WILLIAMSBURG, VA—For months, the College of William and Mary has been engulfed in controversy thanks to its president’s sudden decision to remove the historic Wren Chapel’s cross. In a new letter, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni is urging the college’s Board of Visitors to review the decision at its upcoming meeting.
“Over three thousand William and Mary alumni have expressed their concern over the president’s decision,” noted ACTA president Anne D. Neal. “That is a huge number from an important constituency. The Board of Visitors ought to take their input seriously and review the cross issue this week.”
ACTA wrote the letter after numerous William and Mary alumni requested its input on the controversy. As the letter notes, a petitioned signed by over 3,000 alumni who object to the president’s decision can be found at the Save the Wren Cross’ website. The Board of Visitors will meet this Thursday and Friday.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) also weighed in on the controversy last week. While declining to “micromanage” college presidents, he remarked, “My basic feeling about it, though, is look, this was built at William and Mary as a chapel. And I think to respect what it has been, the role it has played in the college, and to have the cross there certainly did not offend me.”
“Governor Kaine has it precisely right,” ACTA’s Neal said. “The Board of Visitors—fiduciaries of William and Mary—should revisit President Nichol’s decision at their meeting. We hope they will fulfill their responsibility to students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”
In urging the Board to intervene, ACTA wrote:
William and Mary has a unique past and a history that has, for centuries, attracted students and visitors from around the world to the Wren Chapel and William and Mary’s special educational experience. As fiduciaries, the Visitors have an obligation to preserve and protect William and Mary’s identity and reputation, and ensure that its governance is open to alumni concerns.
Colleges that exclude alumni from important discussions, or simply manipulate them, not only break their covenant with alumni, but also deprive themselves of the independent judgment and broader perspectives that alumni have to offer. Shutting out informed voices of concern at the very moment when the College’s valued history and identity are threatened is perilous indeed.
ACTA’s letter points out that prior to last October, a cross donated in the 1930s was placed on the Wren Chapel altar—and that it could be removed for any event whose sponsors objected to it. But in October, William and Mary president Gene Nichol reversed the policy so that the cross was removed unless specifically requested. This was done with no public consultation; an administrator later labeled it an effort to make the chapel “more welcoming.”
Nichol has since replaced the cross on Sundays and appointed a committee to study the issue further, but the thousands of alumni remain unsatisfied, and negative publicity continues.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a bipartisan, national nonprofit dedicated to academic freedom, academic quality, and accountability in higher education. ACTA has a network of trustees and alumni around the country and has issued numerous reports including Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action, The Hollow Core, and Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century.