In the early 1950s, in the wake of the McCarthy era, state legislatures including Virginia’s were pressing oaths of loyalty to the United States on state employees all across America. Faculty members claimed justly that if they had done something treasonous, they should be accused and stand trial, but they should be assumed innocent until proven guilty. One of the most celebrated incidents happened at the College of William and Mary, a little over a half century ago. The much-beloved chairman of the philosophy department, James Miller who had been previously acting-president, resigned because “under its present auspices, there is little hope for the College of William and Mary.”
The College’s President, former Admiral Alvin Duke Chandler with the Board of Visitors behind him, pressured an outraged faculty to sign the oaths. It was a bitter, dishonorable period and badly hurt the College’s faculty recruiting and its reputation and fund-raising appeal for many years.
On January 25, William and Mary’s new embattled President Gene Nichol gave his first “State of the College” speech. His arbitrary removal of a cross from the altar of the historic 275 year old Wren Chapel in October has deluged him with more than 10,000 signatures to a petition to put it back and hundreds of letters to his office and his Board of Visitors asking the same. Freedom of Information Act requests by alumni asking for copies of the letters that urged Nichol to his decision, or objected to it, were refused as “privileged.” As its only answer to one, the President’s office floated up page three of one lonely redacted copy favoring his action. This letter was clearly from a personal acquaintance of Nichol’s and his wife’s. The last line read: “We hope to have a chance soon to visit more with you both.”
Four months passed with a constant barrage from thousands of concerned alumni and others interested in the issue, who received no response from Nichol or his state-appointed Board of Visitors. After blathering for months about his dedication to “dialogue,” his interest in opening a “conversation,” not to mention the preposterous “25,000 conversations” Nichol claimed in his monologue (which is a rate of 6 an hour if he worked 8 hour 7 day weeks during his 18 month tenure), Nichol took the opportunity in his speech to announce the public executive’s favorite issue killer. He kicked the question of the cross down the road to a committee he is appointing himself for what would hopefully be a quiet death.
Was Nichols perhaps merely aligning William and Mary with colleges of similar merit all of which had been removing crosses from their chapels in an effort to create a more welcoming multicultural multiversity? To the surprise of many, a survey last week by a noted statistical analyst, available on the SaveTheWrenCross.org website, found that all of the eight colleges known as the Colonial Colleges still had chapels. And all but William and Mary — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, and Rutgers — have a cross almost always on display.
An invitation from a William and Mary student newspaper, dated December 21, to defend his action in a debate set for the Wren Chapel on February 1 with conservative Dinesh D’Souza was stalled by the lies of Nichol’s office staff. He only deigned to respond personally on the 17th of January. Nichol claimed he hadn’t been able to get through his mail in time to consider it and had read about it in the newspaper. (The debate was scheduled to take place last night.)
The day of Nichol’s speech last week a very odd thing happened. A former Dean, Robert Archibald, began to circulate a petition to every department of the faculty. As one faculty member explained in an email to his department: “Bob Archibald just asked me to circulate in Rogers [Hall] a petition expressing faculty (full-time and emeritus) support for President Nichol’s position on the cross in the Wren Chapel. When I questioned the need for such action, Archibald said that the Board of Visitor[s] is under great pressure to overrule the President.” He left out the fact that Nichol has told members of the State of Virginia government that he would resign if overruled. And the pressure put on this poor professor by Archibald was high: “I’m supposed to get this petition tomorrow (or Monday) [January 29th].” The professor asked to carry this forward confirmed that the text was accurate. Had anyone considered the direct pressure a petition like this puts on the untenured faculty it was sent to who are totally at the mercy of the faculty and administration for their livelihood? Archibald sees none.
Nichol had at least announced the formation of a committee in his speech to determine what his policy toward the Wren Chapel should be. But Archibald’s faculty petition is a blank check made out to Nichol concluding “…we support President Nichol’s policy for the Wren Chapel” whatever it is or may turn out to be. It is a total abdication of faculty responsibility. Stephen Decatur’s toast to the United States “right or wrong” was corrected by the Nuremberg Trials’ reminder of individual responsibility, but any policy by Nichol, right or wrong, is good enough for Archibald and his petition signers.
What had never occurred to this professor or anyone else was that this was the return of the loyalty oath after 52 years, and this time it is far worse. Instead of being compelled by Virginia politicians and the Board of Visitors and their appointed president to swear an oath of loyalty to the United States and the state, these faculty members are volunteering to swear an oath of personal loyalty to President Nichol to defend him against his dreaded Board of Visitors appointed by the State of Virginia. Many graduates can remember happier days in which the faculty of the College of William and Mary would have noisily burnt a petition like this in front of the President’s House.
It would be sadly ironic indeed if more than 50 years after their last loyalty oath, this time the liberties of the College of William and Mary had to be saved from its new president and his timorous faculty by the legislature of the state of Virginia and its appointed Board of Visitors.
If they don’t, Professor Miller’s words echo down through the years: “under its present auspices, there is little hope for the College of William and Mary.”