The Nichol Resignation Narrative Looks Weaker and Weaker

The Nichol controversy continues to bubble after the College of William & Mary president submitted his resignation Sunday. Faculty and students have held protests and vigils — Nichol, it seems, was a popular president. Meanwhile, the blogosphere is aflame with accusations that the firing represents a triumph of right-wing, Christian mullahs — a sentiment that Nichols inflamed with his claim that the Board of Visitors refused to renew his contract for, among other reasons, his removal of the cross from the Wren Chapel and his consent to allow a sex workers show to be held on the campus.

Nichol’s version of events is getting wide play because he’s the only one to speak openly about the reasons for his departure — he wrote a lengthy letter giving his side of the episode, blasting out a campus-wide e-mail describing his version of events. Other than to deny that it acted for “ideological” reasons, the Board of Visitors initially was circumspect. But details of Nichols’ termination are leaking out.
For starters, the Virginia Gazette reports that the Visitors’ decision not to renew Nichol’s contract was unanimous. That is significant because it is difficult to imagine that the Visitors would have been unanimous had the decision been based upon culture-war issues like church crosses and sex shows. To see why I say that, let’s see who the Visitors are. (I have included the gubernatorial administration in which they were first appointed):

Michael K. Powell, Rector, Fairfax Station; Warner
Henry C. Wolf, Vice Rector, Norfolk; Warner
Suzann W. Matthews, Secretary, McLean; Warner

Charles A. Banks, Gloucester; Kaine
Robert A. Blair, Washington, D.C.; Warner
Janet M. Brashear, Virginia Beach; Warner
Thomas E. Capps, Richmond; Warner
John Gerdelman, McLean; Warner
Sarah Gore, Newark, Del.; Warner
R. Philip Herget III, Alexandria; Warner
Kathy Hornsby, Williamsburg; Kaine
Jeffrey L. McWaters, Virginia Beach; Gilmore
Joseph J. Plumeri II, Scotch Plains, N.J.; Warner
Anita Poston, Norfolk; Warner
John Charles Thomas, Richmond; Kaine
Jeffery B. Trammell, Washington, D.C.; Warner
Barbara B. Ukrop, Richmond; Warner
Only one board member, Jeffrey McWaters, was appointed by Gov. Jim Gilmore, and he was reappointed by subsequent Democratic administrations. While this group very much represents the business, professional and government establishment — Michael Powell, the son of General Colin Powell, ran the Federal Communications Commission for several years — they all belong to the political mainstream, very much in line with Democratic governors Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine. Nary a right-wing, evangelical nut-job to be found among them.

After Nichol released his resignation statement via e-mail to the W&M campus, Rector Powell expanded slightly upon the statement that the Board had previously made. Reports Bill Geroux with the Times-Dispatch:

Though Nichol was an inspiring and charismatic leader, Powell said, the president’s job entails many less-glamorous duties such as operational planning, fundraising, community relations and crisis management, and Nichol had “meaningful weaknesses” in some of those areas.

The board had tried to work with Nichol to clear up those problems, Powell said, but Nichol’s contract was coming up for renewal, and “sometimes at the end of the day you can’t make a fit.”
Lending credence to Powell’s statment is a press release that the Board of Visitors issued on Sept. 28, 2007, regarding Nichols’ status at the university:

One of the most critical responsibilities of the Board is to evaluate the performance of its chief executive. Conscious of our duty, the Board has developed a structured, objective and thorough review process. The Board intends to abide by its established process before reaching any decision. Pursuant to the terms of the President’s contract, the review will examine achievements as measured against goals and objectives presented by the President to the Board as well as other metrics. Additionally, our appraisal will include a 360 degree review, which is a feature of the best appraisal systems. Once this process is complete and we discuss the matter with the President, a final decision will be made solely on the best interest of the College. That decision should be expected in the spring of 2008.

In other words, it has long been known that the Board has had concerns about Nichol’s operational performance, and it had developed an evaluation procedure that would be comprehensive, balanced and objective — a wise precaution, given Nichol’s volatile behavior.

Whose version of events, then, do we believe: Nichol’s or the Board’s?

Nichol listed four reasons for the termination of his contract: (1) removal of the Wren cross, (2) refusal to ban the sex workers art show, (3) implementation of the Gateway scholarship program, and (4) efforts to increase diversity and internationalization.

While the Wren cross issue was unquestionably controversial, Nichol does not describe exactly how it might have played a role in the BoV’s decision. He implies that the Board’s objection to his handling of the situation was ideological. We are expected to believe that on his say-so. But it is entirely possible that the Board disapproved of the action less than the decision-making process, and the lack of consultation, that was behind it.
The controversy over the sex workers art show popped up only in the past few weeks. There is no reason to think that it was a factor back on Sept. 28 when the BoV initiated its contract review process. The Visitors clearly were troubled by Nichol’s management style before the sex show controversy became a public spectacle.

As for the Gateway scholarship program and efforts to increase diversity and internationalization, Nichol presents no evidence whatsoever that the BoV had any problem with them. Indeed, according to the Daily Press, Powell stated that the university plans to continue many of Nichol’s policies, particularly the emphasis on increasing diversity at the school.

