Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Goverance and Creative Destruction: The William and Mary Controversy

By Richard Vedder

In my opinion, there is not enough Schumpeterian "creative destruction" in American higher education. Colleges seldom fail --accreditation is largely a bad joke--and leaders of colleges are ousted a little less often than they should be for poor performance. The consequences of mediocrity or failure in higher education are too low. In part, this is because of the gutless behavior of most boards of trustees who look at their assignment as one of simply blessing the president's decisions (to be sure, there are some boards who go too far in the other direction --meddling in the daily operations of the institution).

The firing of Gene Nichol at America's oldest public university, William and Mary, thus was for me a pleasant surprise. I wonder if there is a special place in Hell for domineering left-wing presidents who are contemptuous of traditions, alumni, and of past decisions to define an institution's missions and identity. If there is, I suspect Mr. Nichol is headed there eventually.

Nichol started off on a bad foot by removing a much loved symbol of William and Mary's past --a cross from the Wren Chapel that had been there for several generations. There is a decent case that can be made for not having a symbol of Christianity in a public facility, but instead of engaging the University community on the issue and his concerns, Nichol just removed the cross, inflaming alums. He also generally was contemptuous of the passions and contributions of many loyal alums whose dedication to William and Mary span decades --long before Nichols was there.

Is William and Mary a bastion for WASP behavior, contemptuous of other groups and a relic of a not so glorious past? Hardly. The Rector (equivalent of trustee chair) who was so viciously attacked by Nichol in his less than gracious departure was one of this nation's most distinguished African-Americans, a decorated Army veteran, prominent lawyer, former head of a major government agency (FCC), and a man of moderate temperament and politics (Michael Powell, who seems to have many of the qualities of his distinguished father Colin). Jews and Muslims visiting to use the Wren Chapel for special events could have the cross temporarily removed or covered. If he had the power, Nichol would probably ban chaplains from the U.S. Senate, "In God We Trust" from our currency, and "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Most Americans don't agree with that perspective. We are a nation tolerant of people of different colors, beliefs, sexual origins, etc. So is William and Mary. However, we are not tolerant of dictators who try to substitute their judgment for that of the broader community. For that, Gene Nichol lost his job.

William and Mary will carry on --as it has with great distinction for 312 years. I suspect its most famous graduate, Thomas Jefferson, would not have been displeased with the recent actions at his alma mater.


Mad Dog said...

The left wing nut-jobs are screaming all the time about how the republicans want to take away civil liberties. They call Bush "Hitler" and other very sweet names - we've all heard it, seen it, or read it.

But when the left wing nut-jobs try to take away our liberties such as the 1st amendment which addresses the rights of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and others - or when the left wing nut-jobs on the supreme court walk all over the 14th amendment (equal protection of the law) by legislating from the bench, you don't ever hear a damned thing about it.

Now you may have stirred the pot here in your post, and I expect my self-described liberal buddies to have their say (which doesn't mean dick to me), but by god I am truly humbled by the size of your balls to take this issue on and not do some politically correct dance around it.

Mr. Me said...

I disagree with your final paragraph. By his late adulthood Jefferson was disillusioned with William and Mary's conservative, ecclesiastical traditionalism.

However, instead of forcing W&M to change he lead the foundation of UVa, the nation's first modern, secular university.

By the way, William and Mary was not public until 1888. I believe UNC is the oldest public university.

Cowboy said...

Great epistle Rich. I'd go on, but if I did, I'd go on and on, and on...