I have watched over the past year or so as the Gene Nichol saga has played out at William and Mary. I won’t go through the many details and controversies, but a few comments of late cry out to be commented on.
At the heart of this situation are matters of academic freedom and the university relationship with its alums, the town, and its national reputation. In my estimation what is also at the heart of the matter is that Professor Nichols clearly does not have the political skills to serve as the president of a major university.
1. Moving the Wren Cross so as to encourage diversity. Nice idea, wrong technique. First, to do it without laying the ground work? Bad move. Had he sounded out community and alumna elements about moving this item that is both a Christian symbol and also a historic artifact of the college…maybe he could have pulled it of. But he didn’t.
A preferred course is that rather than keep it stowed away and brought out when requested, you do the reverse and allow groups using the facility in question to ask that the cross be stowed during their usage of the room. Same effect, different language, fewer problems and ill will.
1a. The school loses a multi-million dollar pledge/contribution over the matter, and Nichols tried to stonewall the matter and not cleanly admit the loss…that is not good leadership
2. The whole “Sex workers” exhibition thing. Did he really think folks would hear him say “diversity” and roll over? It doesn’t matter that it was student funded, use of university facilities has to be approved. For Nichols to say he allowed it because he did not want to hinder “free speech” is ridiculous. Freedom of speech protects us from government restrictions, and does not compel an educational institution to allow in any group possible.
3. Professor reaction…one professor suggests the next thing on the agenda is some type of restricting of classroom topics, saying “next they will come for our classes.” Very clever use of nazi resistance type language, but it still doesn’t cut the mustard. It is sheer muckraking hyperbole. There is nothing that has happened at William and Mary that even vaguely hints of restricting what professors want to teach.
4. When Nichol is told his contract will not be extended, he puts his maturity to the test and quits in mid year, claiming the Board of Visitors tried to buy him off and silence him into saying the removal was not about ideology. From what I can tell, it wasn’t…it was about competence, and Mr. Nichol has been found wanting. No matter who much he tries to denigrate those who removed him from his position, Mr. Nichol did not have what it takes…and it seems that it was not just about political and communication skills. No, given Mr. Nichol’s classless abandonment of his position, it seems there is a question of maturity, also.
Time for Mr. Nichol to go back to the classroom where he can rant and rave to his heart’s content, and leave the operation and administration of the grown-ups.
UPDATE: For an excellent and on the mark discussion of how and why the Nichol’s termination reached far beyond the high publicity events see this at Bacon’s Rebellion