The FCC and William & Mary case

What is wrong in Williamsburg? The College of William and Mary’s new president, Gene Nichol, has ordered a century-old cross removed from the school’s historic Christian chapel and the official reaction from faculty, administrators and even the school’s Board of Visitors has essentially been… indifference is too weak a word.

Michael Powell, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, leads William and Mary’s board. The board has the power to reverse the decision and restore the cross. When asked by The Washington Post about the storm of protest that has resulted due to the cross removal ordered by Mr. Nichol — a former ACLU leader and now president of America’s second-oldest college — Mr. Powell’s response was to say he understood how people could get emotional about it. At last count, over 10,000 apparently emotional people have signed the online petition at SaveTheWrenCross.org to reverse the decision. Many alumni have stopped giving and others are changing their wills to remove gifts to the college.

Rector Powell is the son of an august father who liberated a tiny country from a world-class killer. Yet, despite his own virtues that secured him the rector post, he seemingly cannot extricate a tiny metal cross from a closet. Why remove the cross, we ask — and yet receive no explanation from Mr. Powell. Is it because the cross removal didn’t take place before 140 million people during the halftime of the Super Bowl? Remember Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction? “Outrageous” was Mr. Powell’s emotional description of that incident, followed by “I don’t think you need to be a lawyer to understand the basic concepts of common decency here.” Mr. Powell, as the FCC’s chairman, ordered an immediate investigation.

One is fascinated that Mr. Powell, who would not accept the “oops” explanation for a half-time outdoor entertainment mishap, does not challenge Mr. Nichol’s vague statements that he “learned” or was “told” or otherwise informed of unhappiness in those who allegedly were distressed to discover a Christian cross in the Chapel of a college founded by Christian leaders for the purpose that the “youth may be piously educated.”

Does Mr. Powell really accept Mr. Nichol’s explanation for removing the cross? Does anybody? Nameless prospective students and their parents allegedly exited a campus tour upon seeing the chapel cross, according to Mr. Nichol. Did its wardrobe malfunction? Are faculty, students and administrators unable to understand the very longstanding college practice that the cross be temporarily removed during a person or group’s use of the chapel? If they are so unnerved by the mere sight of a cross, why are Mr. Powell and the board allowing them or their children to take up space in a revered institution that was unafraid of Banastre Tarleton and Lord Cornwallis? Are those who shrink like Dracula at the sight of a cross expected to follow in the robust traditions of Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall?

Mr. Nichol’s decision and Mr. Powell’s seeming complicity are making William and Mary a national laughing-stock — and a battleground. This is not the sort of achievement the Board of Visitors surely sought. It is wholly unnecessary, unjustified and smacking of bad behavior and bad faith. The two are rewarding, indeed it would appear they are encouraging, intolerance. They are abetting in students who should be the next generation of American leaders the indulgence of extended adolescence — name a rational adult who storms out of a chapel tour because he espied a cross. Such public posturing is the mark of a spoiled schoolboy, not of a future governor, senator or president. William and Mary has produced presidents. Did any of them exit the Wren Chapel bawling that they were offended by a cross? Of course not, they were too busy creating a nation.

Three years ago, Mr. Powell was unafraid to take on CBS and fine it $550,000 for a halftime fiasco. Why is he now indifferent in the face of Americans outraged at the removal of a cross from a chapel? The legal motto is “silence gives consent” — does Mr. Powell wish us all to believe he is a supporter of dictatorial orders and deadly insults to the school’s alumni, students and supporters?

The intellectual integrity of the nation’s alma mater is at stake. No one will think ill of Mr. Nichol if he makes a graceful reversion to the prior disposition for the Wren Cross. No one will retract their admiration for Mr. Powell if he at least issues a clear statement of his position.

This year is the College’s 314th year of service to humanity. Mr. Powell is implored to exercise leadership, and return the Wren Cross forthwith to its rightful, historic and traditional position at William and Mary so that the campus will be once more only in the news for its service to the nation.

Elizabeth Gibbons, who earned her masters degree from the College of William and Mary in 1971, is a legal secretary in California.

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