The W&M Board Answers Its Critics

I was reading between the lines the other day when I drew some harsh conclusions about recently resigned William & Mary President Gene Nichol (see “The Nichol Resignation Narrative Is Looking Weaker and Weaker“). The charismatic but erratic college president had baldly misrepresented the circumstances of his resignation, I’d written, and in doing so had generated waves of negative headlines for the university he purported to love. He was not fired for ideological reasons, as he claimed, but for his failures as an administrator. I now feel totally vindicated in drawing those conclusions.

At last the W&M Board of Visitors has directly answered the falsehoods and misrepresentations that Nichol made in his resignation letter and has allowed his admirers to perpetuate. As Bill Geroux reports for the Times-Dispatch, “Board members insisted it was Nichol’s shortcomings as as a fundraiser and administrator, not his stands on the Wren Cross and other controversies, that made them decide not to renew his contract.”

Indeed, the very manner in which Nichol handled his resignation — misrepresenting the facts, going public in an impulsive and dramatic fashion, and allowing falsehoods to spread uncorrected — only confirms that the BoV was utterly correct in its appraisal of the man. Nichol was, and remains, a loose cannon. He has no business being a university president.

When eight of 17 board members gathered on campus yesterday to answer a barrage of questions from irate students and faculty, Rector Michael K. Powell added new details of the BoV’s concerns about Nichol’s performance. Nichol’s Gateway program to provide financial help for low-income students, he revealed, was on the verge of foundering for lack of money. The board also had suggested a year ago that the president hire a chief operating officer to help him with administrative matters, but he showed no interest. We’ll never know the full story, unfortunately, because Powell is restrained by his respect for Nichol’s privacy and dignity from delving into the ugly details.

Board member Kathy Hornsby also put the lie to charges that the board was swayed by the outcries of conservative alumni or meddling by members of the General Assembly. She descibed herself as a “liberal Democrat” who was not intimidated by the conservative critics. Likewise, board member Anita Poston said that, as “a child of the ’60s,” she found the controversial sex workers show to be “very, very tame.” Nichol’s I-was-fired-because-of-my-principles storyline is a red herring.

Bacon’s bottom lines: There are two bottom lines. First and most important, it is increasingly clear that Nichol misrepresented the circumstances of his resignation. Through his dramatic departure, he plunged the university into controversy and besmirched its good name. Frankly, I think he should be run off campus (he’s staying on as a law school professor): not because he’s a “liberal.” There are many other college professors as liberal as he, if not more so, but they contribute to the university rather than diminish it. Nichol should be evicted because he has demonstrated that he has no regard for the truth and he has inflicted great harm on a fine institution.

The second lesson is that the conservatives in the General Assembly who politicized Nichol’s handling of the sex workers show should have butted out. By hauling in BoV members for questioning, they made the board’s job more difficult by lending credence to the idea that Nichol was the victim of a witch hunt. I stand by my observations in January, “There’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Get Rid of Nichol,” that political grandstanding by politicians was unhelpful. The system worked as it was designed to work without any interference from the outside.

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  1. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Jim: Where do you draw the line between legitimate oversight by the GA – they approve the appointments – and political grandstanding?

    Is it always a subjective judgment on what is oversight and what is showmanship? Or, if there is some objective measure of good governance, prithee tell what it is.


  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think there are two big problems here:

    First, you have a public perception of retribution from the TIMING of the actions that, even if not true, appear to have a nexus.

    Anyone who is on a BOV should – more than most others – understand – public relations and perception of their actions.

    Second, the BOV acts like the involvement of the GA was an “unfortunate” unrelated and undesired activity.


    If they thought that – where was their public statement about it?

    There are MANY ways that a BOV can effect change without a very public decapitation….

    Change happens all the time at Universities and Colleges WITHOUT the involvement of the GA and WITHOUT the BOV becoming the focus by using the tools they do have.

    When you are a BOV and YOU KNOW that there IS .. CONTROVERSY going on at the SAME TIME that there are ostensibly “other internal” issues going on – you do have the responsibility to use good judgment to effect change without causing further controversy IMHO.

    and it’s complete BULL to say that they cannot comment…

    For one thing – they can provide the information about the ISSUES that are their concern – separate and independent of personalities.

    Just point to the things that are causing the concerns, show the trends.. make the case for change.

    This is a lot like firing a coach with a winning record and citing “concerns” about the operation.

