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No Escape

Usually when I leave the office and go home I like to devote myself to at least a few moments of nonwork-related activity before I check my e-mail and realize the FCC has put something out late or somebody has responded to some question that needs adressing online. You know, something that doesn’t have to do with a burning First Amendment issue involving an FCC chairman’s concerns about sex in a show and its effects on young people

So it was last night when I plunked myself down at the dining room table and began reading a letter from the rector of my alma mater. The rector is the head of the board of governors, which, as its name would suggest, is the governing body of the college.

The rector spoke in oblique language about the difficulties of the past few months and the need for canning (my term) the college president. One of the difficulties not named but well known to alumni is that the president had allowed a "sex workers" art show on campus after students requested and funded it.

"My views and the views of others in the community about the worth or offensiveness of the program can provide no basis for censoring it," now former William & Mary President Gene Nichol had written" in defense of his decision not to override the students after trying to have the show moved off campus.

The rector had also aid some nice things about freedom, but Nichol was gone nonetheless.

"The First Amendment and the defining traditions of openness that sustain universities are hallmarks of academic inquiry and freedom," he said, sounding like one of the founding fathers who learned how to dip their quills in history at the college (Jefferson went there to learn how to make UVA, for example).

But I digress.

"It is the speech we disdain that often puts these principles to the test," wrote Nichols. "The First Amendment and the defining traditions of openness that sustain universities are hallmarks of academic inquiry and freedom."

True enough, and I editorialize on the subject frequently, but I had hoped for some mindless diversion with my warmed-over pizza.

I turned over the page as the rector went on, still obliquely, about "recent events," including the president’s abrupt resignation, which may have something to do with the board’s decision not to renew his contract but which the rector insisted had more to do with the "method and management" of that and other problems. There had also been an issue about a cross in the chapel of the venerable Wren Building, but I digress.

Anyway, the rector did not provide much justification for the decision to penalize Nichols, at least in part, for allowing the show to go on, though the rector (I am not naming him for reasons of suspense) offered a laundry list of "unsatisfactories" on Nichols’ report card. "Too frequently," the rector wrote, "the actions leading up to a controversy and how it was handled subsequently, tended to unnecessarily inflame and divide the College community." Take out the "college" and that could be a comment on how the FCC has handled, or mishandled, the indecency crackdown. ‘Why me?,’ I moaned, picking a pepperoni off the pizza and then deciding not to give it to the dog.

While this would work beautifully as a literary device, I promise it is the truth. I had not read the signature until I was almost done with the letter, but when I did the bold-faced name reached out and grabbed me as though I were a pastie on Janet Jackson’s costume: Michael K. Powell. Yes, that Michael K. Powell, alumni of W&M as Well as the FCC.

Next time, I think I will just turn on the TV when I get home.