William & Mary President Resigns over Free Expression Issues

By on February 12, 2008

Embattled William & Mary (W&M) president Gene Nichol has just announced his resignation, effective today. In a letter to the campus community, Nichol announced that opposition to his support for the First Amendment right to perform the Sex Workers’ Art Show on campus was a critical factor in the decision not to renew his contract in Julyso he resigned immediately. Nichol also reported that he had been offered a financial incentive to disseminate a purportedly false statementand one that would have to be pre-approved by the W&M Board of Visitorsbut declined to do so.

Nichol and W&M have been on both sides of free-speech controversies on campus in recent years. As his letter states:

I have refused, now on two occasions, to ban from the campus a program funded by our student-fee-based, and student-governed, speaker series. To stop the production because I found it offensive, or unappealing, would have violated both the First Amendment and the traditions of openness and inquiry that sustain great universities. It would have been a knowing, intentional denial of the constitutional rights of our students. It is perhaps worth recalling that my very first act as president of the College was to swear on oath not to do so.

Yet, W&M also tried out and then retreated from an anonymous online bias reporting program this academic yeara controversy not mentioned in Nichol’s letter.

Here is his statement about the pressure to recast his interpretation of the decision by the Board of Visitors:

[T]he Board of Visitors offered both my wife and me substantial economic incentives if we would agree "not to characterize [the non-renewal decision] as based on ideological grounds" or make any other statement about my departure without their approval. Some members may have intended this as a gesture of generosity to ease my transition. But the stipulation of censorship made it seem like something else entirely. We, of course, rejected the offer. It would have required that I make statements I believe to be untrue and that I believe most would find non-credible. I’ve said before that the values of the College are not for sale. Neither are ours.

In response, Michael K. Powell, Rector of the Board of Visitors, has circulated a response, stating in part: "It is critical to explain that this decision was not in any way based on ideology." The public can be the judge of that.