Trainwreck At William And Mary

As the twelve-year tenure of popular President Timothy Sullivan drew to a close in the Spring of 2005, the search for his successor was well underway. Under the direction of the Rector of the College’s governing Board of Visitors, Susan Magill, a political appointee whose day job was chief of staff for Virginia Senator John Warner, there were three finalists for the Presidency. Two of them were deans currently serving at the College, in education and law, and the dean of the law school at the University of North Carolina.

That was a tip off that something was drastically wrong with the search conducted by second- tier search firm Isaacson, Miller. If a management consultant is often derided as someone “who borrows your watch and then charges you to tell you what time it is,” a search firm that can come up with only one finalist for a position as President at a college like William and Mary who isn’t already on campus can’t be doing much of a job. And the idea of a dean in one of the most mediocre fields at any liberal arts college, education, being considered as head of a “public ivy” was bizarre. Magill was urged to cancel the search and hire another firm. She refused.

On of the search firm’s complicating factors was that Magill and her Board had insisted that the three finalists be exposed in a public beauty contest to the College students and faculty who would have a voice in the selection. The best candidates quite often prefer to keep their considerations of other professional options private so they can keep their options open. That obviously was no problem for two deans already at the College or the expansive Nichol, who was perfectly comfortable running for Congress and the Senate and treating the faculty and students of the College to a South Texas cornpone charm offensive.

Nichol was selected to serve beginning in July 2005. His position was difficult. Sullivan, his predecessor, had been an alum of William and Mary, married to an alumna, a Vietnam veteran, a Harvard law graduate, a high official under Virginia’s Governor Robb, a dean at the William and Mary’s Marshall-Wythe Law School, and both popular and effective as a fund raiser and for his ability to get appropriations from the Virginia legislature. Fortunately Sullivan supported Nichol’s candidacy. He had been Nichol’s boss when Nichol had been head of a Bill of Rights Center at the W&M law school.


But if Sullivan had been hardwired into the quirky world of Virginia power politics, Nichol was a Texan with an Oklahoma State undergraduate and a Texas law degree. He had bounced around a number of teaching positions and become Dean of the University of Colorado Law School. His tenure there was rocky indeed. In his spare time, Dean Nichol ran for the Democratic candidacies in the US Senate and the House and also tried to get the President of the University fired.

The Colorado Law School rankings, as compiled by US News and World Report, fell 12 points from 35 to 47 under Nichol’s administration. In other words it dropped by 1/3 of its ranking under his tenure – an extraordinary collapse over 7 years. As he left in 1996, Colorado Law School was under American Bar Association review for potential loss of their ABA accreditation, largely because of Nichol’s failure in raising the funds necessary to maintain the facilities and stature of the faculty.

When he became Dean of the Law School at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) things weren’t any better. Its rating fell from 21 to 29 for his tenure from 1999 to 2005. Once again a law school under Nichol dropped by 1/3 of its ranking upon his arrival. And the aftermath is even worse. Their current ranking is 36 for the year 2008 so it hasn’t reached the level it was before his arrival and neither has the University of Colorado Law School. His poor fundraising hurt both institutions severely as did his penchant for creating flashy new un-funded programs like the Poverty Center at Chapel Hill for his out-of-office buddy, multi-millionaire Senator John Edwards.

How anyone with a clear public record of this kind of failure in managing two premier educational institutions could ever emerge as a finalist, much less the chosen candidate for the presidency of a major college remains a mystery to everyone but Susan Magill and her Board of Visitors and the search firm they used.

Early in his second year at William and Mary, Nichol created a public relations disaster that slowly exposed his management deficiencies, and willingness to stretch the truth in pursuit of his personal agenda. It was beginning of the end for him. Nichol secretly had the cross removed from the altar of the Wren Chapel, the oldest College chapel in the nation.

William and Mary had followed the same policy as all the other colonial colleges with historic chapels. Yale, Columbia, Rutgers, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Brown had crosses in the chapels on permanent display, which could be removed or covered when requested. All these chapels were regarded as college assembly areas that could be used for secular or religious purposes of all kinds, from seders to political meetings.

