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Accountability Today, Democracy Tomorrow

As Mr. Malchow has already reported and opined, there is a movement within and around the College of William & Mary to allow alumni participation in selecting their board of trustees, and it is good. At this public university it is the Virginia state government that is responsible for the school ‘s charter or constitution, rather than the board and/or alumni. Currently the state governor appoints board members.

Coming out today was the news that W&M ‘s Board of Visitors opted not to renew the contract of President Gene Nichol, who subsequently resigned his post.

Dissatisfied alumni made up much of the constituency that prompted state legislators to consider changes to the structure of the College ‘s board and to which board members were responding in this decision. Most notably alumni were dissatisfied by Nichol ‘s decision to remove a cross from the alter of the College ‘s Wren Chapel. This unpopular decision followed others including abandoning the school ‘s Indian-themed logo, the use of racial preferencing in faculty hiring, and limits on free expression. On the last point, anecdotal examples including the shutting down of an anti-affirmative action bake sale and threatening participants with disciplinary action, as well as implementing a bias-reporting system thought by many to have a chilling effect on free speech.

In refusing to tolerate this unpopular president, the William & Mary board demonstrated accountability. This was a demonstration that they could listen and respond effectively to alumni concerns.

But the larger issue, in my mind, is whether an appointed board can always be counted upon to maintain the best interests of the college and the preferences of its alumni. In this case the state governor (i.e. a member of the Republican or Democratic party) appoints board members. Indeed anyone who appoints board members can be expected to bring their biases to the table. Only the full body of alumni (including perhaps current students) can make decisions that incorporate the full range of diversity and good sense for which a college stands. In this instance the W&M board should be lauded for their attention to accountability, but there is only one thing that can and will unfailingly ensure accountability in the future and that is democracy.

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