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Rector John E. Littel's remarks for the April 2021 Board of Visitors meeting

William & Mary Rector John E. Littel P ’22 gave the following remarks at the university's April 23, 2021, Board of Visitors meeting in Williamsburg. - Ed.

Good morning and thank you for joining us today. My name is John Littel and I have the honor to serve as the Rector of the Board of Visitors.

I’d like to call this meeting to order and welcome my fellow board members, the administrators of Richard Bland College and William & Mary, and all other participants, including those members of the public listening on YouTube to today’s meeting.

Today, we have a majority and quorum of the Board present in the Alumni House, and joining us by phone are: Victor Branch, Cynthia Hudson, Anne Leigh Kerr and Lincoln Saunders.

We have a full agenda today, so I’ll try to keep my comments brief. In our board room, there is a plaque with the admonition from 3 of our former rectors reminding us to “Take Care of Our College.”

Throughout this pandemic year and a half, I can assure you that that has been the singular focus of this board and our president and administration. And while I am grateful to the devotion and commitment of my fellow board members, we know that the board is quite limited in what we can do.

Yesterday, in addition to our regular committee meetings, we hosted a full board meeting so that we could hear directly from many of the staff leading the university’s response to the pandemic.  To say that we were impressed, encouraged and incredibly grateful would be an enormous understatement. 

Hearing how individuals across campus worked collaboratively – often for the first time, broke down silos, and often worked long hours and weekends — helps you understand why we have had less than 300 confirmed cases at this point in the pandemic.  And that of course was contingent on the engagement and compliance of students, staff and the community.

Now, we can’t take a victory lap yet or take our eyes off the ball, but we can express our gratitude and admiration to all those who ensured that those we serve and work with were safe and that our mission continued.   

To these individuals — some whose roles are visible, and many others who labored often behind the scenes – we say thank you. 

As Dean Marjorie Thomas noted, “This place matters because of the people,” and this is certainly an apt way to understand our success so far.

Today, we have several important items to discuss. At RBC, we will hear about the status of their own Covid work, a really impressive spring progress report from the Race Racial Justice and Equity Task Force, and financial and enrollment updates. From Administration Building and Grounds, we will discuss a few naming resolutions that emerged out of the process we initiated last year, that builds on the recommendations of the Lemon Project to make our campus more welcoming and inclusive. With these actions, all buildings at W&M known to be associated with the Confederacy have been reviewed with appropriate planning now in place to rename or contextualize.

Following today’s actions on naming and renaming, the university will now focus on adding contextualization to references at William & Mary to the nation’s founders and other spaces across the university to ensure a fuller, more inclusive history is shared with anyone who lives, visits or works on campus.

William & Mary has been called the Alma Mater of the Nation because many of the founders and the ideas of America were connected to our institution. Without these individuals and their contributions, ongoing efforts to promote freedom, equality and democracy around the world would be greatly diminished. We acknowledge their contributions to our nation and university, just as we strive to be honest about their shortcomings and failings.

With the new names up for consideration, we move forward as a community, as a university, with our renewed commitment to recognizing individuals who have made lasting, pathbreaking contributions to William & Mary. Their lives inspire us to face challenges without fear.

Today’s actions highlight the importance of acknowledging and commemorating the complete and complex history of an institution that represents this nation in full.

I want to echo the chair’s appreciation to the many individuals who have worked on this process, the Principles for Naming and Renaming workgroup and Dr Warren Buck, the design review board, Chair Will Payne and Sue Gerdelman, as well as the many students, faculty, alumni and other members of community who have provided valuable input.

In previous meetings, we deferred decisions about tuition costs for next year that we normally make in November. While we recognize the real financial needs of the university, we are very cognizant of the pressure experienced by students and families, particularly with the financial and emotional strain caused by the pandemic. 

We are pleased with the impressive work that Chairman Hixon and our finance team has been able to do with this year and next year’s budget, and grateful to the General Assembly for the significant support provided to higher ed this year.  As a result, we will vote today to keep undergraduate tuition costs at the same level as this year.  This is the fourth year in a row that undergraduate tuition has been the same. 

We will also keep most graduate tuition flat as well, with exceptions in law and business, where increases are market based.    

Lastly, we will extend the contract of Dr. Debbie Sydow, the president of Richard Bland College. We are grateful for her almost decade of service to that college and look forward to continuing the good work that she has led there.

While we are talking about individuals, we do have a couple of transitions today that I’d like to note.

Dr. John Wells, the dean and director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, will retire at the end of this year.  We will talk about Dean Wells’ service later in the meeting and will honor him more fully in the near future, we do want to thank him for the incredible leadership he has brought to the Commonwealth, the Chesapeake Bay and many other waterways and especially to the students, staff and community at W&M.

April is also the time when our student rep transfers to the next generation of leadership.   This has been an incredibly difficult and challenging year to be the student assembly president and Anthony Joseph has risen to the challenge.  AJ has been an active and engaged participant in our Board work and tackled some really significant issues.  The successful work on Covid, naming and renaming, and maintaining affordability would not have occurred without his and Student Assembly’s work.  

AJ, thanks for your service and congratulations on your impending graduation.  Would you introduce your successor? ... Welcome, Meghana and Zenobia.  We look forward to working with you.

We also mark the end of Tom Watkins’ time on the BOV.  Tom served for 8 years on this Board, including as vice rector, chair of several committees and probably, his most significant accomplishment was as the chair of the presidential search committee that brought us Dr. Rowe.  Tom has been an engaged and supportive alumnus since he graduated from W&M, and he has also been a great friend to so many of us.  We will greatly miss your contributions to our board discussions, but look forward to your many other opportunities to serve W&M. 

With that, I’d like to ask Richard Bland President Sydow to offer opening remarks, followed by W&M President Rowe.