If you want know what’s wrong with higher education, look no further than Gene Nichol, the recently ousted president of Virginia’s College of William and Mary.  First, he banished an iconic cross from the chapel in the school’s Sir Christopher Wren Building, the oldest continuously operating college building in the United States.  Then, he let a traveling porn show stake its tent on campus for the third time.  Though Nichol’s welcome departure in February incited some protests on campus and prompted a member of the school’s board of visitors to resign, the angry alumni who drove him from office may well prove that the university is not quite dead.

Nichol’s trouble began in October 2006, when he ordered the Wren Cross removed.  His reason?  The cross, a gift from Williamsburg’s Bruton Episcopal Church in 1906, offended non-Christian students.  In a letter to Nichol, religious-studies professor Marc Raphael claimed that some prospective students, touring William and Mary with their Jewish parents, rejected Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater after their eyes fell on the cross.

“The William and Mary community,” Nichol opined in an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “is generous and embracing—it touches, it entwines, it reaches past barriers to form loves and friendships that endure.  These bonds are the best part of the life of the College, old and new.  Polarization is not our way.  We’re a Tribe.

“But most alumni would be saddened to read the first two paragraphs of [Raphael’s letter].  In embracing our own religious practices, we have perhaps thought less of the impact on others.  We have not understood, I think, that some don’t come here, or feel less welcome here, because they hail from different religious traditions.  What has sometimes been true for Jewish students is now increasingly replicated by Muslim, Hindu and other non-Christians—from across the globe.”

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Nichol, according to savethewrencross.org, is a made member of the American Civil Liberties Union, or that he loaded the original ukase he used to whack the cross with standard ACLU boilerplate.

The problem Nichol suggests—that Jews, Muslims, and Shintoists might think William and Mary is an outpost of Christendom—is flatly preposterous.  First, most Jews and Muslims aren’t offended.  Second, like most colleges and universities, including the Catholic variety, William and Mary is secular, at best, and anti-Christian, at worst, and the Wren Cross was there for a century not because students and faculty are fervid Christians, but because a secular Saladin had yet to appear on campus.  Nichol took up the multicultural scimitar.

The school has not always been a stage for anti-Christan antics and sex shows.  As alumnus Vince Haley observed in National Review, 11 of William and Mary’s 26 presidents have been ministers, and the school’s 315-year-old Royal Charter is explicitly Christian.  The school was founded “to the end that the Church of Virginia may be furnished with a seminary of ministers of the gospel . . . and that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God.”

Nichol’s reward for his anticross crusade?  One unamused alumnus scotched a $12-million donation to the school, and dozens of other alumni followed suit.  The squeeze apparently had some effect: In August 2007, school officials put the cross back on display in the chapel, although not as a religious object and not on the altar.  Instead, from its glass case, it merely helps demonstrate the Anglican roots of the school.  One wag suggested the glass protected unsuspecting passersby from dangerous “Jesus rays.”  Still, the cross went back.

With the Cross Kerfuffle resolved, Nichol, in early February, permitted the third annual presentation of the Sex Workers’ Art Show.  Six days after the carnal cabaret, the board of governors lowered the curtain on Nichol.  They did not renew his contract, so he resigned two days later.  Regardless of the cross and carnality, it may have come down to money.  As the campus paper editorialized, Nichol’s “relationships with donors soured and serious ethical questions arose concerning whether he knowingly misrepresented fundraising figures.”  Del. Bob Marshall of Virgina’s 13th District publicly accused Nichol of “intentional and calculated misrepresentation of the truth” about the lost $12-million donation.

Undoubtedly, the Wren Cross didn’t much fortify the Christian character of most students over the past 30 years.  Yet when a left-wing indifferentist took it down, the alumni’s residual faith, or perhaps only their cultural affinity for the cross, was strong enough to inspire their rebellion.  Hope, as Pope said, springs eternal.