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Liberal Bites the Dust

The Reviews Are Mixed As College's Drama Wraps
President's Exit Prompts Anger, Relief
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008; B01

WILLIAMSBURG -- Of course it ended with a bang. Gene R. Nichol's abrupt resignation as president of the College of William and Mary last week was the dramatic end of a dramatic tenure, one marked by change and controversies, by idealism and skepticism, by fights over sex and religion and money.
On this historic campus, where magnolia trees drop shiny leaves on the worn brick paths, many say it was inevitable. The school, they say, got caught in the tug of war in a changing Virginia, the same cultural battles playing out in the General Assembly and in the Republican presidential primary last week.
Some say Nichol's departure came down to something much simpler: wrong guy for the job. Leading a university is a complex and demanding role, one that requires academic leadership, political savvy, fundraising skills, the ability to juggle numerous constituencies, financial know-how and a thick skin.
Whether he was forced out by wealthy donors, conservative alumni, politicians or his performance, one thing is certain: The campus has been changed by his presence. Nichol, who had been dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law and ran in the Colorado Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, is known for his charisma, his eloquence, his fierce commitment to free speech -- and his ability to polarize.
Nichol e-mailed a long letter to the campus Tuesday, writing that the rector had told him his three-year contract would not be renewed this summer and that "serving the college in the wake of such a decision is beyond my imagining." He resigned, effective immediately. And he said the board offered him money if he would agree to say that ideology was not the reason for his departure, an offer he refused as censorship.
Nichol's opponents, including some alumni, Republican state delegates and conservative activists, were relieved: In their view, the small public liberal arts school had been saved from a loose cannon pushing his liberal agenda and tearing down cherished traditions.
The school became an embarrassment, said senior Joe Luppino-Esposito, with the controversies Nichol caused overshadowing its strong academic reputation. The way Nichol resigned was typical, he said: putting his own agenda ahead of the good of the school by bolting mid-semester, sending out a bitter message and implying that the offer of a transition package was an attempt to buy silence.
Nichol's equally passionate supporters, including many students and faculty members, canceled classes and slipped homemade valentines under his door. He was a visionary leader, many said, pushing a recalcitrant Southern school into the future. He had worked to make the school more welcoming to people of all races, more affordable for low-income families, more fiercely protective of academic freedom.
"Students love him," said senior Trevor Albert, who had climbed a tree to look out over the hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more, students who crowded around Nichol's house Tuesday night to show support. "He opens up a lot of possibilities for students, opportunities for us to express ourselves."
Board members will come to Williamsburg this week to talk to the campus community. Rector Michael Powell, interim president W. Taylor Reveley III (who went to work Tuesday morning as the law school dean) and the provost all reaffirmed the school's commitment to increasing racial and economic diversity, internationalization, and civic engagement.
Nichol's energy, vision and ability to connect with faculty and students are among the best he has seen, Powell said. But it was as an executive that Nichol fell short, Powell said; despite evaluations and suggestions for improvement over many months, he simply didn't manage the institution as effectively as the board had hoped.
And once the controversies started, they didn't stop.
* * *
The problems really began at the symbolic heart of the campus, the 17th-century brick building that was the original home of the college. When Nichol decided to remove a cross from the chapel inside the Wren Building -- because the space was used for secular as well as religious events and, he said, he wanted it to be welcoming to all -- some alumni and students were furious.
Conservative Christians across the country took up the cause, and by the time a compromise was reached months later, Nichol was a favorite example of political correctness gone haywire.
Many faculty and students continued to support Nichol, admiring his outspoken advocacy of a diverse campus more reflective of Virginia today, his support for a scholarship program that covers the costs for students from low-income families and his friendly presence at everything from football games to Muslim Student Association events.
In summer 2005, when Nichol took over, there were 29 black faculty members, according to figures from the provost's office, and since then the school has hired 31 more. In the past two years, the number of students from families poor enough to qualify for Pell grants increased 20 percent.
He stepped up recruiting of students of color, said Earl Granger III, associate provost for enrollment, and the 5,700-person undergraduate population went from about 18 percent non-white up to 22 and 24 percent these past two years.
But the school lost a multimillion-dollar contribution over the Wren Building cross, and many of Nichol's critics say he misled people by announcing the successful completion of a fundraising campaign at a time when they say (and e-mails seemed to prove) he knew that the pledge had been revoked.
"That was unconscionable," alumna Karla Bruno said. "Why would anyone want a public liar as their president? At a school that has the oldest honor code in the country?"
Students and others jumped in, donating money to support Nichol and the school. The senior class raised nearly $130,000 this year, a record.
But students also invited a controversial performance to campus that brought more flak for Nichol when he declined to ban it because he didn't want to infringe on free speech. The "Sex Workers' Art Show" featured prostitutes and strippers performing and provoking discussion about their jobs. It was funded by students, but Nichol's critics were outraged.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Manassas) asked in a letter whether "turning the public property of the College into a bawdy house venue for pimps, prostitutes and dominatrix [was] part of his performance contract."
Nichol, who declined to be interviewed, saying his resignation letter spoke for itself, wrote that four decisions he made, including the scholarships and the push for greater diversity, had stoked a vicious campaign against him.
Those were things the board strongly supported, board member Jeff Trammell said. "We have a very diverse board, many of whom have been very active in progressive causes for years. . . . They are African American, white, women, men, Christian, Jewish, straight, gay."
The real issue was management, Trammell said. In Nichol's evaluation, "one of the things that came up frequently was that President Nichol, in his exuberance, would announce things without the follow-through behind them. Including funding."
Last week a Virginia House committee grilled several board members about Nichol and decisions he had made, including the sex workers' show.
"Though defeat may at times come," Nichol wrote, "it is crucial not to surrender to the loud and the vitriolic and the angry -- just because they are loud and vitriolic and the angry."
Reveley, the interim president, said there's a lot of emotion on campus, so he's reassuring people that the school's goals haven't changed even as he prepares to parachute into work with the General Assembly in a difficult budget year. "My main job right now is to bring people back together again," he said.
On campus, many said they're just glad all the controversies will finally stop. Or will they?
Some students made signs with such slogans as, "Our values are not for sale." They talked about fighting for freedom of expression.
And alumna Bruno said that with a new presidential search, "it's imperative that we keep our eyes on the board of visitors who hired Nichol in the first place.
"It's not over," she said. "People want to say it's over, but actually, this is the beginning."
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