Nichol’s Tribe

Gene Nichol came to the Presidency of the College of William and Mary with all the populist flair of Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel, All the Kings Men. He left the way William Sherman left Georgia, apparently sharing the general’s belief that the best way to fix something is to destroy it.

Since Nichol abruptly resigned on February 12, 2008, after the College Board of Visitors decided not to renew his contract, the battle between American political polarities, the right versus the left, has descended on Williamsburg with the same destructive force as everywhere else.

Recent excesses of social conservatism make it easy for humanists to rush to judgment: a progressive president of a prestigious school driven from office by a powerful right-wing political machine in a conservative state.

This martyr thesis certainly has its support: personal assaults on the president and his family for his removing a Christian cross from the Wren Chapel; a campaign against him for allowing a sex show on campus; criticisms of his implementation of a program for economically disadvantaged students; an intrusive state legislature apparently attempting to intimidate the Board; an alleged Board attempt to bribe the president to purchase his silence; a Board member resigning in protest over the Rector’s claim that the Board’s decision was unanimous; and the threat of an ACLU lawsuit against the Board for naming the interim president without a public vote. With such evidence, believing the martyr thesis is hardly like believing in the virgin birth of Jesus.

Then again, Willie Stark also claimed to be a martyr. Since martyrdom rhetoric has often cloaked abuses against humanist values, humanists should consider this alternative: Nichol’s presidential legacy is a form of tribalism and demagoguery every bit as arrogant and mean as the extremes of social conservatism.

Nichol’s predecessor was the very popular and successful Timothy Sullivan, a longtime liberal democrat with a strong sense of progress and political reality. Like former democratic Governor Mark Warner, he worked with conservatives to get things done.

Evoking excellence as his presidential theme, Sullivan spoke openly of William and Mary becoming a “world class university.” Getting there meant sustaining the emphasis on high quality teaching while raising the standards for faculty research worthy of “top tier” standing. It also meant recruiting a more qualified and diverse student body. “The best teachers, the best researchers, and the best students” was the rhetoric of the vision. Sullivan then left academic excellence to then Provost Gillian Cell while he concentrated on fundraising and the state legislature.

But he was never aloof, especially not with students. Weekly meetings over lunch led to students giving him affectionate nicknames. Unintentionally, such popularity may have set a precedent vulnerable to exploitation.

When he retired, Sullivan’s accomplishments were measured in terms of the excellence motif: average freshman SAT scores rose nearly 100 points, incoming freshmen in the top 10 percent of their classes rose 12 percent, four Rhodes Scholars were enrolled, faculty research grants tripled, the school’s endowment tripled, and the rate of student diversification under Sullivan was virtually unchanged under Nichol.

Efforts to raise faculty salaries also made Sullivan popular with faculty. From the state legislature he secured “charter university” status for the College, providing greater autonomy over the budget and a more reliable means of salary enhancement. Faculty loved it, but not because of the excellence motif; expected salaries predict administrator popularity among faculty the same way grades predict professor popularity with students.

Real tension arose among the faculty over new standards. No one, including Sullivan, wanted to address the fact that to become a world class university tenure standards would have to be raised. That unpleasant issue, which is not the kind of fairytale about excellence people want to hear, was left to the politics of the academy.

Charter status meant higher salaries but also higher tuition, making W&M attendance for qualified, low income students increasingly difficult. Knowing this, Sullivan initiated a program, later named Gateway, to provide them funds.

Sullivan served for thirteen years. Nichol lasted only two and a half.

Breaking with the past began immediately upon Nichol’s arrival, when he started to garner popularity that would make Tim Sullivan a distant memory.

Always, his major focus was on students. Taking their luggage to the dorms in the Fall, personally delivering letters of acceptance to incoming freshmen, hanging out at campus eateries, very visibly cheering at football games, and sending numerous “community” emails that always ended with “Go Tribe. Hark upon the Gale,” all made him wildly and instantly popular. Later, he controversially shifted important presidential duties to the provost to spend even more time with students.