    It does not wash.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    and here’s something worth considering:

    “A high-level official in the Virginia Attorney General’s Office is now advising the University of Mary Washington in its search for a new president.”

    “The letter was sent the same day Republican delegates–including Mark Cole of Spotsylvania–grilled four members of the College of William & Mary’s board of visitors about an on-campus “Sex Workers’ Art Show.” William & Mary President Gene Nichol, who allowed the show, resigned Feb. 12.”

    Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said people shouldn’t read much into the timing of the letter. “It’s a very simple change just meant to establish uniformity in how the process works,” he said.

    Forehand referred questions to Martin. In his letter to Poole, he suggested that–whenever possible–he attend meetings related to the presidential search. He also requested all correspondence, including e-mails, regarding the search.

    tell me again why we want the Republicans in charge in Virginia?

    oh sure.. someone will say that this is only a few misguided folks .. but if that is so.. why do we have the Republican Gov-to-be Attorney General .. now involved in the selection process for College Presidents?

    The AG IS … making a very Public Statement here.. make no mistake about it…

  4. Old Dominion Hall Secessionist Avatar
    Old Dominion Hall Secessionist

    Two things.

    At least the Attorney General is an elected official. If his office’s effort to bring consistency to the hiring process is seen as political interference, the people can vote him out if he should run again or vote for a candidate who promises to let universities do it themselves. I would submit that the last two prominent hires under the de-centralized system led to a drunk and an egomaniac.

    Second, Mr. Nichol appears to be unhinged. His resignation diatribe has resulted in a backlash of fact that has sullied his reputation. I don’t wish that on anyone. He refused to “take one for the Tribe” by announcing he was resigning at the end of his term, offering to help in the search and transition to a new leader, and then writing a book if he had so much to say. Instead, he leaves the college in a lurch and has been publicly branded a liar and an incompetent. It didn’t have to be this way.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Hey, when I got on campus for the first time 36 years ago you could still see “Free Bobby Seale” spraypainted on some brick walls. Now I have to tell people who the Black Panther’s were….

    What I want to know is, what the f*** does “Hark Upon the Gale?” mean?

    The man was a clown and an embarrassment. If there was any doubt that the board is owned by left-leaning ninnies, just remember they hired him in the first place. The board LOVED his positions on the feathers, the cross and the sex show. He must have really been screwing everything else up nine ways from Sunday for them to dump him.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Oh, and the message that the AG’s office is sending is not a new one. The on-campus assistant AG’s have long become captive lawyers to the schools bureaucracy, seldom thinking of the AG as their boss. Read the code, read the language in the back of the budget — all state-hired laywers work for the AG and the policy gets set in Richmond. If McDonnell and Forehand are yanking their chain to create some uniformity of these issues, that’s their job.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    just to be clear.

    uniformity is done by written and vetted guidelines not “hands on” involvement.

    Imagine the AG using this same process to involve himself in the hiring of other high level State Employees.

    Each of us is entitled to a point of view about left wing “ninnies” or an opinion that someone is a “disgrace” but we decide these issues by standards that are written and transparent.

    If we want our BOVs done by elected officials – don’t we usually and traditionally give that to the Gov?

    Let,s let the AG get himself involved in EVERY Gov-appointed board – right?

    Our AG is telling us all exactly how he intends to do business if he is elected .. and folks.. it’s not like Kaine and most other Govs do it.

    Again – if you want legal advice on the hiring of College Presidents – you put it in the form of guidelines and NOT in the form of personal involvement in the process.

    Otherwise – we’re going to essentially make every College president in Va – a political appointment depending on who gets into office.

    This is bad stuff.

    I’m not surprised that some folks support it. We always have a certain number who DO want to politicize the process and to use litmus tests in hiring… and of course all those folks in some countries that prefer government by litmus test also.

    I AM surprised that other folks in Virginia are willing to stand by and watch this happen.

    Let’s have a system where the Gov tells a College President – “either you do this or I’ll have the BOV get rid of you”.

    great idea.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    “political grandstanding by politicians was unhelpful”

    Unhelpful, yes, but also inevitable. As Nichol himself liked to say, W&M is “public and great”. The public part means not private, which means politics, which means politicians. Nichol removed the cross because he said a public institution can’t appear to favor one religion over others (or non-belief). They also cannot avoid politics because they belong to the public and that ownership manifest itself through the legislature which means politicians! Too damn bad. Nichol’s political grandstanding attracted them like you know what attracts flies. And for pretty much the same reason – it stunk.

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