By JUSTIN TONEY and ANNIE KINNIBURGH
The UMW student organization, Students for a Democratic Society, visited the College of William and Mary last weekend to protest a series of incidents resulting in the resignation of former William and Mary president Gene Nichol.
Junior Jason Walsh, creator of UMW SDS, said that the club saw Nichol’s resignation as indicative of a larger problem within the Virginia school system.
“These problems stem from the antiquated Board of Visitors system,” Walsh said.
He added that several SDS chapters and student groups in Virginia met at William and Mary to protest the decision of William and Mary’s Board of Visitors to not renew Nichol’s contract when it expired this June.
When informed of the Board’s decision, Nichol issued a statement announcing his immediate resignation, citing reasons why the Board decided not to renew his contract.
According to Nichol’s letter to the W&M community, the Board chose based mostly upon his decision to order the removal of a Christian cross from the secularized campus chapel and his refusal to ban the display of a student-sponsored sex worker’s art show on campus.
Nichol’s decision to change the display of the cross became so controversial that one alumnus retracted a $12 million donation to the college.
According to a statement from the W&M Board of Visitors to the College’s alumni, the Board of Visitors found fault in Nichol’s executive management, and questioned his leadership abilities.
Walsh said that the Board of Visitors showed more concern for the financial stability of the college than for the academic community.
“These individuals that comprise the B.O.V. are primarily business people who wish to run colleges and universities like corporations,” Walsh said. “They are very susceptible to donor pressure.”
Students for a Democratic Society was not the only part of the UMW community to voice opposition to Nichol’s retirement. Several professors expressed their support of Nichol and his policies.
Chair of the computer science department, Dr. Ernest Ackermann, commended Nichol’s endeavors to increase diversity at William and Mary.
During his time as president Nichol increased the amount of financial aid for low-income students and sought to increase minority representation among the faculty and administration.
“He appeared to me to be the type of person who was interested in creating and maintaining an academic community that thoughtfully dealt with issues of diversity,” Ackermann said.
UMW religion professor Dr. Angela Gosseti-Murrayjohn said that she supported Nichol’s decision to remove the cross from the campus chapel out of respect for the religiously and ethnically diverse college community.
“I believe that he was absolutely right to prevent a public space from permanently exhibiting a symbol of a single and exclusive religious faith,” Gosseti-Murrayjohn said.
She said that Nichol’s refusal to ban the sex worker’s art show demonstrated his commitment to putting the spotlight on controversial social and political issues.
“It is the province of art and literature to ask difficult questions,” she said. “Impartiality on an issue that has First Amendment implications was not only right—it was his duty.”
Psychology professor Dr. Denis Nissim-Sabat spoke against the involvement of the Virginia House of Delegates in the decision to not renew Nichol’s contract.
According to William and Mary’s student paper, The Chronicle, the House of Delegates received criticism for meeting with members of the William and Mary Board of Visitors and allegedly threatening to fire some of them if they did not remove Nichol from his post.
The House of Delegates denies that such a threat was made, saying that the purpose of the meeting was simply to assess the situation, reads The Chronicle.
However, Ackermann said that the involvement of the House of Delegates was unwarranted.
“I was very disappointed to see the House of Delegates get involved,” he said. “It appeared to me that certain delegates put undue pressure on the William and Mary Board of Visitors.”
Nissim-Sabat agreed. “It is always a sad day when political agendas infringe upon science and higher education,” she said.
Although Nichol has already taken up a new position in the law school of William and Mary, many are still troubled by the situation that led to his resignation.
While at William and Mary, Students for a Democratic Society and other student groups formed plans against current Virginia administrative mechanisms.
“We hope to begin to create a state-wide coalition that will work against the Board of Visitors system to create real democracy,” Jason Walsh said.