Spending time with alumni was another matter. It seemed he simply didn’t see his primary duty as that of fundraiser nor the alumni culture as up to moral snuff, whereas students were morally pure, ready to be directed away from the moral deficiencies of W&M tradition. Future alumni would have to be diversified, requiring another break from the past: a student body that didn’t want to be like existing alumni. Nichol’s popularity helped mold a student following with a very simple-minded picture of former students of the College. Student supporters have openly referred to alumni as “outsiders” and to Nichol as their protector.

Another break from the past was with Sullivan’s vision of faculty excellence. It was not that diversity received more emphasis under Nichol than excellence did under Sullivan. Nichol cultivated a culture in which talk of excellence was taken as code for exclusion and discrimination. The effects on concerns about academic excellence have been chilling. Faculty expressing concerns over standards fear being depicted as regressive, as not sharing the values of a progressive community, or as creating a hostile environment. In such ways, Sullivan’s excellence motif has been stigmatized as part of a racist and sexist tradition unworthy of the “W&M Tribe.”

The Tribe motif emerged from a very popular concession Nichol won from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. “Tribe,” he claimed, is an innocuous synonym for “community” and the NCAA agreed. Since then the driving question on campus has been: “What is best for the W&M Tribe?” But such Tribal Rhetoric is hardly innocuous. Neither is Tribal Economics or Tribal Constitution Theory. Worst of all is Tribal Psychology.

Consider the rhetoric.

That a public university is a tribe might appeal to those enamored with Rousseau, but the liberal humanistic tradition from Harriet Taylor to Martin Luther King is built on firmer, non-romanticized foundations. No disrespect to Native Americans (the most abused people in America), but tribal allegiance is no solution to the issues facing pluralistic societies.

The broader appeal to community should also be scrutinized. Since Nichol arrived, the rhetoric of “College community values” has proliferated, including a Board-approved statement of the College of William and Mary values. In typically grand fashion, Nichol initiated an annual “State of the College Address” to report on our progress. Students taken with this talk have openly asserted that “outsiders” have no business telling us what our values are. But it’s hard to see what concept of a “public university” such mindless rhetoric implies.

When I started teaching at William and Mary, I assumed I was taking a job in a public institution with an assigned function in a larger society. I didn’t take myself to be leaving one community to join another. If I am doing my job well, whether I am in “solidarity” with “the Tribe” is irrelevant. What conception of a public university forces faculty into an identity crisis when traveling to and from campus? The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights that universities are not private expressive associations that can appeal to the First Amendment right to association for public funding and then reject any responsibility to share the burdens of the larger society.

The Tribe needs to put its money where its mouth is, which brings us to Tribal Economics and the Gateway Program for which Nichol is most praised. Handcuffing the Board, Nichol unilaterally set Gateway in motion before funding was secured. Yet even after Nichol’s resignation, the Board Rector reassured an enraged academic community that “Gateway is the most important program ever started at the College.” Given that the College founded Phi Beta Kappa, that comment demonstrates the pervasiveness of mindless rhetoric over sober reason, even from the Tribal Board.

By virtue of their insularity, tribal economies are inherently austere. If, as Tribal Rhetoric would have it, only current W&M students and faculty are members of the Tribe and all others are “outsiders,” then the responsibilities of funding Gateway fall upon current Tribe faculty and students. Full endowment of Gateway requires eighty million dollars. That’s $2,500 per current Tribe member per year for the four-year membership, plus an additional $500 per Tribe member to meet the four-million-dollar-annual cost until endowment is secured. A Gateway Fee of $3,000 per Tribe member taken from student tuition and fees and faculty salaries would be a good test of Tribal sincerity.

As much as anything else, talented, economically disadvantaged students are victims of a morally self-indulgent academic culture totally incapable of self-criticism and self-sacrifice. Charter status was a step away from providing adequate access to the talent pool in our democracy that cannot be made up by Gateway programs. Fully public universities are the only solution, but that requires sober thought currently preempted by rhetorical demagoguery and the constant demand for higher salaries. At any rate, the claim that Gateway was an ideological factor in Nichol’s demise is a red herring. Even the most conservative campus organizations endorse it.

But what about Nichol as champion of constitutional rights and Tribal Constitutional Theory? Supporters appeal to three cases.

