Gene Nichol, the President of the College and William and Mary, resigned today in protest of a politically-motivated decision by the College’s Board of Visitors not to renew his contract. Michelle Malkin and other conservative commentators have seized on his resignation as “victory” and inaccurately characterized his departure as “disgraced.” The reality is quite different.
Nichol’s tenure aroused significant outcry among conservative lawmakers in Richmond, VA and conservative political operatives in Washington, DC. These external voices objected to Nichol’s presidency for two superficial and unfounded reasons:
1) Nichol’s decision to remove a Christian Cross from permanent display from in the College’s non-denominational Wren Chapel.
Nichol explained the decision was made “in order to help Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other religious minorities feel more meaningfully included as members of our broad community.” The cross continued to be available for display upon student request. Further, my conversations with several leaders of student-run Christian groups on campus revealed that that the cross’s removal was indeed not an issue.
But while the cross was eventually returned at the decision of an independent committee, a lawsuit calling for a reversal of Nichol’s decision was dismissed by a federal court. Indicative of the entirely political nature of the attacks on Nichol’s Wren Cross decision is the fact that this “Save the Wren Cross” campaign was led by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s policy director.
2) Nichol refused to bar a student-funded and run organization from hosting the “Sex Workers Art Show.”
While Nichol expressed personal disapproval of the event, he argued the students must be allowed, on First Amendment grounds, to proceed with their student-funded event. The Rector of the College, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, did not object to Nichol’s justification. Malkin suggests that critics of the event were silenced, but a number of vocal protestors from the campus and community were allowed to assemble outside the two sold-out performances.
Further, all three local nightly news broadcasts covered the event, and a number of op-eds objecting to the event were published both the campus and community press. Malkin’s conspiracy theories aside, the bar on video and still photography during the event is a common condition placed on many performances on William and Mary’s campus.
It’s unclear what truly motivated the attacks on Nichol. His efforts to diversify the College economically and ethnically — and his past as a Democratic candidate for Senate in 1996 — have roiled some conservatives outside of campus. Yet Nichol has enjoyed strong support among students, many of whom can be seen across campus sporting “I [Heart] Nichol” pins attached to their bags and “Renew Nichol” stickers on their notebooks. Others are wearing t-shirts declaring, “If President Nichol’s Not Welcome Here Than Neither Am I.”
Despite this support, the Board of Visitors headed by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell voted — in secret — against renewing Nichol’s contract. Further, the board offered — and Nichol refused to accept — “substantial economic incentives if [he] would agree ‘not to characterize [the non-renewal decision] as based on ideological grounds’ or make any other statement about [his] departure without their approval.” In unsuccessfully attempting to buy Nichol’s silence, the Board ensured that Nichol’s departure would indeed be remembered ever more vividly as a disgrace. The real disgrace, however, belongs to the Board, not Nichol.
Read Nichol’s resignation letter in its entirety HERE.
— Ryan Powers is a former intern of the Center for American Progress and a senior at the College of William and Mary.
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