Newt’s Minions Would Nail W&M Prez Gene Nichol to Wren Cross

The painting of James Southhall Wilson comes from the Virginia Quarterly Review which he launched in 1925 and edited for the next six years. Wilson, Class of 1904, an alumni of William and Mary, wrote the lyrics “Our Alma Mater” to accompany an old Welsh tune. The banner for the Save the Wren Cross (STWC) website–which calls itself “A Movement to Save William & Mary’s History “– is now using James Southall Wilson’s yrics as a rallying call to fire W&M President Gene Nichol.  His crime?  Nichol, a constitutional lawyer, had decided that the chapel’s cross should be stored and available for events upon request.  Previously, folks instead had to request its removal at the public (since 1906) Virginia college.
At the bottom of this entry you will find my letter to Nichol. Any W&M alums, parents or Virginia taxpayers out there who want to join my in support of Nichol?
According to the Virginia Historical Society ‘s “On this Day: Legislative Moments in Virgina History, ” on March 5, 1906 the General Assembly passed an act making W&M a public institution for the first time since its origins as Anglican college with its grant of a royal charter on February 8, 1693. During my tenure from 1968 to 1972 Jews were an almost invisible minority at the College; many sororities banned us along with “Negroes” and Catholics and there were so few of any of us that we often hung out together, which is not to say that I didn’t have White Protestant friends.
The William and Mary Choir sang “Our Alma Mater” at all its peformances. According to the Choir’s version of the lyrics on its alumni page, the fourth stanza goes like this:
God, our Father, hear our voices,
Listen to our cry,
Bless the College of our fathers,
Let her never die.
My voice, or maybe my confidence in it, wasn’t quite up to the choir, but as a member of the women’s chorus, I was thrilled to perform with the choir in the Messiah by Handel, who was born, by the way in 1685, just four years before the beginning of the reign of the College’s namesakes and eight years before the royal charter.
I certainly didn’t mind singing Handel’s gorgeous music because its lyrics announced, “For unto to us a Son is Born.” I didn’t even mind straining my voice downward to sing tenor, so that the altos and second sopranos wouldn’t overpower the men in our combined forces. I kidded that I hoped God wasn’t angry with my father when he bled profusely after knocking his forehead on the mantel, rising from putting on an l.p. of the Messiah for me to practice. It was the same way we laughed at ourselves when his aging pale blue 1953 Chevy Biscayne became trapped in a bank of snow which had been plowed onto the end of our driveway, right before he was to drive us to hear me sing Christmas carols with the Crestwood Elementary School Glee Club.
But back to Mr. Wilson and his song. I’m wondering what he would think of the use of its fourth stanza (or the second , according to STWC) . Of course. the Wren cross is still in existence, so its need to be “saved” seems a bit overstated. I won’t go into whether this song,  as in the case of “Carry me Back to Ol’ Virginie” seems, well, a bit dated? After all, Wilson was a gentleman of his time and actually in reflecting on it, better than his time.
In 1931, Wilson organized the Southern Writers Conference, “The Relation of the Southern Author to His Public,” presided over by Richmond’s Ellen Glasgow, who went on to win the Pultzer for her 1941 novel , In This Our Life, and DuBose Heyward, a Charleston South Carolinian of gullah origins, who in 1925 published the novel Porgy, on which George Gershwin based his opera Porgy and Bess. According to the Virginia Quarterly Review , Heyward’s
presence presented difficulties in a segregated town which Wilson quietly and graciously solved by inviting Heyward and his wife Dorothy to be guests in his own home during the conference.
Evidently the STWC folks consider the first salvo to be an email to Wren Building volunteer student tour guides, the Spotswoods, noting that the
In order to make the Wren Chapel less of a faith-specific space, and to make it more welcoming to students, faculty, staff, and visitors of all faiths, the cross has been removed from the altar area. Students and groups wishing to have the cross temporarily returned to the space–for special events, worship services, private prayer, etc.–may request it while they are in the room. Please direct all requests to either Louise or me, and we will be happy to return the cross for the time allotted. If you encounter questions, concerns, or resistance to this change, please direct the person/group with the inquiry to us. If we are not in our office, a stack of our business cards are in the InformationCenter. Offer a card and inform the person they are welcome to contact us with their concerns. Please continue to interpret the room as the Wren Chapel. Is has always been the Chapel and will continue to be the Chapel even without the cross on the altar. Inform visitors (as you always do) that the College was once affiliated with the Anglican Church, and while it is now a public university, the Wren Chapel continues to be used as a nondenominational chapel. Weddings, memorial services, and student-led prayer services are held here, as well as initiations and their student activities. For those interested in hearing the antique organ, an organ recital is scheduled for every Saturday morning at 10:00 am. Thank you, and my best to you all for a warm, safe, and happy homecoming!
M Melissa E. Engimann
Assistant Director
Historic Campus The College of William and Mary
Student Assembly Senator Will Coggin, a senior, sponsored a bill to restore the cross, arguing that it was not so much about preserving the Christian cross on a predominantly Christian campus as about defending the Chapel’s history. The measure failed on a vote of 4-14-2, according to a November 10 story in The Flat Hat.
Ironic, for those who tout the cross’s preservation as history, must have been this letter to editor of The Flat Hat published the same date from Rhys Isaac (bio, email), Visiting Distinguished Professor of Early American History:
I offer to all who are concerned in this debate two facts drawn from the history that I told in my Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “The Transformation of Virginia, 1740 to 1790” — a book much concerned with the intense religious conflicts that took place in Virginia before and during the American Revolution.
Churches and chapels of the Protestant Church of England (which the Chapel was at the time of its construction and colonial-period use) did not customarily display the cross anywhere. It was only much later, after the so-called “Oxford Movement” of the 1840s, that Episcopalians brought crosses into their churches. (In more recent times Protestant churches generally have taken to prominent displays of the cross — which their ancestors most certainly rejected as “popery.”))
The Virginia Statute for the Freedom of Religion, authored by the College’s most distinguished alumnus, Thomas Jefferson, was passed in 1786 with very strong support from the Virginia Baptist Association of that time. It put an end not only to past oppressions but also ruled out a kind of loose establishment of Christianity that had suddenly been proposed. With that “Statute for the Freedom of Religion” Virginia led the entire world, and set the tone for the separation of church and state that is one of the glories of Virginia and of the United States of America.
November 16, President Nichol made a statement to the Board of Visitors.
It is, by now, well known that I am taken with William and Mary students. All William and Mary students. And though we haven’t meant to do so, the display of a Christian cross, the most potent symbol of my own religion, in the heart of our most important building sends an unmistakable message that the Chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the College, insiders and outsiders. Those for whom our most revered place is meant to be keenly welcoming, and those for whom presence is only tolerated. That distinction, I believe, to be contrary to the best values of the College.
It is precisely because the Wren Chapel touches the best in us “the brightened lamp, the extended hand, the opened door, the call of character, the charge of faith, the test of courage”  that it is essential it belong to everyone. There is no alternate Wren Chapel, no analogous venue, no substitute space. Nor could there be. The Wren is no mere museum or artifact. It touches every student who enrolls at the College. It defines us. And it must define us all.

