Alumni | Trusteeship

Don’t ignore alumni votes

VIRGINIA GAZETTE   |  February 7, 2007 by Anne D. Neal

I write on behalf of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability on our nation’s college campuses. ACTA has a network of alumni and trustees from institutions across the country, including the College of William & Mary.

We have followed the controversy over W&M President Gene Nichol’s recent decision to remove the cross from the alter of the Wren Chapel and write to express deep unease about how he has handled an issue that involves the history and traditions of the nation’s second-oldest institution of higher learning, and how he has disregarded the opinions of thousands of concerned alumni. The W&M website takes great pride in highlighting the historic campus and Wren Chapel for students, their families and the public and describes it as, “for more than three centuries…’the soul of the college.’”

For nearly 70 years, the Wren cross has been habitually displayed on the chapel altar, and it is featured in one of the pictures on the website. Nichol objects, however, to the presence of a “powerful religious symbol” at the center of the chapel, arguing that it generates feelings of ostracism and exclusion among those who do not share in the Christian tradition.

His decision stands in opposition to the expressed will of thousands of W&M alumni. We understand that over 3,200 alumni–a remarkable number–have expressed their displeasure. We submit that this huge outpouring of discontent should be of concern.

Our concern is not just for one college, but for all of higher education. In recent years, as other institutions have abandoned beloved institutional traditions, W&M has stood firm, recognizing and appreciating its unique historical identity, while welcoming a diverse community and being open to all.

The Board of Visitors has a responsibility to students, faculty, staff and alumni to review this matter at its upcoming meeting. Due to the concerns outlined above and the significant negative media attention engendered by Nichol’s decision, it is properly a subject of board oversight.

W&M has a unique past and a history that has, for centuries, attracted students and visitors from around the world to the Wren Chapel and W&M’s special educational experience. As fiduciaries, the Visitors have an obligation to preserve and protect the college’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.


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