Gene Nichol's resignation letter says more about his aborted presidency at the College of William and Mary than he probably intends. Its tone, its timing, its tenacious grip on the story line that he was run out of town by right-wing crazies - all keep him at the center of a passion play, when maybe what's needed is a pause to consider what's best for the college.
Nichol effectively got the boot when Rector Michael Powell informed him privately on Sunday that the Board of Visitors would not renew his contract in July. Tuesday morning, Nichol pre-empted any orderly announcement with an e-mail to the college community that reads like a spurned hero's farewell.
"Appropriately, serving the college in the wake of such a decision is beyond my imagining," Nichol wrote.
Maybe he was just wounded and exhausted, but is it really unimaginable that the interests of the college might have been better served by graciously remaining in place and assisting with a transition? Unimaginable that stoking political division complicates matters for the college more than eases them?
Nichol only plays into the hands of his political detractors by insisting that he is their victim. The board that fired him had backed him up publicly, from the controversy over the cross in the Wren Chapel, to the expansion of opportunity for lower-income applicants, to the support for free speech and student prerogatives.
Privately the board expressed concerns over the past several years, but it didn't hang Nichol out to dry. In late fall, the board even attempted to stem the escalating calls for Nichol's removal by establishing a deliberate and extended formal review of his performance as president. Perhaps that was a delusion, given the uncompromising climate, but it was a course designed with the interests of the college in mind.
In a hastily arranged reply on Tuesday, Powell said the board - as it should - will carry on Nichol's initiatives for diversity and inclusion, and has no intention of even entertaining a reversal of the compromise on the cross. Powell said the board was repulsed by the personal attacks on Nichol - rightly, for they have been repulsive.
The board was clearly (and inexplicably) unprepared for Nichol's pre-emptive action. In the quick appointment of law school dean W. Taylor Reveley III as interim president, perhaps they hope for a cooling-off period. Before the search for the next president can sensibly begin, the college surely needs a pause in the action.
In his e-mail, Nichol instead indulges in some parting shots. On becoming president, he says, he found a deficient institution. The college was unwelcoming to minority faiths. Kids from the lower end of the economic ladder were insufficiently represented. The place was only casually committed to social diversity. And it was wobbly on the U.S. Constitution in general and the First Amendment in particular.
The indictment is unfair and insulting to many who came before Nichol. It takes only a little perspective to see that Nichol was building on a standard of excellence and a march of progress that others had established. But Nichol's oratorical power and his appealing passion as an advocate play best against an adversary on a grand scale, so that's the way it comes out.
But there's more to running a state-supported college than being a charismatic champion of liberal arts or a bulldog for progressive politics. The position takes executive leadership in planning, administration, fundraising, cultivating influence on behalf of the institution. There are many puzzle pieces - students, faculty, parents, alumni, legislators, governors - and it takes considerable skill to knit them together and keep the peace. "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" can be monumentally problematic when steering the course of a complex college community.
Was Nichol unjustly vilified in what he characterizes as a "committed, relentless, frequently untruthful and vicious campaign"? Yes. Did members of the Virginia House of Delegates inappropriately seek to intimidate board appointees during a hearing in Richmond last week? Yes. Will his ideological opponents now dance in the streets and claim victory? Yes.
But Nichol also needs to go back and read his own resignation statement one more time, when he writes, "Mine, to be sure, has not been a perfect presidency. I have sometimes moved too swiftly, and perhaps paid insufficient attention to the processes and practices of a strong and complex university. A wiser leader would likely have done otherwise."
That is, in fact, a fair self-assessment. A wiser leader might not have written this e-mail at all. A wiser leader might still be president of William and Mary.