William & Mary

ACLU's influential executive director Kent Willis '71 steps down after 25 years

  • Protecting civil liberties
    Protecting civil liberties  After nearly 25 years with the ACLU of Virginia, Executive Director Kent Willis '71 recently announced his resignation. Willis began his career with the organization in October 1987 as an associate director.  Photo by John Garcia
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After 25 years of defending and preserving civil rights and liberties for Virginians, Kent Willis ’71 is stepping down from his post with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia.

He has served as the executive director since March 1989.

“I could not have had a more rewarding job,” Willis said in a press release issued by the ACLU. “I am proud to have been part of the ACLU’s many accomplishments and enormous organizational growth over the last 25 years. But something told me it was time to move on.” 

The Virginia ACLU is the state’s premier litigating organization on matters pertaining to freedom of speech and assembly, civil rights, due process and privacy rights and religious liberty. 

Willis, who majored in philosophy at William & Mary, is credited with building the organization into one of the top ACLU affiliates in the nation. During his tenure the organization grew from two fulltime staff members to the current nine, and increased a volunteer lobbying continent from fewer than 100 to nearly 2,000 people, according to the news release.

“My college experience in Williamsburg in the late sixties was nothing less than profound. Above all else, I was one of those students who learned to think in college, and it was my philosophy professors at William & Mary who forced me to do it well,” said Willis. “I’ve used the skills they taught me every place I’ve worked, but especially at the ACLU, where complex constitutional, legislative and policy issues are the norm.” 

William & Mary Law Professor Jayne Barnard has served on the board of the ACLU since the 1990s and is currently the board president. During her stint as the chair of the Legal Panel – a committee that decides which cases to take to court – Barnard said she witnessed Willis’ exceptional leadership skills.

“He always made sure that everyone got to be heard but also that we ended up doing what was right – sometimes to say ‘yes’ to a client and sometimes to say ‘no,’" said Barnard, the James Goold Cutler Professor of Law and the Herbert V. Kelly, Sr., Professor of Teaching Excellence.

“For many Virginians, Kent Willis IS the ACLU. We will miss his exceptional leadership and the gentle generosity that (he) extended to everyone,” she added.

Over the last 25 years, the ACLU of Virginia has filed an estimated 300 federal and state lawsuits, according to the news release. Under Willis, the ACLU has been involved in a number of high profile cases related to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) rights, immigrants’ rights, students’ rights, prisoners’ rights, privacy rights, free speech and religious liberty.

"Kent has two rare qualities," said John Vail, the board's immediate past president. "First, because he always entertains the possibility that he is not right, he listens closely and respectfully to the viewpoints of others. Second, he thinks hard issues through so thoroughly that he speaks about them in plain terms that mere humans can comprehend."

Barnard pointed out one additional virtue.

“He sure did love to win,” she said.