An introduction to the past and the template for future conflict

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August 20, 2009

11:36 PM

I want to welcome our new class to Williamsburg. During your time here, many of you will take an active role in the politics and issues of our institution. Students at the College of William and Mary seem to have a natural inclination toward political debate and activism.

This could be because we realize that as young adults we are actually able to influence our society, or maybe we simply find ourselves with excess free time and nothing better to do with it. I would be very surprised if you will be able to go more than a few days without finding yourselves drawn into a discussion of campus issues. To help you prepare for this inevitability, here’s a brief overview of the issues you are likely to hear about in the upcoming semester.

The Wren cross controversy is old news, but you will still hear about it from time to time. In 2006, the then-newly appointed president, Gene Nichol, decided to change the default location of the Wren cross. Previously, this cross had been on display in the Wren Chapel but could be moved on request to accommodate the different groups that used the room.

Nichol decided that the cross should be kept in another location and displayed upon request. Some groups on campus — including religious and conservative organizations — protested this change, and those in favor of separation of church and state protested right back.

The debate took on epic proportions as both sides called in national interest groups and the issue was no longer confined to the College. After a few months, a compromise was reached under which the cross would remain in the Chapel, stored in a display case as an historic artifact rather than a religious symbol.
In reaction to the controversy, several individuals revoked their donations to the College, including former
Board of Visitors member James McGlothlin’s ’62, J.D. ’64 proposed $12 million gift.

In 2008, another controversy erupted when the BOV — an organization which, among other duties, is responsible for appointing the College’s presidents — decided not to renew Nichol’s contract, therefore making his presidency one of the shortest in the College’s history. Nichol chose to resign rather than finish out the remaining months of his term, asserting that he had been fired for embracing free speech and diversity and that the BOV had bribed him to stay silent on this point.

This decision provoked a short period of outrage on campus after some students and faculty rallied in support for Nichol. The rallies have since subsided, and I would say that most students are satisfied with Nichol’s replacement, President Taylor Reveley.

While the above issues might be high profile, glamorous and fun to debate, the subjects that really will affect your life are more mundane. Many controversies deal with the relationship between students and Williamsburg residents. As you may have noticed, Williamsburg is not a bustling metropolis, and a couple thousand boisterous college kids have a tendency to cause some trouble. The city has several policies designed to protect local residents from perceived disturbances that result from student presence in the community.

At the top of the list is the three-person rule. This law requires that no more than three unrelated persons can live in the same house. This has obvious implications for students who wish to live off campus, especially considering that many houses near the College are large enough to accommodate more than three people comfortably and are too expensive to only split between three students. Recently, there seems to be some progress toward reaching a compromise, as the city council appears willing to allow up to four people to occupy a house. Regardless, there is still a long way to go.

These are just a few of the issues that have affected and continue to affect the College. I believe they provide a good picture of the sort of politics you will be a part of in the coming years.

It is also important to note that students shaped the issues in some way. Committees with student members were a vital part in reaching the compromise concerning the Wren cross, appointing Reveley as president after Nichol’s resignation and working to amend the three-person rule. This is proof that student political activism is not simply a vain exercise. You are truly able to strongly influence your surroundings.

E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]

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