Nichol claimed that he was responding to a groundswell of campus opinion that with the cross on the altar, the Wren Chapel was not a “welcoming” environment for many in the College community. That might very well have been true in this more secular age, but a Freedom of Information Act compliance coughed up by Nichol revealed only a single redacted letter, written by someone who was clearly a personal friend of Nichol’s who was looking forward to their next dinner together – clearly Nichol may have been responding to an “inner voice” but he was not responding to any “groundswell.”

Nichol then lied and claimed he had not received an invitation in time to debate conservative spokesman Dinesh D’Souza over the Wren cross issue; he lied and claimed he was out of town and could not be available for an O’Reilly Factor segment on the controversy, and was promptly ambushed on the day and time he was “not available” by a delighted O’Reilly producer, Porter Berry, and camera crew.
As the local and national media heated up and the internet caught fire, and student and alumni petitions were circulated for and against Nichol’s removal of the cross, Nichol hoisted more sail and blundered on.

The Wren cross controversy may have been national news but it wasn’t the only problem. President Nichol’s Dean of Arts and Sciences ran a kangaroo academic “review” of his philosophy department using a Chapel Hill crony of Nichol to “find” that the department should be in “receivership” and its head replaced by the retired head of the English Department. Apparently the philosophy department wasn’t “welcoming” enough either according to some anonymous former junior members. The “review” was made public without the mandated opportunity for the philosophy department faculty to consider and argue its conclusions in advance.

Nichol, who claimed to be a First Amendment advocate, instituted a wonderful new use for the internet at the College. He created a “bias reporting system” inviting various aggrieved members of the college community to email their anonymous complaints of all kinds, presumably from sexism and racism to whatever, directly to his administration, Then an acerbic letter from a distinguished member of the William and Mary Law faculty, William Van Alstyne, and a letter from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) made it too embarrassing to continue the anonymous route and Nichol’s Star Chamber had to quietly go out of business.

In the midst of all this, a “spontaneous” blank check petition was organized from supine members of the William and Mary faculty who supported any policy Nichol cared to implement regarding the Wren cross controversy without reservation. And the faculty senate refused to review the clearly illegal receivership protested by the philosophy department (which had not signed the petition).

Nichol was able to do all this because he had never stopped the charm offensive he had begun as a candidate. He never neglected an opportunity to be seen as a supporter of the students, showing up to help carry their luggage as they moved in or attending pep rallies and ball games. He was always ready to hug a student in a photo op. He wooed the faculty as well making all kinds of promises to redress their poor pay scale and housing that he was unable to keep. If he had been running for election by the faculty and student body, he would have done a great job. Unfortunately, Nichol misunderstood his position. He had not been elected by them in a popularity contest. Nichol’s fate rested in the hands of the Board of Visitors and the Commonwealth of Virginia who remained far more interested in the results of the man they had hired as an administrator.

In the meantime, Nichol turned his overstaffed, overpaid administration into flacks for his cult of personality. Michael Connolly, the new head of public relations, refused press inquiries and put out misleading stories that misrepresented everything from fundraising and applications success to a Wren Cross “compromise” to Nichol’s personal advantage. The “Alumni Association” in the midst of the greatest alumni debate on any William and Mary president in over 300 years, failed to include any indication of what was going on in its publications. And Nichol and his office and the Board of Visitors constantly evaded and hid from the press and alumni and public inquiry.

In the midst of all this controversy in March 2007, Nichol proudly, publicly (and conveniently) announced he had reached a major fundraising campaign goal of $500 million several months early, though he knew that the goal had been met only by counting a $12 million pledge that he knew had been withdrawn.

A few days later, industrialist alum James McGlothlin revealed he was responsible for the largest revoked gift in the College’s history, a $12 million grant, in December of 2006. That meant that the $500 million goal had not been met in March, and presumably, Nichol knew this in the preceding December.

Nichol immediately spun a lawyerly scheme that he had understandably thought (from McGlothlin’s December letter) that McGlothlin must have been revoking some future gift and he had misunderstood that it referred to the $12 million already committed and counted in the total.

