Although the mainstream media would have you believe he was a martyr to religious fundamentalists and moral Pecksniffs, Gene Nichol lost his job as president of the College of William and Mary in Virginia for only one reason: he was a lousy administrator who seemed not to be able to get it into his head that one of the main jobs of a college president is to raise money from alumni and others and thus to cultivate good public relations for the institution he represents. Nichol seemed to think that he had been hired by the college’s governing Board of Visitors in 2005 to thumb his nose at sundry traditionalists, and his in-your-face actions cost William and Mary at least one $12 million donation along with a great deal of good will among Virginia citizens toward the venerable and highly rated liberal-arts school.
Yes, William and Mary, located adjacent to the famous colonial-days tourist site in Williamsburg, Va., is a state-run institution, as Nichol never ceased reminding the many critics of his unilateral decision last November to remove a 70-year-old cross from the altar of the college’s historic Wren Chapel, which dates almost to the college’s founding in 1693. Like many quality state schools, William and Mary is highly dependent on private donations to cover its costs, especially since the state of Virginia has been steadily reducing its contribution to the college’s budget, cutting $3 million in 2007. Alumni and generous Virginia citizens are important stakeholders at William and Mary.
The cross, donated to the chapel by a William and Mary alumnus in 1931 and symbolizing William and Mary’s Anglican heritage, had been the subject of no known complaints by students. The Wren Chapel has been regularly used for non-Christian religious services as well as secular functions for several decades, and when non-Christians used the space, they simply removed the cross temporarily. Nichol decided, in the fall of 2006, without consulting anyone, that the cross violated the First Amendment’s ban on establishment of religion so he had it removed. After a huge uproar among students, alumni, and members of the Board of Visitors, Nichol allowed the return of the cross, although in a glass display case.
Then, in January, Nichol refused for the second time to take action to halt the appearance on campus – partially paid for by student fees subsidized by Virginia taxpayers – of the “Sex Workers’ Art Show.” Here is the student newspaper’s report on how William and Mary physics professor John Delos, speaking on behalf of a campus anti-rape group, described the sex workers’ “art” that was to appear on campus:
Delos argued that many of the performances are nothing more than pornography, citing one act in which a woman swings her breasts in a circular motion. [William and Mary student body president Zach] Pilchen defended the show and that performance specifically by revealing the act contained social commentary on materialism.
This time, Nichol invoked a different First Amendment provision to justify his decision, the free speech clause. To many, it looked as though Nichol was perfectly willing to suppress a token nod to religion in a historic setting but give the green light at taxpayer expense to an artistically dubious and certainly offensive stage production. So the Board of Visitors convened a meeting to examine Nichol’s administrative style and opted not to renew his contract.
As Mollie Ziegler of the Get Religion blog has pointed out, the mainstream media quickly turned Nichol into a victim of religious persecution by outside pressure groups. They were aided by a lugubrious and self-serving e-mail Nichol circulated on tendering his resignation, complaining that he had only been trying to help “religious minorities feel more meaningfully included” at William and Mary and that the sex show was in “the traditions of openness and inquiry that sustain great universities.” Nichol implied that he was being penalized by racist Virginians for trying to attract more minority students to William and Mary. A story in the Los Angeles Times called Nichol a “champion of civil liberties and Bill of Rights and declared: “The dispute underscores the deep divide over the role of religion in public institutions, and shows how an ideological firestorm can be sparked on a college campus.”
Actually, as Ziegler pointed out, the “firestorm” was actually over the way Nichol had handled his one-man civil liberties crusade. Although he probably had a valid constitutional point that a cross should not have been so prominently displayed at a state institution, sudden and high-handed sudden removal of a venerated object cost William and Mary a $12 million donation from an irate law-school alumnus. Furthermore, Nichol omitted the dropped pledge from a report to the board in February 2007 claiming that William and Mary had fully met its $500 million fundraising goal under his watch. Critics said the omission was deliberate and that Nichol covered up the revoked donation a second time in an e-mail that later became public (see this opinion piece in the student paper).
Whether or not Nichol deliberately deceived the William and Mary board, he was most certainly an administrative and public-relations disaster who fully deserved the vote of no-confidence he received. But judging from the obscene anti-board graffiti with which Nichol’s radical student supporters have been defacing campus buildings in the wake of his departure, he won’t be remembered that way.