W&M's Gene Nichol still nailed by the Wren Cross

Photo of Gene Nichol, which appeared in the Flat Hat, William and Mary's student newspaper March 2, 2007. NewsTrust reviews here.

The LA Times story on the firing and rehiring of the outspoken liberal Edwin Chemerinski as dean of the new law school at UC Irvine noted that the school's reputation had suffered more than his. And Scott Moss, an associate law prof who just started at the U of CO-Boulder argues the same in more detail at Find Law.

All this brought back to mind the case of William and Mary President Gene Nichol

Nichol's contract only goes through June 30, of 2008 according to a letter I received from Board of Visitors Rector Michael K. Powell.

Checking today, I learned that Nichol's foes are again using the power of the internet to rally against him, sponsoring a site with arguments against his renewal and a petition "Should W&M Renew Gene Nichol as President?," created according to internic.net on June 12 in Utah, after sending out an anonymous newsrelease on June 11.

There's a second site created at nearly the same time with the same provider, for the Society for the College of William and Mary, which appears to be down with no past history at the internet archive. But Nichols supporters also have a site  which says it has uncovered some of the right-wing funding behind the effort. (UPDATE:  this is now a private blog available by invitation only.)

 I last wrote about Nichol's plight on January 29. You may remember that the conservative Townhall.com labeled him a "Christ-o-phobic" who should be fired. American Spectator (infamous for the Arkansas Project) named Nichol "enemy of the year" and a contender for "the next cultural minister of the Taliban." Vince Haley, research director for the American Enterprise Institute for former House speaker Newt Gingrich, started a website, a blog and a petition against Nichol.

So what had Nichol done to get caught in this maelstrom?

Nichol had come up with a policy even the conservative Richmond Times Dispatch could support. He had ordered the the cross in the Wren Chapel stored unless requested for religious services so as to make the chapel more inclusive. As the RTD editorial said October 31,
The chapel is not used exclusively for religious functions but serves as a general meeting place. The move makes practical sense and reflects the facts on on the ground. The cross can be returned to its spot when appropriate.
The cross was first displayed at Wren in 1940 after Bruton Parish Church received a new cross, according to the Washington Times's January 29 story, "Bow to Diversity Leaves Altar Empty." Interestingly, at the February 8 hearing before the Board of Visitors, Herman Hollerith, current rector of the church called the cross's presence or absence trivial and instead cautioned
I tend to be skeptical of Christians when they are determined to win a victory over a superficial matter. It sounds like a sort of crusade to me. It makes me wonder what else is going on beneath the surface. Is this about winning a victory for God, or is this about winning a victory over the college president? This is a question that you must wrestle with as leaders of this institution.... As a man who has dedicated his life to the cross, I urge you as leaders to be cautious of the tremendous religious and political hypocrisy that surrounds this issue.
His comments and those of support by the faculty senate were bookended by comments by Haley and Bob Thompson, alumni who spoke against Nichols. No alumni were scheduled to speak for Nichols. Haley called the removal of the cross "incomprehensible-and frightening" "dangerous" and "irredemably flawed" and conflated it with making clergy unwelcome on campus. Thompson asked why Nichol hadn't done "what all great leaders do when they make a mistake -admit it, fix it, and move on?" The Rector of the Board of Visitors at William & Mary is Michael Powell, the controversial former chairman of the FCC, whom television critic Tom Shales described on November 21 , 2004 as
definitely not a force for good in America. Pompous and imperious, an ideologue who believes unfailingly in his own philosophy of how TV and radio should work (the FCC also has domain over telephone and emerging broadband technologies), Powell ignores or condemns anyone who opposes him. Though FCC chairmen have labored mostly in obscurity, Powell has managed to make himself famous; he's the Torquemada of the insane campaign now being waged against "obscenity" on the airwaves.
I was feeling uneasy, as if the deck were stacked against Dr. Nichol. The friend of a fellow alum who heard us discussing the case even predicted the president would lose his job over the flap. Powell's February 23 letter to alumni did little to reassure me.
We have long believed that balance must be achieved between these competing perspectives in a manner respectful of the underlying values of each.
A well-organized group, which has been refuted on historic and religious grounds, was to receive equal treatment, even if their true agenda is not religion. I think that Rev. Hollerith, was exactly right in speculating this was about power over a college president, whom they view as an anathema, if the namecalling in their media is an indication. In fact, February 13, Devan Barber, columnist for the college paper, the Flat Hat reported that
a whopping 70 percent of the signatures from the "Save the Wren Cross" petition are from individuals with no affiliation to the College. James Ambrose, the student liason to the BOV, added that, from his conversations on campus, most students seem to think that the Wren cross is not a significant issue, and generally approve of Nichol's performance over the past year.
March 2, after a donor who had previously pledged $12,000,000, went back on his word citinghis position on the cross, Nichol wrote in the Flat Hat :
It may be that steps I've taken have caused wounds too deep to overcome. Perhaps they've touched a divide too white-hot to explore. But if we're to be the national treasure we're called to become, William and Mary must be open and welcoming to all. We must place all religions on an equal footing, rather than signing on to a particular tradition. There should be no strangers here. These heady goals are essential to the College's future. They're more important than the wishes of a donor, or a pundit, or a political hatchet man. They're also more important than a single president.
The final decision March 6 was, according to my friend Barry, more unsettling than relegating the cross to storage when it was not in use. Instead, it was to be displayed 24-7, but in a glass case accompanied by a placque, as if it were nothing more than an artifact. March 23, The Flat Hat reported that fellow parents at Walsingham Academy, a private high school where Nichol's daughter is a senior, had uninvited him to be the graduation speaker. The school happily reached its fundraising goal of $500,000,000 in June despite any of those who withdrew their pledge. I thought, Nichols had weathered the storm, until I got that letter from Powell. And now, looking at the detractor's website, I wonder how long these supposed supporters of my alma mater are going to tear down a wonderful school in an effort to pressure the Board of Visitors to get rid of a President with wide student and faculty support. What makes them think that if the Board caves a first rate President woudl want to come and take Nichols place?