By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The president of the College of William and Mary resigned yesterday after being told over the weekend that his contract would not be renewed this summer.
Gene R. Nichol, whose resignation took effect immediately, sent a letter yesterday to the campus community saying that he had been the victim of a relentless and vicious campaign and that he had been offered money to not characterize his departure as a fight over ideology.
A statement by the Board of Visitors, the college's governing board, said it would be "flatly wrong" to say that the decision not to renew Nichol's contract was motivated by ideology or public controversy.
But many in the campus community said that Nichol pushed the school in liberal directions and repeatedly offended some conservative alumni and legislators.
"It sure looks a lot like old Virginia versus new Virginia," said Karin Wulf, associate professor of history and American studies.
Nichol took office at the public college in Williamsburg in 2005.
In October 2006, he angered many alumni with a decision to remove from permanent display the cross from the campus chapel that is used for religious and secular events. He said he wanted to keep church and state separate and to make the chapel welcoming to all.
But the decision angered some alumni and conservative activists across the country who said they thought he had taken political correctness to a ridiculous extreme; some stopped donating, and one multimillion-dollar gift was pulled back.
In the ensuing months, his decisions were scrutinized, and opponents were vocal. His call not to ban a sex-workers art show on campus, which he said was based on his belief in freedom of speech, horrified many alumni.
Last week, some members of the Virginia House of Delegates grilled several board members about that controversy.
Still, few expected such an abrupt end to Nichol's tenure. Hundreds of shocked students and professors protested on campus yesterday and planned day-long protests today.
"We have some alumni who can't accept that the William and Mary today is different than the William and Mary they attended," said junior Justin Reid, president of the school's NAACP chapter.
Nichol's opponents expressed relief. "He has been a disaster for the school in so many ways," alumna Karla Bruno said.
Supporters, including students, praised Nichols for making the campus more inclusive to minorities. Many said they admired his advocacy of a sweeping scholarship program covering all costs for students from low-income families.
Nichol said that during his tenure, classes became more racially diverse, the number of faculty members of color doubled and the percentage of low-income students increased substantially.
Rector Michael Powell, head of the board, said: "The board cares passionately about the same values Gene Nichol did, the policies that made the school more diverse and welcoming."
He said the difficult but unanimous vote was based on patterns of behavior and the question of whether Nichol's executive leadership skills could improve. It was not the controversies, Powell said, but how and whether they were resolved.
Nichol's contract was to have ended June 30.
In his open letter sent by e-mail to the William and Mary community, Nichol said that a series of changes he had made had set off "a committed, relentless, frequently untruthful and vicious campaign . . . waged against me, my wife and my daughters. It has been joined, occasionally, by members of the Virginia House of Delegates -- including last week's steps by the Privileges and Elections Committee to effectively threaten Board appointees if I were not fired."
He said that Sunday, after the school's Charter Day celebrations, the Board of Visitors offered him and his wife "substantial economic incentives if we would agree 'not to characterize [the contract decision] as based on ideological grounds' or make any other statement about my departure without their approval." He said they rejected that offer, calling it "censorship," and said the values of the college were not for sale.
It was "a very unfair characterization" for Nichol to say he was offered money to keep quiet, Powell said; it's customary for boards and chief executives to work out severance terms that minimize harm to each party involved. Powell said that Nichol called him about his resignation after Nichol had told his staff and less than an hour after he had sent his public statement.
Nichol will serve on the faculty of William and Mary's law school.
W. Taylor Reveley III, dean of the law school, will immediately begin serving as president of the college, and the board will begin searching for a permanent replacement for Nichol.