WASHINGTON — The College of William & Mary, the nation's second oldest, lost its president last week after a culture-war clash that began when he ordered the removal of an 18-inch brass cross from the altar of the historic Wren Chapel.
His decision, an act of legal principle to some and a blunder of liberal activism to others, touched off a revolt among conservative bloggers and alumni of the state-supported school in Williamsburg, Va., and led to his resignation Tuesday.
The dispute underscores the deep divide over the role of religion in public institutions, and shows how an ideological firestorm can be sparked on a college campus.
Gene R. Nichol, a former law school dean at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and the University of Colorado in Boulder, became William & Mary's president in July 2005. An imposing figure who played football at Oklahoma State, he was known as a champion of civil liberties and the Bill of Rights. In Colorado, he unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat.
After a year in Williamsburg, he decided that the cross in the Wren Chapel should not be on display at all times but only during Christian services. He said he was protecting the 1st Amendment and the separation of church and state.
"The display of a Christian cross -- the most potent symbol of my own religion -- in the heart of our most important building sends an unmistakable message that the chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others," he told students in November 2006.
Conservatives said the presence of a cross in a chapel did not violate the 1st Amendment. They started a website called Save the Wren Cross and another called Should Nichol Be Renewed?
Nichol is not the first college official to get caught up in ideological crosscurrents.
Lawrence H. Summers left as Harvard University president in 2006, a year after an uproar over his suggestion that one reason women are underrepresented in science is "issues of intrinsic aptitude."
Last year at Duke University, President Richard Brodhead apologized for his handling of a black woman's allegations that she had been raped by three white lacrosse players. At first, university officials were faulted for not condemning a culture of white elitism that would tolerate such abuse. Then, when the accuser's story collapsed and the charges were dropped, administrators were accused of having been blinded by liberal political correctness.
The new law school at UC Irvine became embroiled in controversy before it even opened. Former USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, a nationally known expert on constitutional law who holds liberal views, was asked to be its first dean. But the offer was withdrawn after some conservatives criticized his selection; news of the revoked offer then touched off outrage in academic and legal circles. Chemerinsky was eventually hired.
These recent high-voltage clashes do not necessarily suggest a return to 1960s-style campus turbulence, said former University of Virginia President Robert M. O'Neil, now a professor emeritus at the university. He noted that the students have largely been bystanders in the recent controversies. The clashes do, however, suggest a new era of ideological controversy fueled in part by the Internet, he said.
"I was fortunate to be a president at two campuses during the relative calm of the 1980s and early '90s," at the University of Wisconsin and then Virginia, O'Neil said. "Things have become much more contentious. There's more stridency on campus. And with the new media, tensions can be hyped like never before."
O'Neil, who, like Nichol, is a 1st Amendment expert, said he was surprised at the escalation of the dispute over the Wren cross. "I didn't even know our policy here until this came up," he said. The University of Virginia chapel hosts ceremonies including Jewish weddings, he said, and the cross may be removed from the altar then.
The difference at William & Mary was that Nichol said the cross should be absent most days, such as when the Wren Chapel was used for talks and seminars, and restored only for Christian worship services.
Under pressure, Nichol asked a panel of faculty and students to weigh in. Last year they reached a compromise: The cross is kept in a plexiglass container on permanent display in the chapel.
As for the 1st Amendment question, legal experts disagree on whether a public college should have a cross on display. The amendment itself says in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech."
Since the 1940s, the Supreme Court has agreed that the amendment applies to all levels of government, including public colleges. But it has given mixed messages on whether religious symbols may be displayed at public buildings.