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A shared path forward: remarks by Rector John E. Littel

The following are remarks (as prepared) by Rector John E. Littel to the Board of Visitors during their Sept. 25, 2020, meeting - Ed.

William & Mary BOV Meeting – Sept. 25, 2020

Opening Remarks of Rector John Littel (as prepared)

Good morning again. It is really good for us to be together, even if we have to be socially distant. Zoom and email have been useful to get things done, but being present with the students, staff and faculty is an important responsibility for us as a Board.   

Since the COVID 19 pandemic started, the Board has meet virtually or in person at least once a month. Let’s be clear, W&M is facing [financial] challenges not seen in more than 150 years. 

Yesterday, we heard several examples from this community looking beyond survival and into a future in which we flourish, in part because of the mission driven innovation that has become part of our response to the pandemic.  

This is not surprising given our remarkable history of meeting institution-threatening challenges with creativity, commitment to our mission and values, and generally by all working together. 

The planning that went into the university’s reopening was focused on creating as safe an environment as possible for our students, staff and faculty and was based on science and best practice. While many schools can probably make that claim, so far, it seems to be working here.

Why is that? First, many staff across the university worked relentlessly over the summer on protocols, changes to our buildings and grounds and clinical approaches to manage testing and treatment. I want to say, on behalf of the Board, how grateful we are for what we know was exhausting work. I want to thank the faculty for their flexibility and their efforts to deliver classes through multiple modes that make learning accessible to all. I also want to thank this community, especially our students and the leadership of student assembly, for not just being a part of the process, but being keys to its success.   Our shared commitment to taking the necessary steps to safely live, work and learn together on campus has enabled us to reopen successfully. By all pulling together, and by staying committed to the course we have set for COVID safety, we have made a meaningful difference.

After the murder of George Floyd, we recognized the need to reexamine and recommit to address diversity equity and inclusion in new ways and with a faster pace. We are doing so. Whether it was fundraising to bring to fruition the Memorial to the Enslaved or examining ways to expand the number of students and faculty of color, our community again responded with creativity and a commitment to our mission and values. This is ongoing work to which we reaffirm our commitment. Inclusion and equity continue to be priorities for this Board.

One area where we haven’t been as successful are the changes that were announced to our Athletic Teams. Before I talk about that, I want to thank every person who has written or called the Board, President and Athletic Director. I’ve read every letter that has been sent to me and tried to respond to as many letters and calls as possible. I know my colleagues on the board have done so as well. While some were form letters, many individuals shared their own W&M story and why their experience as a student athlete was so valuable.

I want to especially thank the nearly 80 students, staff and others who came out and spoke at our public comment session on Wednesday. We are really grateful for your time and your willingness to share your personal perspective.

Early in my career, I had a mentor who often noted that what you see is a condition of where you sit.  This feedback, especially from our students, is incredibly valuable in helping us to see different perspectives and sometimes different facts.

We also appreciate you calling us out where you think we have not met the standards we cherish.  That is your right as a member of the community, and it is our responsibility as a Board to listen and process that information.

What isn’t appropriate are the ad hominem attacks on individuals or attributing  anyone’s motivations to anything other than what is in the best interest of W&M. You may disagree with decisions, or the manner those decisions were communicated, but please don’t assume that the motivation was anything other than appropriate and well-intentioned. 

Additionally, spreading rumors, or outright deceits, including impersonating others, is inconsistent with our values and maliciously intended to further divide us at a time where we need unity.  

We ALL need to funnel our passions towards finding solutions, to act with mutual respect even when we disagree and have a civil dialogue in which we not just listen, but hear, what is being said.

This Board has committed that our actions would be as transparent and inclusive as possible, and we expect the same of the institution we oversee. 

As Board members, we each own what was a poor rollout of very difficult news. Whatever the intent or process, it was not consistent with the way in which we strive to interact with one another. We would not consciously disrespect our student athletes or alumni community, especially on issues of such personal importance.

The Board and Administration have, and will continue, to make difficult decisions during these very challenging times. We know that this is a community that wants to be engaged in finding solutions.   When we collaboratively seek solutions, we can achieve great success together – as we have done repeatedly during our history.

We’ll hear from President Rowe about possible paths forward.  She has talked about rebuilding trust.  That must be our collective priority.

The Board's job is not to micro-manage but it is to provide oversight and ensure that the values and things we hold dear are honored. We are going to hold the President and the entire administration accountable to address the concerns that have been raised in a way that is consistent with our values.  We have confidence in this president and her team and have seen what they can accomplish.

Many of the students we have heard from spoke about what our motto, One Tribe One Family means to them. I can’t promise you that we won’t make mistakes or suggest that we have all of the answers, but please know our commitment is to this Family.

With that long introduction, I’d like to welcome President Rowe to give some remarks.