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BOV moves forward on president's 'religion' committee

Meese, shown during Charter Day ceremonies, will co-chair the committee. By Stephen Salpukas.A 14-person committee will address the challenging questions surrounding religion’s role at a public university, including the use of the historic Wren Chapel, William and Mary President Gene R. Nichol announced to members of the Board of Visitors last week.

During the meeting, Nichol named the dozen individuals who would join the previously announced co-chairs of the committee, which includes alumni, faculty, students and friends of the College. The committee represents a group of individuals who bring a wide variety of opinions and backgrounds to help explore challenging issues, such as the placement of the cross in the Wren Chapel, Nichol said.

“These are strong individuals who bring varying viewpoints to these difficult issues,” Nichol said.

Nichol had announced the formation of the presidential committee during his State of the College address on Jan. 25 and named James Livingston, the Walter G. Mason Professor Emeritus of Religion at the College, and Alan J. Meese, the Ball Professor of Law at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law, as co-chairs.

Nichol blurbNichol announced the names of committee members during a special session at the board meeting on Feb. 8. Board members had invited speakers on all sides of the Wren cross issue to make presentations during the meeting. While acknowledging the many passionate opinions that have been expressed since last fall, the Board issued a strong endorsement of the committee in a statement following the meeting.

“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,” according to the statement by the board. “We fully support this dialogue and intend to be involved with the process and its conclusions.”

Board members have heard from many members of the College community since the decision, said Michael K. Powell (’85), rector of the College. In October, the decision was made to reserve display of the cross in the Wren Chapel for appropriate religious services or when someone makes a special request. At other times, the cross is in the chapel’s sacristy. The cross is on display in the chapel on Sundays.

Powell said it was important for board members to hear from representatives of all sides of the issue.

“It’s only fitting to do so in the finest traditions of respectable academic discourse,” Powell said before introducing the speakers, which included Bob Thompson, a 1977 graduate who is among five alumni on the committee, and the Rev. Herman “Holly” Hollerith IV, rector of Bruton Parish Church who also is a committee member.

Thompson spoke against the president’s decision and said he and his family were “stunned” when they learned of the decision to alter the display of the cross. “This is needlessly tearing this community apart,” Thompson said.

Hollerith urged the board to be cautious of the “tremendous religious and political hypocrisy that surrounds the issue.” “Is this about winning a victory for God, or is this about winning a victory over a college president?”

The decision regarding the placement of the cross has sparked a series of opinions and viewpoints, including a Web site, www.savethewrencross.org, calling for a reversal of the president’s decision, and another, www.ourcampusunited.org, which was started by students and alumni who fear outside political interests have taken over the discussion. Vince Haley (’88), who founded the Save the Wren site, and Brian Cannon (’04), who is an organizer with the Campus United movement, spoke to the board during the special session.

The board also heard from faculty and student representatives. Senior James Ambrose, the Student Assembly’s liaison to the board, said the decision was a “nonissue” for students.

A recent faculty petition in support of the president’s decision has gathered 394 signatures, or 71.5 percent of full-time faculty, in about a week, said Katherine Kulick, associate professor of modern languages and literatures and president of the Faculty Assembly. A resolution in support of the president’s decision recently passed in the Faculty Assembly without a dissenting vote, Kulick added.

The board ended the session with comments from both co-chairs of the committee.

The committee already has started its work and hopes to have a Web site and contact information for members of the public within the next few weeks, Meese said. The co-chairs already have met with members of the College community and will work with Provost Geoff Feiss to schedule speakers during the spring semester. “We want to include a broad range of people in our discussions,” he said.

Powell thanked the co-chairs for their “willingness to serve” and asked them to provide the board with a status report at their meeting in April. Nichol also acknowledged the diverse but equally impressive experience the co-chairs bring to the committee.

“You both bring tremendous credibility to this endeavor,” Nichol said. “On behalf of the College, I say, ‘thank you.’”