In other words, there is ample reason to believe that Nichol substantially mischaracterized the reasons for the BoV’s decision not to renew his contract. If that suspicion proves to be the case, then Nichol’s performance has been utterly hypocritical and contemptible. While taking on the mantle in his resignation letter of one who loves the College, he actually has defamed it by misrepresenting the cause of his resignation, portraying the institution as ruled, in effect, by mullahs and troglodytes, and resigning in such a way as to garner maximum attention — sending out a campus-wide e-mail with his tendentious version of the story.
Combine this behavior with the suggestion leveled by Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, that Nichol refused to yield important documents when presented with a Freedom of Information Act request (see “More to the Nichol Story at Wm & Mary“), and it looks like Nichol is neither someone who can be trusted with the truth nor someone who holds the interests of the College above his own.
The Visitors have been dignified and restrained in responding to Nichols’ calumnies. I wish they would go public with Nichol’s performance evaluation and detail his deficiencies as a college president. Of course, they can’t: They are bound to keep personnel matters confidential. Nichol knows that he can say anything he wants, and they cannot. But that does not mean the public has to suspend its critical judgment and believe him.
(Photo cutline: President Gene Nichol… Oops, sorry, that’s Nicholson, not Nichol.)

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  1. E M Risse Avatar

    Only when someone publishes the full transcript of The Vistors discussion of Niclols over the past year can anyone speculate about The Visitors views, including the true meaning of a unanimous vote.

    The larger question is why is this important other than a demonstation of the need for more Sunshine?


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    My, Jim Bacon has written and EXTRA, EXTRA-long apology. The fact that most of the BOVs were appointed by Democrats doesn’t somehow make this firing right. We still don’t have a good explanation for what happened and why. Quoting a TD reporter ad infinitum really doesn’t bring much to the party because he seems to be as clueless as the rest of us.

    So, JAB, why not look at money raised under Nichols vs. predecessors. Please give us something substantive. Just to say that, hey these guys were Democrats does not get anyone, even you, off the hook.

    Like it or no, W&M is a well-regarded school and the nation’s academia will look at Virginia with skepticism at the possibility that academic freedom and intellectual pursuit are open here only to those who don’t piss off the political poo-bahs. And yes, JAB, this DOES matter.

    Peter Galuszka

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    His name is Nichol. Not Nichols.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    why do I get this vision of the “thought police” bubbas rolling into town with a disptached beast with it’s tongue hanging out.. affixed to the hood of the vehicle?


  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 6:55, Thank you for calling to my attention my sloppy and inconsistent spelling. I have made the necessary corrections.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Leave it to The Washington Post for a moment of clarity on Gene Nichol.

    For days now, Bacons’ Rebellion, especially the Big Bacon himself, has been writing about the William & Mary chief’s forced resignation. I keep asking “Why?” I get lots of obfuscation from these right-wing scribblers.

    Now, the Post’s Metro page explains all. Nichol is a left-leaning Democrat, a constitutional lawyer who has strong ties to the ACLU. The former quarterback is a powerful proponent of individual rights and civil liberties. All of this was known when he was hired but it has sealed his doom.

    Assinine social conservatives in the General Assembly, applauded by their cheerleaders at Bacons Rebellion, have tried for months to build a case against him. Why? Because he’s a liberal.

    Now we learn that the right wing attorney general is going to vet all university presidents. I guess there will be some kind of Christian mullah convention in the AGs’ office so a Nichol can’t happened again.

    Peter Galuszka

  7. E M Risse Avatar

    Today’s (Mom 18 Feb) WaPo has a nice wrap-up.

    As a veteran and significant contributor to Berkeley FSM (Free Speech Movement) and the much more significat but un appreciated Missoula 1957-60 Bloodless (except for the administators :>)Revolution I can say without reservation that the ending of the WaPo story is right on.

    Those who think they have won something by getting rid of Nichol have been smoking something.


  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Mr Bacon

    The BOV’s silence on its Nichol-firing motives – whether voluntary or not – is not an affirmative reason to give the same BOV a broad benefit of the doubt. At least 3 relevant things are widely known: 1st, that Mr. Powell in his FCC chairman role was heavy-handed, to put it lightly, in enforcing just the kind of moral code that might well have been offended by removal of the Wren cross and toleration of the sew workers’ show; 2nd, that there were in fact a vocal group of alumni after Nichol’s hide after the Wren Chapel fracas; and 3rd, that conservatives in the Gen. Assembly did indeed grill some of Kaine’s BOV appointees about Nichol.

    Add it up and you have more than enough circumstantial evidence to make Nichol’s allegations believable.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    from Today’s
    A member of the board of the College of William & Mary has sent an unusually frank letter of resignation to student leaders, in which he calls into question the way board members made the decision not to renew the contract of Gene Nichol as president. In the letter, Robert Blair praises Nichol, particularly for his efforts to diversify the campus, and says that he and others argued to keep Nichol on as president. When he realized he was in the minority, Blair said he accepted the decision with disappointment and accepted the good faith of trustees with whom he disagreed. Wrote Blair in his message: “There has been an incipient effort by some members of the Board of Visitors to pick apart President Nichol’s accomplishments. To what end? They gained their stated objective. I have also seen mean-spirited communications that are not worthy of the professional deliberations of any managing board, but most especially not the Board of Visitors of William and Mary. Such communications call into question the real motivation for the initial decision not to renew the president’s contract.” A spokesman for the college said he had not seen the resignation letter and could not comment on it.

    Terry M.

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