Under the Virginia State Constitution and the College of William and Mary’s status as a public university, the members of the Board of Visitors are appointed by the Governor of Virginia. As gubernatorial elections occur every four years, the same length of service that a BOV term runs for, a single governor has significant influence over the composition of the Board, and therefore the outcome of the decisions that the Board makes.
In recent years, the College’s Board of Visitors has received increased attention over many high profile decisions, most notably related to the naming and renaming of campus buildings, which the Board has sole authority over. As a politically appointed body, most members of the Board have been involved in state or national politics at some point, with many having publicly partisan inclinations.
As Virginia’s governorship has been controlled by the Democratic Party for the last eight years, all but one member of the Board was first appointed by a Democratic governor. Additionally, every single member has been appointed or re-appointed by a Democratic administration, with many members being appointed and re-appointed by both Governor Terry McAuliffe and Governor Ralph Northam.
Given the intense scrutiny that the Board has received throughout the last year, I urge College students to consider the Board as a motivating factor in deciding their vote in the 2021 gubernatorial election.
Early next month, former governor Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin will face voters, with mail-in and early voting having been ongoing for weeks. If Glenn Youngkin were to win the November 2nd election, the results to our institution would be catastrophic.
Most students who were here last year and who actively participated in the efforts to rename campus buildings know that the Board of Visitors does not move with haste. It took extreme public pressure on the part of the student body, through direct action in the form of protests and a student initiated referendum, as well as a concerted effort of student leaders and representatives to the Board in order to produce change.
At their April 2021 meeting, the Board finally approved the renaming of select campus buildings, most notably Tyler, Morton and Taliaferro Halls, which are now known as Chancellor’s, Boswell and Willis Halls, respectively. There remain many buildings and iconography throughout campus which are still in dire need of renaming or removal, with Ewell Hall as an example, where no amount of Board-driven contextualization will make up for deciding not to rename.
Does anyone honestly believe that, had Republicans prevailed in the 2017 gubernatorial election, a Republican-appointed Board would have pursued these changes? I certainly don’t. Given how removing Confederate iconography has become a major culture war throughout the country, I believe that a Republican Board would have taken no action to rename any building, and would have completely insulated itself from public pressure and student opinion.
The potential for harm does not stop at thwarting further renaming efforts. The governing bodies of other state institutions, such as the University of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees, have recently come under fire for interfering in the academic freedom of professors, intervening inappropriately in the hiring process to deny Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, tenure which she had been approved for. Other Republican-led states such as Georgia have decided to end tenure altogether, sending a clear signal to professors that academic freedom is under fire.
Given Glenn Youngkin’s clear pattern of behavior, in which he has openly courted and embraced Donald Trump’s support, and shown a clear intention to engage in culture wars on a list of issues, William and Mary cannot afford the Board of Visitors that he would appoint. Had we had a Republican Board in recent years, they likely would have stopped all renaming efforts, interfered in the implementation of our vaccinate mandate which facilitated our return to in-person instruction and campus life, and infringed on professors’ academic freedom to teach the full history of race and gender in the United States.
Now is not the time to get complacent.
That possibility is once again a reality. Polls show that the gubernatorial election is virtually tied. I encourage students at the College and throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia to consider the impact that the next governor will have on the administration of their university. Our current Board has issues; they act too slowly and do not properly prioritize the student voice in their deliberations, but a Youngkin-appointed Board would be an active threat to student life and academic freedom, and would not be susceptible to student pressure like the current Board is. When deciding to cast your vote on or before November 2nd, I urge you not to vote for Glenn Youngkin or to sit out the election.
Owen Williams ’23 is a junior majoring in Government & History from Vienna, Virginia. He currently serves as a Senator for the Class of 2023 and as Chair of the Senate in the Student Assembly. He is also involved in Students for University Advancement, the W&M Young Democrats, the Spotswood Society, Phi Gamma Delta and is an Orientation Aide. Outside of William & Mary he serves as President of the Virginia College Democrats. The views expressed here are his own and are not representative of any organization of which he is a member. Email Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org.