Monday, February 19, 2007

A recent “sex workers” art show at the College of William & Mary is prompting more questions about President Gene R. Nichol’s leadership of the 314-year-old public university.

Mr. Nichol allowed the “Sex Workers’ Art Show” to stop at William & Mary last week as part of its national tour. The event included male and female strippers, escorts and prostitutes in various states of undress expressing their feelings on subjects ranging from their jobs to global politics.

The criticism against Mr. Nichol began in October when he removed a cross from the school’s Wren Chapel to make it more open to people of all faiths.

Mr. Nichol said he removed the cross because potential students and their families viewing the chapel on campus tours immediately departed and because a Jewish student required to participate in a program in the chapel vowed never to return.

Though Mr. Nichol has received support from the Faculty Assembly, the Student Senate and the college’s governing Board of Visitors, his decisions to remove the cross and to allow the art show has resulted in strong opposition.

A graduate of the college’s law school has filed a federal lawsuit to force the school to return the cross, and at least 25 alumni have vowed to withhold donations until the policy is reversed.

In addition, Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, tried, though unsuccessfully, to introduce an amendment to the Virginia budget withholding the state’s half of Mr. Nichol’s roughly $300,000 salary.

Before Mr. Nichol’s decision about the cross, it was always on display but could be removed by request. Now it can be returned by request.

The 2-foot-high, century-old bronze cross had been on display since Williamsburg’s historic Bruton Parish loaned it to the college in 1940.

Now, publicity about the Feb. 12 sex-worker show has resulted in charges of hypocrisy against Mr. Nichol.

“Where’s the line?” asked 1981 graduate Karla Bruno. “There’s got to be a line somewhere. He’s making a judgment call about the cross, but he refuses to make a judgment call about this depraved event that was going on at the University Center.”

The show was organized and funded by students through the Student Senate’s allocation of student fees, college spokesman Mike Connolly said.

“I don’t like this kind of show, and I don’t like having it here,” Mr. Nichol told the Williamsburg-based Virginia Gazette. “But it is not the practice and province of universities to censor or cancel performances because they are controversial.”

Ms. Bruno, who recently decided to withhold donations to the college, acknowledges that Mr. Nichol didn’t invite the group, but said as the school’s leader, he is responsible for whatever happens on the campus.

“Having this kind of event speaks to the kinds of questions about leadership at the college,” she said.

William & Mary is the country’s second-oldest college, chartered in February 1693 by King William III and Queen Mary II. It became state-supported in 1906 and coeducational in 1918, according to the university. The college has roughly 7,500 undergraduates and graduate students. Alumni include four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler.

The Board of Visitors heard arguments Feb. 8 and 9 for and against Mr. Nichol’s decision about the cross and issued a statement supporting his handling of the situation.

“President Nichol is a strong and passionate leader,” the board said. “In him, we have placed our hopes and aspirations for the William & Mary yet to come. President Nichol has our confidence and our pledge to work with him to chart a course that will lead to a shore on which we all will be proud to stand.”

Board members also approved Mr. Nichol’s 14-person committee to study the role of religion at a public university and are scheduled to hear a report on the committee’s findings at their meeting in April.

Mr. Nichol defended his decision about the cross last month in a State of the School address, when students returned for the spring semester.

“I modified the way in which the cross is displayed in the ancient Wren Chapel seeking to assure that the marvelous Wren so central to the life of the college be equally open and welcoming to all,” he said.

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