I make no pretense that all will agree with these sentiments. The emotions and values touched by this dispute are deeply felt. But difficult issues are the grist of great universities. Amidst the turmoil, the cross continues to be displayed on a frequent basis. I have been pleased to learn that students of disparate religions have reported using the Chapel for worship and contemplation for the first time. In the College’s family there should be no outsiders. All belong.

At that same meeting, the Board of Visitors, chaired by Michael K. Powell (Telephone: (202) 828-7824, Email: of MK Powell Group, LLC. and son of General Colin Powell, adopted a four-paragraph resolution on diversity, which concludes,
The College of William and Mary strives to be a place where people of all backgrounds feel at home, where diversity is actively embraced and where each individual takes responsibility for upholding the dignity of all members of the community.
The conservative mainstream daily, Richmond Times Dispatch (RTD), printed a supportive editorial in “At W&M” October 31.
The chapel is not used exclusively for religious functions but serves as a general meeting place. The move makes practical sense and reflects the facts on on the ground. The cross can be returned to its spot when appropriate.
The RTD also ran two guest columns November 30:
Another local paper, The Virginia Pilot, was less supportive of Nichol, but civil, when it opined on November 2, in “Faulty Reasoning in Removal of Cross at W&M”
Removing the cross, however, does little to recognize the dignity of diversity. It does obscure what is otherwise obvious:  Wren Chapel is a Christian chapel– and the religious heritage of the university.