It was a nice try and McGlothlin’s letter could have been misread. But alas for Nichol, who as a First Amendment advocate flatly refused any FOIA requests from the press to see any of the related correspondence as “privileged,” it turned out that McGlothlin had called Nichol six times in December and January trying to make sure Nichol understood that he was revoking the gift because of Nichol’s Wren cross action, and Nichol only returned the first call which did not get through and never made any other call or wrote correspondence to “clarify” his confusion about a rather consequential sum of money, preferring to report it in his total. It appeared Nichol was working overtime not to know rather than to clarify.

Worse still, it turned out Timothy Sullivan, the former president and Nichol’s supporter, had written an email to Nichol in December of 2006 about all this as well. Sullivan had received no response by email or phone and was now as dismayed with Nichol’s evasive performance as anyone.

By the summer of 2007, the Board of Visitors under a lackluster Rector, Michael Powell, tried to help its floundering President by limiting his duties to alumni relations and fundraising. These were unfortunately the single worst two areas for Nichol. All the rest of the President’s duties were now under the Provost and former Dean of the Faculty Geoffrey Feiss.

As time for renewal of Nichol’s three year contract expiring in June of 2008 approached, it was clear that the alumni were in full revolt and as Powell put it later “When your top 25 donors start dropping off, it gets your attention.” Fundraising had hit a rock as well.

There was a complicating factor. William and Mary has the oldest honor code in the United States. The official head of the Honor Code is the President of the College. It was now clear that there were ample grounds for claiming Nichol had lied repeatedly in the conduct of his official duties and his public financial reporting and as a head of a Virginia State educational institution giving cause for termination for gross malfeasance and lying in official statements.

Rector Powell called a meeting of the Board which took the easy way out and rather than fire Nichol for cause and possibly raise the bar for future presidents as well as creating a clear record for the College of what had happened under Nichol, decided to vaguely not renew Nichol’s contract with no particular grounds cited. Powell then tried to buy off Nichol with the usual hush money deal by which boards try to disguise their incompetence and facilitation by agreeing to shut up about the malfeasance of a popular CEO if he promises not to embarrass them by going public with his side of the story.

It didn’t work. In the midst of the negotiation with Powell, Nichol gleefully seized the opportunity to get the first headline and justly charge the Board with trying to pay him off and shut him up and resigned publicly on February 12, 2008. He risked nothing. His contract allowed him to revert to status as a tenured faculty member who could now bring his peculiar notion of ethics and First Amendment law back to William and Mary’s Marshall-Wythe Law School. He had been president for just over two and a half years.
While Powell ran around doing damage control in the resulting campus meltdown, Nichol proceeded to make things worse, talking to anyone who would listen about how he had been run off the campus of a cow college he had been too principled for by the “vicious” yahoos, Christers, and members of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. Since every journalist has space for yet another story of a “gallant college president fighting for principle,” Nichol just may be able to get enough traction to show up at some foundation as a martyr to the First Amendment. Maybe former Rector Susan Magill, whom he may have recommended for her Pew Foundation job, will throw him another rope.

In the meantime, Nichol has departed for Chapel Hill, back to the Law School he ruined as Dean, as a somewhat more humble law professor. And his place as president at The College of William and Mary has been taken temporarily by the able current Dean of the Marshall-Wythe Law School, while Michael Powell and his Board sit in the wreckage of Nichol’s presidency and think about what to do next.

Dartmouth alumni, fighting for a reasonable place at their own alma mater, should be heartened by the fact all this took place in just 16 months. And the principal agent of this rapid change was precisely those “outsiders” both Nichol and Powell and his Board consistently denied being influenced by: an aroused alumni in the age of the internet.

2 thoughts on “Trainwreck At William And Mary

  1. As a student at the college of William and Mary I couldn’t agree more. President Nichol behaved disgracefully, especially in the wake of the board’s decision to fire him. He did everything possible to stir up resentment among the teachers and student body and distrust the learning experience and daily life of students however possible.

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