.

On Nov. 15, the five members of The Flat Hat’s editorial board, myself included, meet with Nichol in an upstairs room of his office in the Brafferton. We are desperately trying to get to the bottom of the story, knowing that we shouldn’t jump the gun before all the information becomes available, as many others did. Nichol seems tired, distraught and angry all at the same time, and it is a very emotional meeting. He explains to us that he had not understood Sullivan’s e-mail, that he thought the former president was referring to a different pledge. He refuses to comment on his past relationship with McGlothlin, which we understand to be anything but amicable. He won’t say much about his relationship with Sullivan. The constitutional lawyer gives his best defense to the jury.

I can’t speak for the other four members of the editorial board at the time, but I knew right then that Nichol was on his way out. Worse still, I could tell that he also knew this. The personal attacks were certainly taking a toll on him, and he was doing his best to deflect them by spinning the cycle of events to his advantage. It was hard to know whom to believe.

The tragedy of the last two years was not what happened, but how it happened, and how the College has responded. The crisis was allowed to carry on for over a year. Many people hated Nichol and what he stood for, and used the Wren cross, the Sex Workers’ Art Show, and any other issue they could get their hands on — even his physical appearance — to belittle him. Nichol in turn left the campus with an incredibly harmful e-mail to students and faculty, one that hurled accusation and blame on almost everyone, but for the most part refused to acknowledge his own mistakes in causing and continuing the crisis.

The College has responded by sweeping everything under the rug. Taylor Reveley was quickly installed as the president of the College. For the purposes of fundraising and healing, they want everybody to forget about Nichol and his controversies.

But that won’t happen. As long as there is still interest in the Wren cross or the controversy it brewed, the College will not be able to simply move on and treat the whole incident as if it never occurred. As long as there are still articles being written in national publications, or books being authored that examine the politicization of higher education or the blurring of the line between church and state, the College’s name will always be brought up.

Until there is an impartial and comprehensive study of the events of the past several years, there will be many questions that remain unanswered, and many wounds that remain unhealed.

Alexander Ely is a senior at the College.

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