Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

William & Mary President (and Law Professor) Nichol Forced Out for Upholding the Constitution

News story here and statement by President Gene Nichol here.  This is pretty embarrassing for William & Mary, and I imagine many faculty and students there are outraged (faculty and students at other state universities in Virginia should be worried too!).  Nichol, who was previously Dean of the Law School at the University of North Carolina, will return to teaching law at William & Mary.

From the statement by President Nichol:

I have made four decisions, or sets of decisions, during my tenure that have stirred ample controversy.

First, as is widely known, I altered the way a Christian cross was displayed in a public facility, on a public university campus, in a chapel used regularly for secular College events -- both voluntary and mandatory -- in order to help Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other religious minorities feel more meaningfully included as members of our broad community. The decision was likely required by any effective notion of separation of church and state. And it was certainly motivated by the desire to extend the College’s welcome more generously to all. We are charged, as state actors, to respect and accommodate all religions, and to endorse none. The decision did no more.

Second, 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....

As the result of these decisions, the last sixteen months have been challenging ones for me and my family. A committed, relentless, frequently untruthful and vicious campaign -- on the internet and in the press -- has been waged against me, my wife and my daughters. It has been joined, occasionally, by members of the Virginia House of Delegates -- including last week’s steps by the Privileges and Elections Committee to effectively threaten Board appointees if I were not fired over decisions concerning the Wren Cross and the Sex Workers’ Art Show. That campaign has now been rendered successful. And those same voices will no doubt claim victory today....

I add only that, on Sunday, the 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....

I wonder whether the Board of Visitors has any idea how much damage they have done to the College by forcing out a President under these circumstances?   No one who has a choice wants to have anything to do with a university that can't withstand external political pressures that affect basic constitutional values. 

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