Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Administrators at the College of William & Mary, responding to months of harsh criticism from alumni, ordered the immediate return of a cross to the Williamsburg school’s historic Wren Chapel yesterday.

Alumni angered by the removal of the cross in October threatened to withhold millions of dollars of donations — including a $12 million gift.

College President Gene R. Nichol announced the decision at a press conference yesterday afternoon with the co-chairmen of a special presidential committee charged with studying the role of religion at public universities.

“This has been a challenging task for the committee, but it has produced a compromise that allows for permanent display of the cross in the chapel, while remaining welcoming to all,” Mr. Nichol said. “I fully embrace it.”

The 14-member committee, co-chaired by religion professor James Livingston and law professor Alan Meese, issued its unanimous recommendation earlier than its deadline of the Board of Visitors meeting next month.

The 18-inch brass cross will be returned for permanent display in a glass case at the chapel “in a prominent, readily visible place,” the recommendation states.

The committee calls for a plaque explaining the 313-year-old public school’s Anglican heritage and connection to Williamsburg’s historic Bruton Parish, which donated the cross in 1940.

The recommendation, billed as a compromise, stipulates that the chapel “be available to house sacred objects of any religious tradition for use of worship and devotion by members of the college community.”

“We hope that this policy regarding the display of the Wren cross will put this immediate controversy to rest,” Mr. Livingston and Mr. Meese said in a joint statement yesterday. “We knew our short-term mission was to come up with a proposal that would allow this college to come together and move forward as a community. We are confident this recommendation accomplishes that goal. We now look forward to examining the broader question of the role of religion at a public university.”

Mr. Nichol removed the cross from permanent display in October in an attempt to make the chapel “equally open and welcoming to all.” The decision prompted criticism and support from students, faculty and alumni and drew national headlines.

The Faculty Assembly and Student Senate stood behind the president, but at least 25 alumni threatened to withhold donations to the school until the original policy was reinstated — including one benefactor, who last week withdrew a $12 million pledge.

Nearly 18,000 people signed an online petition, calling for the return of the cross.

Some alumni have said the cross issue is emblematic of a larger problem with Mr. Nichol as a president, citing a recent sex workers’ art show at the college as an example of leadership gone awry.

“He’s making a judgment call about the cross, but he refuses to make a judgment call about this depraved event that was going on at the University Center,” 1981 graduate Karla Bruno told The Washington Times last month.

Ms. Bruno called yesterday’s decision “a win” but said she will continue to withhold donations to the college until Mr. Nichol is replaced because he “is a destructive force.”

Linda Arey Skladany, a 1966 graduate who recently redrafted her will to remove a gift to the college, also told The Times last month that a policy reversal wouldn’t guarantee the return of her contribution.

Other alumni are more forgiving.

Margee Mulhall, a 1984 graduate who decided to withhold donations after the cross was removed, told The Times last month that she “has nothing against President Nichol or the College of William & Mary.”

College officials said they hope the committee’s recommendation will end divisions.

“The committee membership recognized that further division among our broad university community is unhealthy, and it worked intensely to come to a unanimous recommendation, having considered a wide range of sincerely held views of alumni, faculty, students and friends of the college,” college Rector Michael K. Powell said.

William & Mary is the country’s second-oldest college, chartered in February 1693 by King William III and Queen Mary II.

It became state-supported in 1906 and coeducational in 1918, according to the university. The college has roughly 7,500 undergraduates and graduate students.

Alumni include four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler.

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