As CU Ponders Benson, Religious Right Cheers Gene Nichol’s Ouster in Virginia

As students and faculty weigh in on the controversial prospect of Colorado oilman Bruce Benson becoming the next president of the University of Colorado, 1,700 miles away in Virginia an intense drama involving Gene Nichol, a former CU law school dean and Colorado congressional candidate, has been unfolding. This week, Nichol, the popular and controversial president of the College of William & Mary, abruptly resigned.PhotobucketNichol’s departure as president of the nation’s second oldest university for nearly three years, has sparked a backlash from the campus community, including student and faculty protests, sit-ins and teach-ins.

By contrast, his exit has been celebrated by religious right groups, including Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Nichol resigned, effective immediately, after the Board of Visitors that oversees the College of William & Mary informed him that his contract, up in July, would not be renewed. Nichol was esteemed among the faculty and student body  but stirred controversy among conservative religious groups and some Virginia lawmakers after he moved a cross from its prominent position inside a chapel where students of all religious faiths meet. He also was zinged when he refused to disallow a student-sponsored Sex Workers’ Art Show on campus.

In a long letter sent to “members of the William & Mary community,” Nichol explained his rationale – and cited two other issues that he believes were factors in the board’s decision to not renew his contract. From the letter:

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 … We are charged, as state actors, to respect and accommodate all religions, and to endorse none. The decision did no more.

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.

Third, recognizing that we likely had fewer poor, or Pell [Grant]-eligible students than any public university in America, and that our record was getting worse, I introduced an aggressive Gateway scholarship program for Virginians demonstrating the strongest financial need. … Gateway has increased our Pell-eligible students by 20% in the past two years. 

Fourth, I have made it clear that if the College is to reach its aspirations of leadership, it is essential that it become a more diverse, less homogeneous institution. … Our last two entering classes have been the most diverse in the College’s history. We have more than doubled our number of faculty members of color. And we have more effectively integrated the administrative leadership of William & Mary. …

“As the result of these decisions, the last sixteen months have been challenging ones for me and my family,” Nichol wrote. “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.

“That campaign has now been rendered successful. And those same voices will no doubt claim victory today.”

Shortly after Nichol’s resignation, Focus on the Family’s Citizenlink  — a political action arm of the Colorado Springs-based ministry and media empire — joined other religious conservative groups in heralding the college president’s departure. (Nichol will continue on as a law professor at the College of William & Mary.)

A story published at the Citizenlink Website included response from representatives of several conservative groups — and spelled Nichol’s name incorrectly throughout.

Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, is encouraged by the resignation, according to the Citizenlink article.

“It shows that there’s some real accountability now – at least in some parts of the country,” he said. “And this is an action that I think was probably long overdue.”

Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, said she is glad to see Nichols [sic] go because he was a danger to the morality of college students.

“Gene Nichols’ [sic] resignation as president will hopefully put the college back on track of focusing on education and not on perverting the students,” according to Citizenlink.

In Colorado, Nichol was the dean of the law school at the University of Colorado from 1988 to 1995, and also founded the university’s Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law.

In 1996, Nichol, a Democrat, made a bid for the United States Senate in Colorado, but lost the primary to Tom Strickland — who went on to lose the general race to Republican Sen. Wayne Allard, who is retiring this year.

Two years later Nichol ran for Congress, but again lost the primary, to Democrat Mark Udall. This year, Udall is running for the Senate seat that Allard is vacating.

And while the board of regents of the University of Colorado determines whether to install Benson, a longtime Republican activist and former gubernatorial candidate, the board of visitors in Williamsburg, Va. has announced plans to hold upcoming meetings to discuss Nichol’s ouster with upset faculty and students.

Last week The Richmond Times-Dispatch detailed the extent of much of the campus community’s reaction — including protests, rallies and candlelight vigils, to support their departed president.

Zach Pilchen, president of the Student Assembly, was quoted saying the student body, including himself, was “pretty furious, pretty devastated, pretty disillusioned by the entire process.

“I think the student body and faculty are behind Nichol 110 percent,” he said.

Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at The Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at

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