If history is any indication, controversy will follow Powell to retirement

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April 24, 2009

3:22 AM

When Michael Powell ’85 took the position of rector on the College of William and Mary’s Board of Visitors in 2006, perhaps he felt it would be a respite from his previous, highly visible and controversial position as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. This, however, was not to be the case. Midway through his tenure, he was thrust into the controversy regarding the BOV’s decision not to renew then-President Gene Nichol’s contract.

Powell is no stranger to this sort of tumult. Indeed, he probably felt it was business as usual when the Nichol conflict flared up. His life has been shaped by turbulent circumstances. Born in Alabama, he chose to follow the path of his father, Colin Powell, and joined the military.

After graduating from the College on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Scholarship, he was stationed in Germany. In 1987, his Jeep crashed during a training exercise, and he was thrown from the vehicle, which then landed on him and crushed his midsection. His injuries were very serious, and he could no longer actively serve in the military. After a stint as an expert advisor to the Department of Defense, he returned to school and took his life in a new direction.

He received a law degree from Georgetown University and worked as an attorney for a Los Angeles-based law firm followed by a year in the Justice Department anti-trust division. In 1997, Powell, a Republican, was appointed to the FCC by President Bill Clinton and was then given the chairmanship by President George W. Bush in 2001.

As the newly appointed chairman, Powell was immediately met with uproar. In 2004, the now infamous Super Bowl halftime show feauting Janet Jackson sparked public outrage and brought Powell into the spotlight. In March 2005, Powell left the FCC, and the following year he was made rector of the College.
I give you these details so we can better understand a man who has had a large impact on our institution, of which you may or may not have been aware. I, for one, had no idea our Powell was the son of Colin Powell. I do not think this ignorance is anyone’s fault.

It seems to me that the BOV’s job is to allow the College to function smoothly. If this is the case, it seems the only time we would pay attention to the institution would be when something went wrong. The fact that we have had very little reason to notice them until recently is perhaps a testament to their competency.

However, the fact that we don’t know the BOV very well has not impeded our ability to criticize them when they do come into view. I suggest that we understand the BOV and its members so we can evaluate the merit of our criticism. For instance, one popular narrative of the Nichol-BOV debacle is that Nichol was forced out because his liberal views clashed with those of the reactionary, right-wing BOV, led by Powell.

If we look at Powell’s credentials, one thing he is not is a right wing ideologue. He is a moderate Republican, moderate enough that a Democratic president felt it safe to appoint him to the FCC. During his time in public office, he was attacked from both sides of the political spectrum, a mark of a true moderate.

This calls into question the criticism leveled at him, leading me to ponder whether he was a better rector than we give him credit for. Either way, I do hope that after he steps down in July, he may get a break from unwelcome surprises and controversy.

E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]

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