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Perspectives: Tradition of Inclusion Left Out of William & Mary President’s Story

Controversy at the College of William & Mary and the clear schism between the college community and the board of visitors have recently become major stories in the media. With every article I read, however, the story appears half told.

Many of the writers and the people they quote are disconnected; they have no affiliation with the college, or they’re old alumni clinging to “traditions” of their beloved alma mater. Have these critics ever stopped to think that the William & Mary of three decades ago has changed?

Despite being a symbol of controversy among outsiders, President Gene Nichol is an inspirational leader to his students and community. Several people have criticized some of his more controversial decisions, while ignoring many other positive changes he made during his tenure. His accomplishments, or failures as some have labeled them, are not limited to relocating the Wren Cross to welcome religious diversity, or allowing students to practice their constitutional rights by not refusing the Sex Workers’ Art Show on campus, or even diversifying the institution’s faculty to encourage a higher level of learning.

Since becoming president in July 2005, Nichol created a new tradition of inclusion at the college. He demonstrated unwavering support for diversity, paved the way to eliminate financial constraints for qualified students and supported international service trips, among other achievements.

As a campus leader and former student intern in the admissions office, I saw and experienced the change Nichol brought forth. He was a leader that celebrated our accomplishments and encouraged progress through his active engagement in student life. He attended Tribe sporting events, fashion shows organized by student Greek organizations and even traveled to the Dominican Republic in support of a medical outreach service trip. His efforts to unify are extensive, and the impact he made on the William & Mary community is unprecedented.

My disappointment with the board’s decision not to extend Nichol’s contract echoes the sentiments of many in the current student body, faculty and staff. In a letter to the community, the board claims to have reached a unanimous decision not to renew Nichol’s contract because of a “number of problems that were keeping the college from reaching its full potential.”

This lack of clarity and vagueness in reasoning is unacceptable in academia. How, then, can it be accepted as sound reasoning for Nichol’s dismissal? This has led me to believe that the board’s decision was based on problems defined by a resistance to change and a fear that endowments were on a decline as a result of donors disagreeing with Nichol’s actions. What many outside of the campus community, including the board, fail to see is that many of the “controversies” were embraced by the William & Mary community. These controversies helped introduce changes and built on the past to work for a better future.

While these decisions ultimately altered the representation of a cross, allowed a show to take place and improved diversity at the college, they did not challenge the integrity or loyalty Nichol has to the community. However, the same cannot be said about some board members.

The recent resignation of board member Robert Blair in protest of the decision to let Nichol go raises questions as to whether there truly was a “unanimous” agreement. The inability to fully justify the decision not to extend President Nichol’s contract not only defies the truthfulness of the board, but also the integrity of the system, which in a democratic society is integral.

As an alumnus, I am appalled by the possibility that the board offered President Nichol what I consider to be “hush money” to leave the campus quietly. I commend President Nichol and former board member Blair for their courage to expose the lack of veracity and sincerity being practiced by the board. While attempting to eliminate the main source of controversy surrounding William & Mary for the “best interest of the college,” the board has, ironically, created a larger dilemma. Despite the present disconnect between my alma mater and the board, I know the community will unite and get past this disappointing series of events. In President Gene Nichol’s signature words of encouragement, “Go Tribe. And hark upon the gale.”

— Maybelline Mendoza, Diverse’s online marketing analyst, graduated from the College of William & Mary in 2007. She also served on the college’s diversity committee. William & Mary graduate Ayah Ibrahim,’07, also contributed to this column.

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