In the spring of 2008 I stood on the lawn in front of the president’s house at the College of William and Mary with a group of undergraduates, fellow graduate students, and faculty singing the alma mater and wondering if anybody was hearing the students’ voices swell. That candlelight vigil took place within days of former President Gene Nichol’s announcement that the College’s Board of Visitors had not renewed his contract. The reasons for this remain as murky now as they did four years ago but have often been chalked up to personality clashes, a lack of fund-raising, or simply an inability to get along with Old Virginia.
Memories of Nichol have, of course, arisen during the two weeks following University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan’s forced resignation by the Board of Visitors. Like Sullivan, Nichol had been extremely popular with students, faculty and alumni, made efforts to advance scholarship even in subjects that were not profitable to the university, and worked to increase student and faculty diversity at a school that often, how shall we say, completely lacked it. Like UVA Rector Helen Dragas’s comments, those from W&M Rector Michael Powell (yes, the one from the FCC, and yes, the one who is Colin Powell’s son) seemed inadequate to those seeking any explanation for the Board’s decision. < .p>
I attended a Board forum then with professors and students, and Powell’s statements seemed, like Dragas’s, bizarre. When fielding a question about why the Board had not immediately issued a statement (Nichol waited until two days after the notification of his effective termination to go public, citing a desire for the Board to let students, faculty, and alumni know themselves), Powell stumbled over an answer that, in essence, said, “We needed to consult some lawyers to find the right language.” The Rector, along with two-thirds of that Board, was a lawyer. His explanation of the decision through invocation of rhetoric about “tough decisions you may understand when you’re older” seemed to the undergraduates I spoke to like a “When you grow up, you’ll understand how the big kids operate” statement, not the detailed explanation young adults at an elite university wanted to hear. Like UVA’s controversy will, William and Mary’s eventually blew over, with the installation of an interim-cum-full time internal president and a return to some semblance of normalcy. Nichol now serves as a named-full professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
So why drone on about this memory?
Because, as Marie Griffith pointed out in her excellent Religion and Politics piece, this story is not about the University of Virginia or the College of William and Mary. It’s about institutional cultures and academic politics.
As first-year graduate students, my peers and I reacted mostly with cynicism to the Nichol debacle. What was the point, we wondered, of studying to be historians if the humanities were worthless when compared with business interests? What would happen to us (and our stipends!) if we joined our tenured faculty members in striking and refusing to teach class until a resolution occurred? What would happen if we didn’t? Should we give an answer to the undergraduates who demand that we show our commitment to the university by continuing to teach despite the circumstances — or the ones who demand that we vacate our posts as a sign of that commitment? What was happening to the university system that we’d recently dedicated our lives to joining?
Four years later, we’re still engaged in many of those conversations. University structures are constantly changing. What will they look like in the two years until we look for professions within them, never mind the decades it could take to become entrenched?
We don’t, of course, have the luxury of waiting to ponder those questions and begin thinking about our responses and strategies for political situations beyond our control. That the era of the absent-minded professor is giving way to the clued-in and world-savvy one is not necessarily tragic. It’s important to think about giving students and parents something of tangible value for the financial investments they make. It’s important, too, to recognize that many humanities fields may hold intrinsic value and improve reading, writing, and critical thinking skills even when their factual basis seems detached from reality. It is often difficult to explain this to business or outcome-oriented individuals—the types of folks who mostly populate university boards — but it’s important to have those explanations prepared.
My friends and I decided to go about our normal business, wearing Nichol support pins and attending rallies and meetings when we could. Some professors\’ graduate students cancelled classes; others (particularly assistants and recent associates) forged ahead after sending their classes e-mail notifications that attendance would not count and conscientious objection was applauded (leading, of course, to benefits for those who conscientiously objected to sitting in an indoor classroom during a beautiful spring day).
Ultimately, I think many of us wound up glad that we’d received a certificate in University Politics 101 so early during our careers. We benefitted from watching our department scramble to react and learned about the balance between academic freedom and self-preservation.
I don’t know whether UVA students will say the same in a few years, but I’d love to hear the thoughts of any current students out there. Has anyone experienced this at other schools, and what did you learn? What does this say about the current state of universities and their political structures? What should we as potential university employees do to prepare for our careers? In the spirit of higher education, perhaps the best way to make sense of the Teresa Sullivan debacle is to seek a professional education for ourselves.
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