As the sands of time run on my presidency, we look forward to Katherine Rowe, the first woman to lead us in 325 years. My thoughts turn increasingly to the unbroken line of William & Mary presidents, stretching back to 1693. Light shines immediately on president No. 1: James Blair (I’m No. 27, Katherine will be No. 28). The Reverend James Blair, an Anglican priest, spent two years in London doggedly chasing a royal charter for a college in Virginia. He finally wrested one from King William III and Queen Mary II. They promptly named the new school for themselves. They also provided in the charter that Blair would be president for life and a member of the Board of Visitors, indeed, its first rector. So at the outset President Blair, already clothed in lifelong tenure, reported to himself. He proceeded to live another 50 years, dying in full presidential harness. Blair was a politician, fundraiser and institution builder of the first water. He was an elemental force, who survived an amazingly long time for a human born in the 17th century. He set a very high bar for future William & Mary presidents, especially when it comes to negotiating the terms and conditions of a presidency.
All but one of our presidents have lived in the President’s House, which came on line in 1732. Blair was there for the last 10 years of his presidency and life. The one antebellum president not to move in didn’t last long — less than two years.
For a very long time, William & Mary was a church school, Anglican before the American Revolution and Episcopal after. Our first nine presidents were, in fact, either Anglican or Episcopal priests or bishops. The Right Reverend James Madison (cousin of U.S. President James Madison) was simultaneously president of William & Mary and the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia. He lived in the President’s House for 36 years and, after Blair, served the longest as William & Mary’s leader.
In 1779, with Thomas Jefferson sitting on the Board of Visitors and urging President Madison on, he made important academic advances at William & Mary. The fine arts and the law of nature and nations were added to the curriculum, and new professorships were established in anatomy and medicine, modern languages, and law and police (thus creating the first law school in America). An elective system of studies was also introduced, leading the way on this score in the United States. For a number of years, this satisfied Jefferson, our august but difficult alumnus, but his passion for secular higher education, disassociated from the church, ultimately led him to defect, head west and create from whole cloth the University of Virginia, a public school from its birth. This new institution took a severe toll on William & Mary’s capacity to recruit students and philanthropic gifts throughout the 19th century.
Much more could be said with profit and delight about other William & Mary presidents, but I face a draconian word limit. The Alumni Magazine takes no prisoners when it comes to column length.
So let me simply say as I have said before, each William & Mary president stands on the shoulders of those who came before. I have been keenly aware of the debt I owe my presidential predecessors, particularly those who shaped William & Mary’s early success, those who steadfastly enabled the College to defy death during the anguished decades following the Civil War, and those in more recent times who began the restoration of the university’s preeminence.
Presidents always depend enormously on the work of colleagues to help push William & Mary forward. A successful institution of higher education is always under construction, with its continued progress dependent on the work of many. To an extraordinary degree, my own presidency has been blessed by colleagues of great ability and commitment. Their good counsel, warm friendship and herculean efforts have been vital.
All of us — chancellors, rectors and board members; the campus community in all its profusion of students, faculty, administrators and staff; as well as alumni, parents and friends around the world — have come together to make enormous progress during the decade just past.
On June 30, at 12 a.m., I will leave iconic William & Mary with robust confidence in its future. Our 28th president will lead the Alma Mater of the Nation to ever greater heights.