And it can’tt really solve the problem. Nothing short of bulldozing the chapel would ease all discomfort with having a storied Christian sanctuary on a secular campus.

That, of course, won’t ever happen.

So we’re left with this small but provocative measure. In the end, for the observant, taking the cross from the altar at Wren Chapel makes the room no less a Christian space. It only makes it seem as if administration officials are uncomfortable that it is.

To the credit of my alma mater’s liberal arts heritage, with its dedication to pursuit of the truth, I found links to both sides of the coverage accompanying the William & Mary Notes article,“Nichol discusses Wren cross decision with BOV.”


WorldNetDaily, founded as a for-profit arm of the conservative Western Journalism Center, started criticizing Nichol in “an exclusive” October 27. And then the far-right joined forces with STWC.

American Spectator named Nichol enemy of the year December 29, 2006.
Best of all, Enemy Central recruited a fresh face to take EOY honors, a brave new worlder who’s been dutifully swallowing liberal vapors for decades and who just in time for one of the holiest periods on the Christian calendar decided to deprive the institution he heads of the cross that has hung at its most sacred shrine for 275 years. President Gene Nichols of the College of William & Mary is a national disgrace, the Enemy of the Year 2006, and — if Jimmy Carter puts in a good word for him — the next cultural minister of the Taliban.
According to the New York Times, the magazine’s Arkansas Project, received $2.4 million during the period December 1993 through the fall of 1997 from Richard Mellon Scaife, for a “large-scale effort at The American Spectator magazine to unearth damaging information about President Clinton.” (See Neil a. Lewis, “Almost $2 Million Spent in Magazine’s Anti-Clinton Project, but on What?” page A-20, April 14, 1998 if your library has Lexis Nexis. The New York Times, I’d guess, in an effort to get subscribers for its Times Select service, its is no longer available in text version at Virginia pubic libraries’ version of ELibrary.)
The conservative , a for-profit originally a project of the Heritage Foundation, according to Sourcewatch, which works for an America that “believes in smaller government, recognizes that tax relief fuels economic growth, that values life and that we can and must win the war on terror” published Michael S. Adams piece January 12,2007 calling Nichol “Christ-o-phobic” who should be fired.
I wouldn’t have leaned of this brouhaha except for a mention in Nichol’s State of the College Address, a link to which I received from the alumni listserve. I started out a letter to commend Nichol on his stance on the living the wage and need-based scholarships and was going to mention the Wren Chapel in passing.
Then, out of curiousity, which kills my time, if not the cat, I googled to find out who was opposing Nichols and discovered the petition STWC says has been signed by10,437 individuals, as of today.
When it ran his guest column, the RTD did not mention is that Haley hosts that GOPAC’s talk show , “Leading the Majority” and according to his bio works as research director for the American Enterprise Institute for former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Prior to joining the American Enterprise Institute, Vince worked for Newt at the Gingrich Group, a consulting and communications firm. While there, Vince helped launch the Group’s Center for Health Transformation in May 2003. The Center is dedicated to transforming American healthcare by creating a 21st Century Intelligent Health System where knowledge saves lives and saves money for all Americans.

Before working for Speaker Gingrich, Vince worked one year as senior research analyst at the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2002 election year cycle.

