WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The president of the College of William & Mary, who drew heavy criticism for removing a cross from the nation’s oldest college chapel, resigned Tuesday after the public school’s board told him his contract would not be renewed.
Gene Nichol’s decision, effective immediately, was outlined in an e-mail to the university community. The Board of Visitors, which advised Nichol on Sunday that his contract would not be renewed in July, confirmed his departure.
“Mine, to be sure, has not been a perfect presidency,” Nichol wrote in the e-mail. “I have sometimes moved too swiftly, and perhaps paid insufficient attention to the processes and practices of a strong and complex university. A wiser leader would likely have done otherwise.”
In his e-mail, he also charged that, in addition to the cross flap, his efforts to improve diversity at the college have proved controversial.
In October 2006, Nichol sparked loud protests when he removed the cross from permanent display in Wren Chapel to make students and visitors of non-Christian faiths feel more welcome at the nation’s second-oldest college.
Some outraged alumni and students sought to remove Nichol from office. One donor rescinded pledges to give $12 million to the school, and angry state lawmakers weighed in on the matter.
The cross was returned to the chapel in August in a locked, Plexiglas-like case near the altar. It can be removed from the case and placed on the altar by request.
Nichol defended his decision in his e-mail Tuesday. “We are charged, as state actors, to respect and accommodate all religions, and to endorse none. The decision did no more,” he said.
The departing president also received criticism for allowing a show on campus last week that featured monologues and performances by porn actors, strippers and other sex workers. Nichol said Tuesday that he would have violated the First Amendment had he banned the show from the student-governed speaker series.
Nichol said he and his family had been the target of a “committed, relentless, frequently untruthful and vicious campaign” on the Internet and in the media. He also said a House of Delegates Committee had effectively threatened board appointees if he had not been fired.
“That campaign has now been rendered successful,” Nichol wrote.
In response, Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylania and chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, denied the allegation.
“We never threatened anybody, never made his job removal a litmus test,” Cole said. “To say we did this just to try to get him fired is ridiculous. It’s just sour grapes.”
One of Nichol’s harshest critics — Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William — said: “The fact is his behavior was threatening the commonwealth. That was the only threat around here.”
In a statement to the university community, the board said the decision not to renew Nichol’s contract was “extremely difficult” and not based on “ideology or any single public controversy.”
“He is a truly inspirational figure who has enjoyed the affection of many,” the board wrote of Nichol. But the board said it believed there were “a number of problems that were keeping the college from reaching its full potential and concluded that those issues could not be effectively remedied without a change of leadership.”
William & Mary will begin a search for a new president immediately, the board said. Law School Dean W. Taylor Reveley will take the post until a replacement is found.
Nichol, the school’s president since July 2005, previously served as dean of the law schools at the University of North Carolina and the University of Colorado. He taught at William & Mary two decades ago, and plans to return to the faculty at the school of law and resume teaching and writing.
Nichol also charged that his desire to increase the number of low-income students and improve diversity among faculty and leadership also proved controversial. He said, “recognizing that we likely had fewer poor, or Pell eligible, students than any public university in America,” he introduced a measure that would cover 100 percent of costs for resident students with families earning less than $40,000 a year.
“From the outset of my presidency, I have made it clear that if the College is to reach its aspirations of leadership, it is essential that it become a more diverse, less homogeneous institution,” Nichol said. “We have, in the past two and a half years, more than doubled our number of faculty members of color. And we have more effectively integrated the administrative leadership of William & Mary. It is no longer the case, as it was when I arrived, that we could host a leadership retreat inviting the 35 senior administrators of the College and see, around the table, no persons of color.”
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