The first involved local residency requirements that denied some students the right to vote in local elections. To inflamed students, Nichol declared a constitutional crisis: the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause bars variation within states of residency requirements for local (rather than regional or national) elections. W&M students gain the constitutional right to vote in Williamsburg City elections because University of Virginia students can vote in Charlottesville.

So interpreted, the Fourteenth Amendment denies small towns with large university populations defenses that large towns don’t need. With Bush-like simplemindedness and demagoguery, constitutional “nuance” is ignored and students fail to learn that their rights are bounded by the rights of others.

The second case involves Nichol’s controversial decision regarding the open display of a Christian cross in the Wren Chapel. In his resignation letter, Nichol claimed that he was only doing his constitutional duty to uphold the separation of church and state. Supporters have repeated this claim again and again without providing any judicial reasoning for it. As with the student voting rights, Nichol gestures towards a reason, his supporters become inflamed, and further discussion is preempted.

Tribal Constitutional Theorists never attempt to explain why the practice of displaying a cross (which by policy was removable upon request) is a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. According to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, violations of the establishment clause are measured by the endorsement test: a government practice “endorses religion” when it has the effect of excluding some citizens from full participation in the political community. The current Pledge of Allegiance (which Nichol hasn’t banned) has that effect, but does the display at a state school of a Christian cross to be removed upon request have the same effect? If Tribalists are rejecting O’Connor’s test, which test are they employing? Only open discussion can establish its content and secular merits. Sadly, open discussion is neither Gene Nichol’s style nor the Tribal Way.

The third case involves a student-funded sex workers show. Solidly on First Amendment grounds, Nichol refused to ban the show. He simply had no choice; certain defeat in the courts awaited any other decision. His defenders, however, won’t talk about the prior constraints Nichol imposed on the show and its press coverage. What is the constitutional theory that grants the right to a public event of this sort but suppresses its coverage by the press? The incongruity between the rage against rightist reaction to the sex show and the president’s disregard for the press says a great deal about the demagoguery of Nichol’s admirers.

Humanist civil libertarians are made of firmer, more consistent stuff. None of these cases presents evidence that Nichol’s Tribe is made of it.

More darkly antithetical to liberal, humanistic values is Tribal Psychology. Two episodes reveal the depths of arrogance and meanness to which Nichol’s Tribalism descends.

The first is Nichol’s creation of a Bias Reporting Network, which allowed anonymous accusations of discrimination against others to be investigated and handled by the administration. Set up outside official faculty input, the system was operational before being formally announced. Even Tribal Constitutionalists objected, leading Nichol to promise that anonymous accusations would no longer be employed. That the system is now either superfluous to safeguards already in place or will operate in ways better not made public is something the Tribe doesn’t discuss. Lack of transparency in the Board is loathed but winked at in Nichol.

The second episode is more clandestine and darker. After a routine program review, the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Carl Strikwerda, with subsequent approval from Nichol and current Provost Geoffrey Feiss, publicly distributed a report containing accusations of gross misconduct against a bloc of senior male faculty. The accusations were incendiary: mistreatment of female faculty, a diminished learning environment for students, hostility towards junior faculty. All the charges were anonymous, unspecific, and unsubstantiated, and none of the accused was given a chance to rebut the charges. Indeed, the Dean never even notified the accused before making the accusations public. Three weeks later, faced with a battery of evidence to the contrary, the Dean was forced (privately) to withdraw nearly all the charges. But the damage was done. (Full disclosure: It is perhaps no surprise that these abuses were aimed against my department where disagreements over standards of excellence were already simmering and where some Tribe members found in Nichol’s administration the perfect ally. To this day, those smeared by Tribal tactics have been denied a proper hearing, while all the “king’s men” persist in looking the other way.)

When public universities are insulated against any kind of external monitoring devoid of any real checks and balances, Tribalism and demagoguery leave, above all else, arrogance and meanness as their legacy. After his impeachment hearing, Willie Stark reminded his audience that they were all knee-deep in cronyism: “I merely gave you the opportunity to act according to your own nature, and, like all good men, rise above principle.”

Like the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, demagoguery’s dirt is hard to get out.