Oh, and did you know that starting February 1, former Lt. Governor Michael Steele will replace J.C. Watts, Jr as Chairman of GOPAC? Steele lost to to Ben Cardin in the race for U.S. Senator from Maryland, His loss, combined with George Allen’s in Virginia, helped cede the Senate to the Democrats. GOPAC was founded by Delaware Governor Pierre S. du Pont in 1978 in “an effort to build a farm team of Republican officeholders who could then run for congress or higher state offices later.” Other past Chairmen of GOPAC were: former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, California Congressman David Dreier, Arizona Congressman John Shadegg and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Now there’s also a “No Cross, No Cash” campaign named after a phrase in a Christmas December 22 letter from Margee Mulhall, Class of 1984. By December 24, there were 11 others:
Karen Hall, ’78 (Fourth Century Club)
Karla K. Bruno, ’81 and ’92
Elizabeth Gibbons, ’71
Eugene R. Thurston,Jr. ’66 (Fourth Century Club)
Victor K. Biebighauser ’75
Todd Skiles ’92 (Bequeath Revoked)
Andrew R. McRoberts, A.B. ’87
Constance Bruce McRoberts, B.B.A. ’88
W. J. Clark Evans, B.B.A., ’82
Ellen Williams Evans, B.A. ’83
Robert G. Jones, A.B. Government, ’72
Since then there are three others:
Susan Prock, ’80
Jean Zettler, ’73 (Fourth Century Club)
Andy Yacos, ’86
Notice STWC’s founder is missing from the list. Maybe he hadn’t donated yet?
STWC has fashioned a letter to the Board of Visitors which next meets on February, asking its readers, “Will Michael Powell and Barbara Ukrop Lead the W&Mary Board of Vistiors to Reverse Nichol & Restore the Wren Cross?”
During his tenure as head of the FCC, Powell deregulated the industry allowing more media consolidation, letting studies go unpublished which later were leaked to Barbara Boxer.
Powell also pressed for increased fines for indecency violations which led to some ABC affiliates pulling Saving Private Ryan. To his credit, Powell was instrumental in the FCC decision that the program could be aired without fines, according to the Media Research Center, “the leader in documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias,” funded, according to Media Transparency by ultra-conservative foundations. In “FCC Indecency Enforcement Called Confusing, Burdensome” Jeff Johnson, Senior Staff Writer,” wrote on January 12, 2005
FCC Chairman Michael Powell has recommended that the multiple instances of the “F-Word” in the airing of the film “Saving Private Ryan” result in no finding of indecency. The chairman reportedly told fellow commissioners that there should be no fines because the movie is an “accurate representation” of the events depicted.
Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association (AFA), believes Powell is disregarding the law and called his reasoning, “a pathetic excuse.”
“It’s not the job of the chairman of the FCC to define context for the ‘F-Word.’ It’s his job to fine ABC-Disney for using the ‘F-Word’ in primetime broadcast television, which is against the law,” Wildmon said. “That’s the mandate he was given by Congress.”
The Center, with a staff of 60, according to Sourcewatch, has issued cyberalerts lately attacking coverage of growing opposition to the War in Iraq. (It has often occurred to me that the best way to fight such folks is to write support letters to their targets. Just wish I had a staff of 60!)
Ukrop, of course, is in the family that operates the grocery store of the same name. I know the store is closed on Sunday and that Ukrop supports historic preservation, but I’m clueless why STWC hopes she will carry their banner, as many devout Christians embrace the separation of Church and State.
Want to join me in writing Nichol and the Board of Visitors supporting William and Mary as a place
where people of all backgrounds feel at home
Below you’ll find my letter to him. I haven’t composed one to the Board of Visotrs yet, but will post it and their addresses in an update to this entry.
January 29, 2006
RE: State of the College Address, Weighing in Support of your Policy on the Wren Cross
Dear President Nichol,
As an alumna well-served by my education at W&M, I was happy to read your State of the College address and passed it on to my friend Barry Anderson, a graduate of that other great Virginia public university in Charlottesville. Anderson serves as a board member of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy “which speaks for and with the vulnerable and works for a just and compassionate Commonwealth by uniting and empowering faith communities.  You may be aware of the work of the Center. If not, I think you will be interested in the legislative agenda for its February 5 “Day for All People” at the General Assembly. Its priorities include:
I was especially glad to read your following statement on fostering a living wage and opportunities for staff:
  • A great public university must, as well, be a beacon of fairness and opportunity for all of its members. The staff of the College–professional, hourly, and classified–literally enables the storied William & Mary academic and residential experience. Technology experts, policemen, housekeepers, facilities managers, residence life professionals, and a host of other dedicated employees commit their lives and their careers to the service of the College. The College, in return, must assure that they are compensated fairly, treated with dignity, and given the tools and training they need to thrive and be promoted. Here, often, we have long rows to hoe. And progress must be quicker. Our restructured relationship with the Commonwealth should allow greater independence in our employment efforts. We must assure that flexibility resounds to the benefit of the entire William & Mary community.
I was also heartened to learn about new access for those from very low income families and continuing access based on need to those from families like mine, who had found college affordable when tuition was much lower.
  • Almost a quarter students of color. It has also been heartening to hear stories of Gateway students, from very low income families, who would not be with us, but for the generous scholarship program introduced last year. This spring we have enrolled an additional eleven Gateway transfers, above the 77 who joined us last fall. And our first cohort of co-enrolled community college students joined us on campus last semester,  achieving GPAs comparable to those of beginning freshmen.
The challenge of economic access remains a daunting one, for us and for many of the most accomplished universities in the nation. The Spellings Commission recently concluded that “persistent financial barriers unduly limit access”  to universities; and that “gaps between the college attendance” rates of low-income Americans and their more affluent peers “constrain meaningful opportunity.”
Worse yet, last month’s study by the Education Trust concluded that the nation’s marvelous public research universities are now spending more of their own institutional aid funds on students from the top of the economic ladder, on average, than those at the bottom. We seek, in the next six years, to double the number of Gateway-eligible students at the College. Our renewed commitment to need-based financial aid, in partnership with the Commonwealth, must also extend more successfully beyond the poorest students to all those facing potent challenges resulting from the increasing costs of higher education.
As one of the relatively few Jewish students in my class, I was glad to read of your efforts to make the Wren Chapel more welcoming to all, as you grapple with how to operate it.
  • As you know, late last fall I modified the way in which the cross is displayed in the ancient Wren Chapel,-seeking to assure that the marvelous Wren–so central to the life of the College–be equally open and welcoming to all.

