Brendan Clark ’24 is a J.D. candidate at William & Mary Law School. Originally from Barnstable, Massachusetts, Brendan received his B.A. from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut in May 2021.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
The College of William and Mary’s Charter Day celebration this year was an episode in contradiction among the constituents of this campus: It was clear that some in the student body felt that the university had betrayed its central value of inclusion, but it was equally clear at the ceremony that a different group felt the protest was out of step with their own sincerely held political beliefs.
In our haste and concern to define the values of the institution and to urge or reject that they have been offended, we have missed the mark of what function an honorary degree holds and how we should understand this conferral.
There is something to be said — in the bitter partisan rancor which so often marks our society today — for a tradition that continues apace even in the face of political disagreement.
For any institution to be successful, diversity is a prerequisite. That diversity surely takes many forms — of race, of creed, of religion, of thought — but, in all its forms, it demands of each of us a respect for civil disagreement. It demands understanding of the other side. I would venture to say that most of us are “wrong” much of the time, and right very little, and we should not dispense with a view merely because it conflicts with our own. Acknowledging this recognizes a fundamental truth — spoken and lived through the ages — that people will share differences of opinion, those differences will be real, and they will not dissipate.
Casting the administration, or individuals, as bigots, or as progenitors of a great social ill and animus, does little to make real progress on improving this institution. It is not difficult to surmise that people will be far less motivated to support a cause if an “us” / “them” dichotomy is so quickly drawn.
As a law student, too often I am reminded of the divisiveness that our political system brings with it, and of the deep import that the actions of legislators and political actors have on our country. So, too, can any serious study of the law today not fail to acknowledge the great historical errors which have marred our society and left so many to the horrors of discrimination, disparagement and bigotry at the hands of the government through the ages.
But it does nothing to suggest that the institution is beyond repair or irreparably marred by its past failings, or to mark this as another episode in the institution’s long and failed history. If so pessimistic an approach were adopted, then we have effectively foreclosed any opportunity for progress. Nothing is served when we declare the institution irredeemable because of its sordid history and then attempt to assert that change can occur. Those two positions are logically at odds and irreconcilable.
That this bipartisan tradition has endured here, regardless of the strife of current political discourse, communicates to me that the College retains concern for certain foundational values to a liberal society, viz. free political discourse, an embrace of the marketplace of ideas and some measure of reverence for those entrusted with the great and solemn office of public trust in our nation and in the Commonwealth. It suggests, as Federalist No. 10 so aptly captures, that factionalism is that “dangerous vice,” one that prompts any friend of popular government to be “alarmed for their character and fate.” As a former student newspaper editor with his fair share of critics, I know all too well the pains engendered by factionalism.
This year, Governor Youngkin was elected. One need not agree with every policy decision he makes, nor any policy decision for that matter. Indeed, robust debate and disagreement on policy and on intent is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. Protest is to be welcomed — and, as it should be, protected.
But accepting that we can disagree with Governor Youngkin’s policies does not change an immutable fact: He holds a solemn office of public trust and is accountable to Virginians.
The pain of policies enacted is real and due acknowledgment. But the conferral of a degree honoris causa on Glenn Youngkin, Ralph Northam, Terry McAuliffe or Bob McDonnell is not a statement or endorsement of their political values. It is for the College to define what those degrees are given for, what the basis is for the honoris causa. The College has not stated that it has conferred the degree “for his outstanding political values” or his “exceptional character,” or any variant that constitutes an endorsement of his beliefs.
Instead, the foundation of the honoris causa, the ceremony reveals, is his discharge of the “solemn duties of this great Commonwealth.” This is the same foundation that has greeted governors for decades. There is simply no basis in the record to suggest that the honorary degree is an implicit endorsement of belief, for it is the university that defines the grant, and the university has explicitly defined the grant as one recognizing the Governor’s duties to the people.
If the democratic experiment that is these United States shall continue, our educational institutions should act as beacons to set aside differences and acknowledge that a certain amount of trust be placed in those who have been duly elected to lead. That trust may be perilous currently, but if there is any enduring truth, it is that our officers will discharge their duties. If this principle is cast asunder, then I would contend that our ability to govern is lost.
Whatever your political persuasion, the College maintained a tradition that has real value. It is not an endorsement of politics or of moral character. It is an endorsement of the Office of the Governor itself — a high and worthy position that, under the Commonwealth’s Constitution, is charged with faithfully discharging its duties for the citizenry.
It is my earnest hope that the College will maintain this tradition and continue to honor the Commonwealth’s Governors in years to come — be they a Democrat, a Republican or some other affiliation — as part of the great tradition of cooperation and bipartisanship which has long marked the upward success of the American experiment since the dawn of the Republic.
This is not a mere tradition or simple platitude; it is a statement that the Commonwealth will long endure under the safeguard of elected leaders. That faith in leaders, of all stripes, ought to continue.