The following statement was issued Feb. 8, 2007 by the College of William and Mary Board of Visitors.
The President’s decision to alter the policy governing the display of the cross inside Wren Chapel has sparked a vigorous and passionate debate about religion, history, tradition, values and diversity. The Board of Visitors has heard from countless people both supporting and opposing the decision. Today, in an unprecedented move, the Board of Visitors invited individuals from several constituencies with diverse viewpoints to share their views on this controversial issue. We are grateful for their counsel. While the debate has separated pros and cons into separate camps, what is most inspiring is what binds them rather than divides them—a deep, unflinching love of William and Mary. We love its history and tradition. We love its singularly unique character. We love our experiences and the memories that have made indelible marks on our lives. And we love the promise that the College’s greatest days remain ahead. It is the depth of this feeling that explains why so much passion has come to the surface over this issue.
The Wren Chapel is a particularly unique and special place. It both serves as a vital link to our celebrated past and as a modern, living space for religious and spiritual observance. We must preserve both aspects of its character or something profound will be lost. The Board believes the inherent nature of the building is now and should forever be a Chapel and that its religious heritage is indispensable to its historical character. Whether eternally present or not, a single religious symbol does not itself change that character of a holy place.
President Nichol made a decision to alter the policy governing the display of the cross with the sincere intention of striking a balance between the growing religious diversity of our students and the College’s Christian heritage. As he has explained artfully, he cares deeply for William and Mary and the change was intended to promote important values of inclusion and diversity—values the Board certainly shares. His motives were sincere and his objectives noble. Of this, we are uniformly convinced.
In handling this matter, however, even President Nichol has acknowledged that mistakes have been made. As he freely admits, the President is new and he is learning. A decision, such as this one, that so deeply affects the history and traditions of our school and bears on its values, past and present, should be a shared one. It should be a product of collective thought, discussion and even debate. It is a decision that should involve all stakeholders including the Board, alumni, faculty, students and long loyal friends of the College. We owe it to our community to do better and are persuaded that President Nichol agrees.
In the spirit of inclusion, we are heartened that the President has initiated the opportunity for a broad discussion with the College community to address the question of religion on our public campus and to explore whether there is a policy involving the cross in Wren Chapel that better balances the goals of inclusiveness and diversity with our religious historical origins and the centrality of tradition in our character. We fully support this dialogue and intend to be involved with the process and its conclusions. We have asked the president and the committee to report its recommendations to the Board in April.
Some have urged the Board to take a conclusive position now on the cross policy. We have chosen a different path for several reasons.
First, we feel there is merit in taking time to reflect upon the issue and allow full discourse, led by the President’s committee. The President and the Board will benefit from the guidance that emerges. Critics of the President’s decision argue it was made without consultation and without sufficient input from the entire College community. The Board of Visitors believes the process put in place by the President affords an opportunity for a greater number of people to express their opinions, something that will better inform the views of the Board and the President.
Second, we believe that reversing the President’s decision during the time that the new committee is doing its work would only further separate our community rather than unite it. This issue has sadly divided important constituencies of the College. Our membership, too, contains a range of opinions. But we feel it is more constructive to work with the President and the community to respectfully bring this matter to an amiable conclusion, rather than invoke our authority to sit in judgment like a court of appeal.
Third, we believe there may be legal issues that are deserving of further consideration that could have unintended broader implications for the College and the State. Therefore, we believe some caution is merited.
Finally, and importantly, the Board believes William and Mary is and should be a diverse and welcoming place to all students from around the Commonwealth and around the globe. This should be the message that is projected to prospective students and the outside world. One might argue about where the balance should be struck to achieve this imperative, but we are convinced that adding fuel to the current flames of controversy will only singe the reputation of our College.
President Nichol is a strong and passionate leader. In him we have placed our hopes and aspirations for the William and Mary yet to come. And, we have placed in his hands a sacred trust to protect and preserve the precious green and gold jewel that has been finely polished over the centuries. President Nichol has our confidence and our pledge to work with him to chart a course that will lead to a shore on which we all will be proud to stand.