William & Mary

Taylor & Taylor: A talk about higher education in Virginia

  • A robust discussion
    A robust discussion  Alan Taylor (left), the Thomas Jefferson Foundation chair at the University of Virginia, and W&M President Taylor Reveley explored 400 years of higher education in Virginia during a public forum on June 14., Moderating the 90-minute presentation was Karin Wulf, professor of History and director of the Omohundro Institute.  Photo by Leah Kelso, Colour Outside
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There were plenty of light-hearted moments during Taylor & Taylor: 400 Years of Higher Education in Virginia, hosted on June 14 by the Omohundro Institute and featuring outgoing William & Mary President Taylor Reveley and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor of the University of Virginia.

The audience at the Kimball Theatre howled with delight when a W&M alumna asked what UVA and W&M students have in common. The answer, she said: “They both were accepted into UVA.”

They responded with equal amusement when Alan Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation chair at UVA, said his place of employment is celebrating its bicentennial for the next eight years, testimony to the length of time it took Jefferson to fulfill his Piedmont dream.

Audience members weren’t sure whether or not to believe a story regarding the Rev. James Blair, the Scottish-born clergyman who is best known as founding president of William & Mary. Desperate for money to prop up the then-fledgling university, Blair traveled to London, where he stumbled onto the trial of some pirates who’d been captured on the James River. The punishment for their offense was hanging. Blair, who served as W&M president for 50 years, convinced the judge that if the guilty would donate 25 percent of their loot to William & Mary, they could be designated “privateers,” and thwart death. Their necks were spared.

“All true,” Reveley confirmed wryly.

But, humor aside, Reveley and Taylor traced the history of higher education in Virginia while touching on some hot-button topics of the day.

Jefferson and the W&M experience: What happened?

In Jefferson’s time, Taylor said, only the very wealthiest families could afford to send their sons – and only sons – to William & Mary, which was the only college south of what is now Princeton. Typically, there would be 35 or 45 college students and a larger group of students attending the grammar school. The students, he said, came to get a smattering of education and to make connections so they could run the colony afterwards.

At William & Mary, Jefferson met two men who would become lifelong influences in George Wythe and William Small. “He didn’t like his experiences with the other professors,” Taylor said. “And he didn’t like that it was an institution that was dedicated to preserving the status quo, because Jefferson wanted to shake things up.”

Reveley described Jefferson’s time at William & Mary as “a full-bodied, delightful experience” for the young scholar.

“He still loved William & Mary then,” he added, pausing so the laughter could subside.

The Revolution presented Jefferson with the opportunity to re-imagine William & Mary as a more modern institution, Taylor noted. As a member of the House of Delegates, he removed the professors of theology and substituted professors of law, medicine and modern languages, none of which had existed before. He shut down the grammar school, and he came to believe that W&M would be the “great university of Virginia,” Taylor said.

But Jefferson failed to get the Royal Charter replaced by a state version, Taylor detailed. By popular demand, the grammar school returned. When Wythe soured on the school and resigned, Jefferson became frustrated and set out to create a new university elsewhere in Virginia.

Moving ahead: W&M, UVA and race relations 

Taylor said the problem of racism remains a national one, though “deeply rooted in Virginia,” including at the Commonwealth’s two prominent institutions.

“Our story strikes me as similar to here,” said the historian from UVA. “The African-American community called UVA ‘the plantation.’ This was long after slavery, quite recently.

“The work force at Virginia is still broken down by occupation and gender lines,” he continued. “The more technical jobs are done by overwhelmingly rural white Virginians, and the faculty is still overwhelmingly white.”

He added, however, that one of the things both universities should be celebrating “is their capacity to reflect on what they used to be and their determination not to be that anymore. The changes that have happened in the 20th century, and they happened in the late 20th century at UVA, have transformed the institution into something that is radically different from anything in Jefferson’s day.”

Both institutions have taken steps in recent years to fully understand, acknowledge and learn from their past. Last summer, Virginia’s Board of Visitors announced a design for a planned memorial for enslaved works at the university. At William & Mary, the university is coming off a year of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first African-American residential students. Much of the year was devoted to telling the lost stories of many African Americans and also understanding the discrimination and racism. In April, at Reveley’s request, the William & Mary Board of Visitors passed a resolution apologizing for the university’s history of owning slaves and racial discrimination.

“Sometimes, you just have to gird your loins and just flatly apologize,” Reveley said. “That does some good with a lot of people, and profoundly irritates others.”

William & Mary will commemorate the 100th anniversary of admitting women students in 2018-19. Reveley noted that the timing of admitting female students and expanding the student body has had a profound impact on the university’s current financial relationship with the state. Due to dire financial restraints, William & Mary became a publicly owned institution in 1906.

“William & Mary was a private institution from 1693 to 1906,” Reveley said. “I think if we had admitted women in 1906 instead of 1918 we would never have had to, in effect, force ourselves on the state in 1906.”

The need for an educated public

Reveley said the concept of the citizen-lawyer, that you use part of your time and talent for the larger good, is a very powerful one. He noted the concept was Jefferson and Wythe’s motivation for creating legal training and thus a law school at William & Mary. Their goal was to create and train useful citizens who would be able to play a vital role in the political counsels of the new country and states. It is a philosophy that still motivates William & Mary Law School today.

The outside pressure some students face to take courses that will lead to high-paying jobs, as opposed to those that better fit their career interests, Reveley said, troubles him deeply.

“Of course, we want some of our alumni to have jobs that are high paying," he said, "but we need to put a whole lot more emphasis in college on trying to explain to young people why it is so crucially important that they be good citizens and involved once they get out of school,” he said.

Reveley added he advocates young adults between the ages of 18 and 28 spend a year of service in an endeavor such as the Peace Corps or the “myriad” opportunities available here and abroad.

“You really are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before you,” Reveley said. “You’ve got to provide some pretty strong shoulders for those coming after you.” 

Taylor added that “Jefferson said we need an educated public, but we need to think comprehensively about education, not just higher education, which is crucial.

“We’d do well to think about the entire spectrum of education. Not everybody is going to go to a UVA or William & Mary, but everybody needs a broad, healthy education.”

Editor's note: The Omohundro Institute, an independent research organization sponsored by W&M and housed on its main campus, supports scholarship and scholars of early America. It offered the Taylor & Taylor lecture as part of its annual conference and in celebration of its founding 75 years ago. To learn more about its public events, email oieahc@wm.edu.