Wednesday, February 13, 2008

College President Is Forced To Resign Amid Controversy Over Cross and Offensive Art Show

Gene R. Nichol, president of the College of William and Mary, submitted a resignation letter yesterday after receiving notice that his contract would not be renewed by the college’s Board of Visitors. Several appointees to the board, who were pending reconfirmation, recently appeared at hearings before the Virginia House of Delegates’ Privileges and Elections Committee.

During the hearings, Nichol was strongly criticized for controversial decisions during his short reign as president. Committee Chairman Mark Cole stated that “a set of recent events warranted a more thorough review” of the Board of Visitors. The events cited as concerning were Nichol’s removal of the cross from Wren Chapel, the resulting loss of a $12 million gift and allowing a “Sex Workers’ Art Show.”

The confirmation hearings focused mainly on Nichol’s controversial actions. “If any university president in the Commonwealth has put a bad light on the Commonwealth … it’s Mr. Nichols,” said Del. Jeffrey Frederick. Del. Clarence Phillips asked the appointees for a commitment to ensure the college is known for “all right and good things,” to “do what’s necessary through your leadership and through your good name.” Committee Chairman Cole warned the appointees: “Everything that happens at William and Mary will rest on your shoulders.”

The controversies began in October 2006, when Nichol announced that the brass cross that had stood in Wren Chapel for 75 years would be removed. The decision ignited controversy among alumni, students and others across the Nation. Liberty Counsel sent a letter to President Nichol and the university chancellor, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, stating that the removal was unnecessary and unconstitutional and urging that the cross be returned. In December 2006, Nichol announced that the cross would be returned on Sundays, during Christian religious services or when requested by a visitor. Although this was a step in the right direction, college officials underestimated the fallout from their failure to return to the traditional display of the cross.

Following the decision to remove the cross from Wren Chapel, I said that the loss of confidence in President Nichol by alumni and donors could only be restored if he apologized for his role in removing the cross from the chapel where it has stood for the last 75 years. Now that President Nichol has stepped down, perhaps the rich religious heritage of the Nation’s oldest college can be restored to the rightful and historic place that it deserves. The Board of Visitors should appoint a president who will respect the religious heritage of the College of William and Mary.