And though the decision has received much support–particularly within the campus community–many, many have seen it otherwise; asking in the strongest terms that the action be reconsidered. In the heat of the dispute, broader questions than the placement of the cross have been implicated as well. Does the separation of church and state at public universities seek a bleaching of the importance and influence of faith and religious thought from our discourse? Are modern public universities congenial to those of strong religious conviction? Can a public university honor and celebrate a particular religious heritage while remaining equally welcoming to those of all faiths? How does one square the operation of an historic Christian chapel with a public university’s general charge to avoid endorsing a particular religious creed?

Given the challenge of these questions, the controversy that has ensued about my decision, and given the fact that this is a great university, it is my hope to probe and explore these issues in the most thoughtful way possible. So today, having had discussions with many, on campus and beyond, including members of our Board of Visitors, I announce the creation of a presidential committee to aid in the exploration of these large questions. I will ask its members to examine the role of religion in public universities in general, and at the College of William and Mary in particular���including the use of the historic Wren Chapel. It will be co-chaired by two of our most distinguished faculty members, Dr. James Livingston, emeritus chair of the College’s religious studies department; and Professor Alan Meese, accomplished legal scholar, teacher, author, and leader in the Faculty Assembly.

The committee will be balanced, as the appointment of these co-chairs suggests. It will include an array of alumni, students, staff, and faculty. I will ask that they report back to me by the end of the semester. I have also requested that the provost consult with the chairs and invite, during the course of the year, experts, scholars and activists from varying perspectives, to explore such broad-ranging claims and their ties to our mission as a public university.

When I attended W&M, I certainly considered the building a Christian place of worship and a classroom building for my English seminar, not a chapel for all of its students. I didn’t even know of the policy before your October 2006 order that if a group or individual using the Wren Chapel desired to not have the Wren Cross on display, then the Wren Cross was removed during such event and returned to the altar. Despite the criticism you are receiving from the Save the Wren Cross Campaign, your policy of neutrality, that the cross be removed and used henceforth only for “appropriate religious services” is fairer in my view.
The fact that the Wren Cross was a fixture since its gift from the Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in the 1930s shows that the majority Christian population at the College didn’t even see it, and the rest of us accepted it, in the same way that we went for years using “he” as the universal singular pronoun, or going back furth accepted a Constitution which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person and let neither they nor women vote.
President Nichol, I was glad to read of your history of public service when your were being considered for the huge vacancy left by Tim Sullivan’s retirement, even gladder when the College selected you, gladdest now to read of progress in the last eighteen months.
Sincerely yours,
Beth Wellington
Class of 1972


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