Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Defending academic freedom from the sexual Puritans

Reviewing the past academic year in terms of finding academics who became stars in opposing arbitrary and capricious repression of sexually related matters on campus, there are very few who attained star status.  The dankprofessor has given recognition to Deputy Provost Richard Holder of the University of New Mexico who was resolute in opposing campus faculty who wished to impose sanctions on English Professor Lisa Chavez for her after academic hours work as a phone sex worker and sm posing model.  However, I do not think that this matter has reached a final resolution and there may be more tests for the Deputy Provost as to how resolute he is in defending civil liberties in academe.

Unquestionably there was one shining academic star this past year- William & Mary president Gene Nichol.  Of course, I should refer to him as past president of William & Mary.  In part because of his opposition to the termination of the Sex Workers’ Art Show, he was relieved of his duties as president of William & Mary.

The Hook, a weekly newspaper out of Charlottesville, Va., has published an article which reviewed a number of recent cases in Virginia relating to sexual repression.  Following is their summary of what happened at William & Mary.

According to its website, the Sex Workers’ Art Show features performers who were once strippers, porn stars, and prostitutes who “offer a wide range of perspectives on sex work, from celebration of prostitutes’ rights and sex-positivity, to views from the darker sides of the industry.”

When Delegate Brenda Pogge (R-Williamsburg) first heard such a show would take place in her district, she dashed off an open letter to then-William & Mary president Gene Nichol, demanding that he step in to cancel the performance.

“Not only has this controversy brought considerable embarrassment to our community,” she wrote, “but in my estimation this will inflict damage to the dignity and decorum that the college enjoys.”

Nichol did ban any photography from the event, even by members of the media, but refused to drop the curtain on the performance. On the night of Monday, February 4, with William & Mary police waiting in the wings to arrest anyone violating the obscenity statute, the Sex Workers’ Art Show put on a censored version of their show, as per a contract negotiated by representatives of state Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

Still, the cries of outrage only seemed to grow. On Thursday, February 7, four potential appointees to the William & Mary board awaiting the General Assembly’s approval were brought before the House of Delegates’ Privileges and Elections Committee. They got an earful, according to media accounts.

“Quite frankly, members of this committee– and many more in the House– are not sure what to make of all these events,” said Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania), the committee’s chair, “and how they advance the teaching, research, and public service mission of William & Mary.”

Five days later, Nichol offered his abrupt resignation, and issued this parting shot in a farewell e-mail to the William & Mary community:

“A committed, relentless, frequently untruthful, and vicious campaign– on the Internet and in the press– has been waged against me, my wife, and my daughters,” he wrote. “It has been joined, occasionally, by members of the Virginia House of Delegates– including last week’s steps by the Privileges and Elections Committee to effectively threaten Board appointees if I were not fired over decisions concerning the Wren Cross [which Nichol had decided to remove to make the College’s oldest building more nondenominational] and the Sex Workers’ Art Show. That campaign has now been rendered successful. And those same voices will no doubt claim victory today.”

The rector of William & Mary’s board, and ultimately Nichol’s boss, is Michael Powell, a 1985 alum of the College and the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commissions, who famously levied a $550,000 fine– the largest in the agency’s history– against CBS for airing Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.

In a statement on the day of Nichol’s resignation, Powell wrote, “the Board believed there were a number of problems that were keeping the College from reaching its full potential and concluded that those issues could not be effectively remedied without a change of leadership,” adding that, “It is critical to explain that this decision was not in any way based on ideology or any single public controversy. To suggest such a motivation for the Board is flatly wrong.”

Weeks after his resignation from the College’s presidency, Nichol left his faculty post at William & Mary’s law school for a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Law School, where he was once dean.

For his part, Whitehead believes it’s an indicator that William & Mary is out of step with the times.

“The university wants to exist in this ivy-covered world outside of reality,” he says. “This guy just seems like he’s stirred the pot, and that sex show was the death of him.”

With William & Mary being a state university, the controversy has not gone unnoticed by Governor Tim Kaine (D). While he did not act in any official capacity in the Nichol matter, he did tell the Hook in a Charlottesville visit last month that he’s skeptical of the reasons why the Board axed its president so soon.

“I don’t think the majority of people in Virginia feel the way that the Board felt with the issues that came up in the Nichol firing,” Kaine says. “But some people do, and it’s a matter of finding the right balance.”

The dankprofessor professes a lack of modesty in giving his kudos to Gene Nichol for his resolute defense of academic values and freedom.  He would not allow the sexual politics of Virginia and William & Mary to trump academic freedom for sexual Puritanism.    

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Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor™
© Copyright 2008




May 5, 2008 Posted by | academic freedom, art, ethics, higher education, sex, sex workers, sexual politics, University of New Mexico, William & Mary College | Leave a comment


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