Staff Editorial: Nichol botched handling of cross

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December 7, 2006

11:46 PM

Whatever you think of College President Gene Nichol’s decision to remove the cross from the Wren Chapel altar until it is requested, the secretive way the policy change was made is an embarrassment to the ideals of this college. The decision to change the cross policy was made without input from students, faculty or alumni, and was not even officially commented on until media pressure forced a reaction from the president. The College should be a model for vigorous debate and transparency, not a place where decisions are made in the dark with the hope that they will never be brought to light.

p. The debate over the cross involves our history, our responsibilities as a state-supported institution and the place of religion in the public sphere. It concerns the future of the Wren Building, our most important and recognizable symbol, where freshmen are officially welcomed to the campus and seniors celebrate their graduation with a ring of the historic bell. This volatile mix of issues and symbolism was certain to elicit controversy and passionate opinions in the College community. Despite the obvious importance of this decision, it was made unexpectedly and without debate. There was no indication from the president that he was considering changing a half-century-old tradition, nor any consultation with the thousands of William and Mary students, professors and alumni who consider the Wren Building a symbolic embodiment of the College they hold so dear. The complete dismissal of community opinion is disrespectful to our traditions and ideals, and it has stirred up a deep well of resentment.

p. Not only was the community’s input never considered, but it appears that Nichol would have preferred his decision to go unnoticed. The policy change was made without a press release, e-mail to the community or any kind of official word from the president. The change was only brought to light after an e-mail was sent to members of the Spotswood Society, the student group that provides tour guides for the Wren Building, by the assistant director for the Historic Campus. The Flat Hat posted a story online, which appeared in the next day’s print edition. If it wasn’t for this e-mail, this story might still remain unreported. We felt that this story was important to more than just our on-campus readership, and members of staff began contacting other media outlets, including several blogs and professional news organizations. The response to our initial story was immediate, and it was soon picked up by dozens of newspapers, websites and television stations across the country. E-mails from concerned alumni and members of the public began pouring in. The next afternoon, Nichol responded to the public outcry with an e-mail to students explaining the decision and welcoming a “broader College discussion,” but the damage had already been done.

p. There are only two reasons the president would have avoided announcing his decision until faced with a public outcry. If he failed to anticipate the impassioned response, he is dangerously aloof and out of touch with the community. If he knew how controversial the decision would be, he must have hoped nobody would notice the cross’s disappearance, and that it could be removed without the controversy we are now facing. It is hard to say which is worse: a president who is blind to the values of the College, or one who thinks he can pull the wool over our eyes while he goes about his own agenda.

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