Overplaying the religion angle

nicholLast week, the president of The College of William & Mary resigned abruptly after he found out his contract wasn't going to be renewed later this year. President Gene Nichol, a former administrator at my alma mater, had been in the news for a couple of decisions he made. One was removing a cross from the campus' historic Wren Chapel. Another was permitting a traveling show of sex workers to visit the campus. William & Mary is a public university of the Commonwealth of Virginia, it should be noted. When the Wren Chapel controversy broke, we criticized some of the media coverage for not explaining that William & Mary is a state-run university. I don't think I'm overstating things to say that, on First Amendment establishment clause grounds, we didn't see what the big fuss was.

But fuss there was. Alumni, donors and students were deeply hurt that Nichol had acted unilaterally and without consensus. When donors began to question his administrative style, he didn't weather the storm terribly well. William & Mary's governing board called for an independent review of Nichol's administrative capabilities. That review found him lacking and the board made its decision last week.

Well, you don't read me saying this too frequently, but I think The Los Angeles Times overplayed the religion angle in their story about the Nichol affair. The headline promised a story "Where religion, ideology and the Web cross." Reporter David Savage writes glowingly about Nichol, calling him a "champion of civil liberties and the Bill of Rights":

The dispute underscores the deep divide over the role of religion in public institutions, and shows how an ideological firestorm can be sparked on a college campus. ...

After a year in Williamsburg, he decided that the cross in the Wren Chapel should not be on display at all times but only during Christian services. He said he was protecting the 1st Amendment and the separation of church and state.

"The display of a Christian cross -- the most potent symbol of my own religion -- in the heart of our most important building sends an unmistakable message that the chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others," he told students in November 2006.

Conservatives said the presence of a cross in a chapel did not violate the 1st Amendment. They started a website called Save the Wren Cross and another called Should Nichol Be Renewed?

The story goes on to compare the incident to other high-profile controversies, such as Lawrence Summers leaving Harvard over his suggestion that men and women have some intrinsic differences and Duke's President being criticized for how he handled the defamation of the lacrosse players there.

The clashes are fueled by the Internet, Savage writes. He also writes a bit more about the Wren Chapel controversy as it relates to the First Amendment, comparing the case to the ones about Ten Commandments displays on public property. I actually don't think those comparisons are apt, but that's for another story.

Savage quotes one prominent lawyer saying it's sad that enforcing the First Amendment cost Nichol his job:

But Jay Sekulow, counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said: "I think [Nichol] completely misread the law and the alumni. This was a legal blunder and a public-relations blunder," he said.

wrencrossSekulow's contention that Nichol made a public-relations blunder is obviously true. And it was one that caused one donor to withdraw a $12-million pledge. When Nichol falsely said he'd met fundraising goals, concern about his governing style grew. Many observers, including former college president Tim Sullivan, worried that Nichol's management would displease the larger college community. Having spent a bit of time in university fundraising, raising money is, sad to say, the primary job of a university president. Even though William & Mary is state-run, it still gets the majority of its funding from private sources.

It isn't false to write that religion issues played a part in Nichol's failed presidency. But I think it is false to say that religious issues caused the Board of Visitors to let him go. Nichol aired his side of the story, alleging that he was let go because he supported the First Amendment, in a campus-wide email. The Board of Visitors was much more discreet.

Still, days before Savage's story ran, the Virginian-Pilot explained the board's perspective:

The board said in its statement that its decision was not based on ideology or any single public controversy, and it praised Nichol's accomplishments and passion. But "a number of problems" were holding back the college, the board said, and a leadership change was needed.

The board's rector, Michael Powell, declined in a phone interview to specify the problems. He, too, praised Nichol for increasing diversity and for how he connected with students. But Powell said the board, using an outside consultant to help with its review, heavily weighed other presidential duties such as public and alumni relations and fundraising.

Four local newspapers printed editorials that supported the board's decision. All of them dealt with Nichol's management style.

Nichol's narrative -- that he was the victim of a conservative cabal -- serves him better than the board's narrative that he was not an effective administrator. And I'm sure it pleases Nichol's conservative detractors. But at the very least the reporter should look at everyone's incentives in this story. And reporters should remember that money is a very strong incentive.

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