Staff editorial: Address shows strength

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February 4, 2007

5:57 PM

President Gene Nichol’s first annual State of the College address Jan. 25 was a welcome dose of openness and honesty from an administration that recently had trouble with those ideals. The speech included two of Nichol’s oft-repeated catchphrases — pledging to keep the College “great and public” and his signature “hark upon the gale” — but it was more than the mere recitation of platitudes that it could have been.

p. The speech, which included a look back at what Nichol highlighted as the most important achievements of the past year and a look forward at what he plans for 2007, provided important insight into the president’s thinking. What he revealed showed a responsible plan for guiding the College through a time of enormous change and a president who is becoming increasingly comfortable in his role as the College’s leader.

p. Nichol’s initial handling of his decision to remove a cross from the Wren Chapel altar last fall when this paper broke the story was ham-handed and helped turn what should have been a relatively minor policy change into the biggest issue of the year. However, since his lengthy e-mail to students and staff during final exams, Nichol has responded to the well-deserved criticism by staking out a reasonable compromise, returning the cross to the altar on Sundays and creating a plaque to acknowledge the chapel’s Christian history. He also provided the reasoning behind his decision and welcomed further debate by promising to create a presidential committee to explore the role of religion at public universities.

p. It would have been better if Nichol had taken these common sense steps when he first announced the cross decision, but his actions in the past two months have gone a long way toward healing the rift of last fall. Hopefully the president has learned the importance that our College places on discussion and community involvement, and will not repeat the mistakes of the Wren cross incident. Many of Nichol’s critics will never forgive him even if the cross is returned permanently to the Wren altar, but his acts and words of compromise show that he is on the right track to resolve this issue.

p. The Wren cross incident has upset many alumni, but the volume of donations flowing into the College appears to be unaffected. The five-year fundraising drive known as the Campaign for William and Mary reached its $500 million goal after a record-setting $26 million fourth quarter. The College may now be gearing up for a new, even more ambitious fundraising campaign.

p. Aggressive soliciting of alumni and other donations are absolutely essential for the College to maintain its position among the elite of America’s universities. The College was late to the fundraising game compared with many of its peers, and risks being left behind in the increasingly competitive world of higher education.

p. In the midst of the most expensive construction cycle in the College’s history, the expansion of the Gateway initiative and improving professor pay from the 38th to the 75th percentile of peer institutions, more money is needed than ever before. With state funding stagnant and tuition already rising faster than inflation, the only way to pay for the College’s needs is by courting our extensive network of alumni. A new Campaign for William and Mary, building on the experience of the last campaign and hitting an even higher goal, would ensure that the state of the College remains strong for many years to come.

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