These two facts should remain mere coincidence: one, that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is seeking to replace retiring Chancellor James Moeser, and two, that College of William & Mary President Gene Nichol abruptly resigned after 19 tumultuous months as head after learning that the college’s board wouldn’t renew his contract in July.
There are some in the UNC-CH community who have greeted these as perfect timing. Nichol is the former dean of the School of Law at UNC-CH, and according to reports, was a finalist for UNC-CH chancellor when Moeser was selected in 2000. He is, in fact, highly regarded in some circles.
Nevertheless, his brief stint as head of William & Mary should give the nascent Nichol for Chancellor movement pause. Nichol was a disaster for that public college, and it would be folly to assume he would be any different if he were rewarded with the leadership of another public institution.
It would be a mistake to think the controversy surrounding Nichol to begin and end with the Sex Workers Art Show (SWAS) on campus. Perhaps allowing a traveling peepshow on campus (even one studiously justified with diligent application of trendy academic phraseology) ought to be the sort of executive decision that makes boards lose confidence, but recall that Duke University has also been disgraced with the SWAS, not to mention the shameful treatment of their (innocent) “rich white athletic male privilege”-laden lacrosse players, yet Duke President Richard H. Brodhead remains.
To be sure, this is an argument neither pro nor con Brodhead’s continuing tenure at Duke; instead, it is an argument that unlike even Brodhead, Nichol handled controversy so hamfistedly as to earn swift dismissal even in the tenure wonderland. During the first SWAS controversy at William & Mary, Nichol was embroiled in another firestorm of his own devise: namely, his edict to removed a cross from the college’s historic Wren Chapel on the off chance that secular students might see it and feel unwelcome.
Nichol justified his decision by saying the cross wasn’t “banished” from the Chapel, but would be “displayed on the altar at appropriate religious services.” Nevertheless, he stressed, “the Chapel is also used frequently for College events that are secular in nature – and should be open to students and staff of all beliefs.” How Nichol derived the conclusion that Wren Chapel isn’t open to students and staff of all beliefs when the cross is on the altar, he didn’t say.
In months of wrangling, Nichol was forced to restore the cross – although he won a slight victory by having the Wren Cross encased in glass with an accompanying plaque to explain its history (and essentially apologize for its presence).
Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of issues — Nichol the stalwart defender of the First Amendment when it pertained to the sight of 200-pound strippers challenging society’s perceptions of “sex workers”; Nichol the secular revolutionary eager to jettison the First Amendment when it pertained to the sight of a cross in a 300-year-old chapel — was too much for many William & Mary alumni and supporters. They responded in the only way people in “the real world” can to academic excess: they stopped giving. The most significant loss was the revocation of a $12 million pledge by a top donor.
Unlike the SWAS, however, the Wren Cross controversy originated from Nichol, and it seemed as if the new president had deliberately picked a fight. In some ways, it was reminiscent of fights picked with Christian student groups at UNC-CH over campus recognition. UNC-CH sought to de-recognize a Christian student evangelical group that required members to hold and uphold the beliefs upon which the groups were based, and after going to federal court, the university eventually changed its policy.
Regardless of his past ties with UNC-CH, in less than two years away Nichol should have demonstrated well enough that his former employer isn’t in need of his kind of leadership.
Jon Sanders is a policy analyst and research editor at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C.