Molly Robinson is a first-year PhD student in American Studies at the College of William and Mary. Her public writing includes a recent blog post on William & Mary Libraries blog. She has also published with Platform and The Trouble Magazine. Email Molly at email@example.com.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
According to the current bylaws of the Board of Visitors, the President of the College of William and Mary, in consultation with the Rector, has the power to recommend candidates for honorary degrees to the Board for approval. Governor Glenn Youngkin was among the recipients of an honorary degree at the College’s 329th Charter Day celebration on Feb. 11. Therefore, President Rowe and Rector John Littel, the latter of whom Governor Glenn Youngkin named as Virginia’s next Secretary of Health and Human Resources last month, made the choice to recommend the Governor for an honorary degree.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, administrators deployed the rhetoric of tradition to conceal the political process by which honorary degrees are conferred. Classifying the practice as a “long-standing tradition” makes it seem as if every Virginia governor since 1693 has received an honorary degree from the College. Perhaps those who invoke tradition truly believe this; tradition does not lose its power when those who weaponize it are unaware of their role in constructing the artifice. Or perhaps tradition is used by those in power to avoid ownership of their decisions.
Holding this “long-standing tradition” up to the light reveals its short history. Governor Youngkin is just the 12th Virginia governor to ever receive an honorary degree at a Charter Day celebration. Former Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis received an honorary degree in 1921, and it was infamous segregationist Harry F. Byrd who infused the practice with regularity when he was awarded an honorary degree from the College in 1926.
1926 might be a watershed for tradition at the College. Perhaps it was in the name of tradition that five thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan descended on Williamsburg on September 26 of that year to present the College with the gift of an American flag and a flagpole. College President J.A.C. Chandler wrung his hands, complaining of the awkward position the Klan had put him in. Ultimately, he appealed to traditions of liberty and free speech to authorize the Klan’s activities. Most of the College’s one thousand students joined the ceremony. Tradition kept this flag — a commemorative token of Chandler’s accommodation of the Klan — waving at the intersection of Jamestown Road and South Boundary Street until the late 1950s.
Not everyone was happy with Chandler’s decision. Among his critics was John Stewart Bryan, publisher of the Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times Dispatch. Bryan sat on the College’s Board of Visitors at that time. He was outraged at Chandler’s bad-faith reliance on First Amendment principles to sanction a Klan meeting, and threatened to resign over the event. Unfortunately, in an era of Jim Crow racial violence against African Americans, most of Chandler’s critics viewed the event as a minor embarrassment rather than an instance of domestic terrorism.
When John Stewart Bryan became President of the College in 1934, he wanted to challenge the state politicians who controlled much of the direction of the College, and empower faculty and students instead. He drafted the first set of faculty bylaws and circulated them with a letter addressed to faculty one week in advance of a scheduled vote.
“It is obvious that no separate genius can take the place of unified action,” he wrote of the bylaws, “and it is with the purpose of attaining the maximum that can be furnished by this Faculty that I am suggesting this new step for your consideration.”
Bryan likely recognized that, at best, routine honorary degrees would be meaningless, devoid of real attachment to the College’s values. At worst, they could become imprimaturs for powerful politicians who legislated in opposition to these values. With this in mind, Bryan drafted bylaws that contained explicit provisions for nominating candidates.
These provisions put the power to recommend candidates directly in the hands of the faculty. Article III gave the College faculty the power to recommend candidates to the Board of Visitors, whose final vote would confer the degrees. Article IV went even further, establishing a faculty committee on honorary degrees. Bryan’s intention was clear: faculty, whose research, pedagogy and service to the College defined its values, would take priority over the Board of Visitors in the selection of honorary degree recipients. Faculty ratified the bylaws on Nov. 15, 1938, and the Board of Visitors approved them shortly thereafter.
It is in keeping with the spirit of these first bylaws that the College’s Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (CDEI) recently spoke out against the Board’s decision to award an honorary degree to Gov. Youngkin. In an open letter circulated prior to Charter Day, the committee wrote, “We are compelled to note here that Gov. Youngkin did not waste time in eliminating the cabinet-level DEI post, asking the DEI staff to resign, and denying the existence of systemic racism in American society by banning the strawman of critical race theory from public schools.”
From my seat in Kaplan Arena, I heard at least one Charter Day speaker encourage the College’s students to demonstrate intellectual curiosity. And yet appeals to “long-standing tradition” thwart the intellectual curiosity that asks, “Why are things the way they are? Why do we do this?” Tradition mystifies, concealing the thread of transformation that runs through history. If faculty bylaws were amended to jettison the power of those recommending honorary degree candidates in 1972 — when a new set of bylaws without the provisions for nomination were approved — then they can be amended again.
Doctrine is not immune to change, and occasionally even makes room for it. Why else would the current bylaws for the Board of Visitors give the President, in consultation with the Rector, the power to recommend that the Board revoke an honorary degree? Perhaps another choice can still be made.