The president of the College of William & Mary has been removed, in part because he was unable to put behind him a lingering controversy over the display of a cross at the public college’s chapel.
College officials announced in February that they will not renew Gene Nichol’s contract later this year. In 2006, Nichol was attacked by religious conservatives after he decided to remove a cross from permanent display at Wren Chapel.
Nichol argued that the facility was meant to be a non-denominational place of worship, and he pointed out that it is used regularly for mandatory campus events. Permanently displaying the Christian religious symbol, Nichol asserted, sent “a message that the Chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the College, insiders and outsiders.”
After the announcement of his termination, Nichol released a moving statement defending the actions that led to his untimely departure. He said he acted not only to help “religious minorities feel more meaningfully included” in the community, but also because he believes any reasonable understanding of church-state separation required the cross’s removal.
“We are charged, as state actors, to respect and accommodate all religions, and to endorse none. The decision did no more,” he said.
Nichol’s decision to remove the cross resulted in a swift backlash from some alumni, politicians and right-wing media pundits. Some alumni wrote in to say they would refuse to donate until the cross was restored. One woman even cut the school out of her will.
Nichol asserted that he and his family were victims of what he described as “a committed, relentless, frequently untruthful and vicious campaign” waged in the media.
The cross flap was not the only factor that led to Nichol’s departure. He also came under fire twice for his refusal to ban a controversial art show from the campus.
“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,” Nichol wrote.
He continued, “It is worth recalling that my very first act as president of the College was to swear an oath not to subvert students’ constitutional rights.”