Gates addressed a crowd of more than 3,500 gathered at the College for the annual ceremony. Class of 2014 Professor of Law Laura Heymann was honored with the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award during the Feb. 3 celebration.
Although America faces many obstacles including increased partisanship, the country has "the power and the means to overcome them," former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, a 1965 graduate of the College of William & Mary, told the university's Charter Day audience on Feb. 3 after being invested as the College's new chancellor.
"In the great and urgent endeavors that lie before us, I have no doubt that the graduates and scholars of William & Mary -- this community of learning, listening and working through issues-- rooted in the original soil and the basic principles of American liberty, have a special role, and a special obligation, to be part of the solution: as leaders, as public servants, as citizens," he said. "As I enter this next, and last phase in my public life, I will be proud and honored to serve as Chancellor as you help right this nation's course."
Gates spoke to a crowd of more than 3,500 students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members who were gathered in William & Mary Hall for the annual ceremony, which celebrates the day on which the College received its royal charter in 1693. In addition to featuring a noted speaker, the event offers the university a chance to celebrate its history and recognize a few outstanding students, faculty and alumni.
A new chancellor
In recent years, the Charter Day event has become known as the College's birthday. This year, on its 319th "birthday," the College received a new chancellor as a present.
Gates, who will serve as the College's 24th chancellor, is the first William & Mary alumnus in the modern era to take on the honorary position. He follows retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who served as the College's chancellor since 2005.
Gates, who served from 2006 to 2011 under former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, is the only defense secretary in the nation's history to serve two presidents from different political parties. Prior to becoming defense secretary, he served in numerous capacities in the Executive Branch and worked for eight presidents. He is also the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. From 2002 to 2006, Gates was president of Texas A&M University.
Following his investiture, Gates addressed the crowd, telling them that he, at first, resisted the idea of becoming the chancellor.
"Then I thought about this great institution, what it has meant to me personally and its special place in the history of our country," he said. "I then reflected on the kind of people who had held this post over the past four centuries. The decision to become your next chancellor became very easy very fast."
Gates joked, "Of course, I had no idea then about the Chancellor's regalia -- a sort of unique blending of medieval academic tradition and Lady Gaga."
Reflecting on his time as a student at William & Mary, Gates recalled driving a bus for Williamsburg-James City County Schools and being woken up at night by strange noises at Camp Peary - noises he would come to understand much better later as he headed the CIA. But Gates also recalled being fascinated by the Williamsburg area and its unique role in history. Though the country's earliest politicians still argued and were embroiled in scandals, holding the new country together meant finding ways to overcome their differences, he said.
"It is a lesson too many of today's politicians have failed to understand in an age of zero-sum politics and scorched earth ideological warfare," said Gates. Because of polarizing factors, including highly gerrymandered congressional districts, "wave elections" that put one party in control after another, and the 24-hour news cycle, "the moderate center - the foundation of our political system - is not holding," said Gates. "Moderation is now equated with lacking principles. Compromise means selling out."
However, there is still hope for the country, Gates said.
"It will take a willingness to make tough decisions, the clear-eyed realism to see the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be, the willingness to listen and to learn from one another, an ability to see and understand other points of view, and the wisdom to calibrate principle and compromise for the greater good of our country," he said. "These qualities comprise the history and the essence of William & Mary experience, in and out of the classroom. It was at this College that I first was exposed to such an environment and grounded in what I learned here, I have spent a life in public service."
Awards and honors
In addition to Gates' investiture as chancellor, several students and faculty members received honors at the event.
Professor Emeritus of Government James A. Bill, the College's first director of the Reves Center for International Studies, received an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters at the ceremony.
The annual Jefferson Awards were also presented. Associate English Professor and Director of Linguistics Ann Reed received the Thomas Jefferson Award, which is presented to a faculty member each year for significant service through his or her personal activities, influence and leadership. Class of 2014 Professor of Law Laura Heymann received the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award. Physics and math major Ari Cukierman '12 received this year's Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. Molly Bulman '12, this year's Monroe Prize for Civic Engagement winner, was also honored at the ceremony.
Additionally, this year's Alumni Medallion recipients were recognized at the event: Joseph Agee '52, M.Ed. '56; Ruth Tillar '45; and Henry Wolf '64, J.D. '66. The three received their medallions at a separate ceremony on Saturday morning.
Several other students and faculty members participated in this year's ceremony, reading portions of the College's charter or performing in the William & Mary Choir, William & Mary Brass Quintet or in the a capella group DoubleTake.
Students who attended the event received a pin to wear on their graduation gowns, and - for the first time this year - were invited to write their names on scrolls that will be kept in the College's archives.
One student received a special privilege this year as she started a new tradition at the event: reading an essay reflecting on the College's charter. Meghan Moore '13 won that honor, and used the opportunity to ponder what the world would be like if William & Mary had never existed.
"Today, we can ask that what if question. However, it's a scary scenario to spend too much time thinking about," she said. "For without those signatures, we would miss a variety of aspects that have shaped our identities that go beyond our time here. So when asked what the charter means to me and how I will leave my mark, I have the charter to thank for a girl that will soon leave this place very different than how she came, one who emerges from a beautiful landscape speckled with pathways of winding bricks, who has a love for learning and more importantly truly experiencing life, and finally, someone who appreciates the past in order to cherish the present. In alternate historic language, without the charter, all of this would cease to exist. Imagine that."
As the event came to an end, President Taylor Reveley reflected on Thomas Jefferson's connections to the College, noting that William & Mary was already 69 years old when Jefferson left it in 1762.
"Fast forward 250 years to today, and William & Mary, on its 319th birthday, has become one of the most time-tested and acclaimed institutions of higher education in America and one of the most prolific producers of graduates devoted to the good of their communities, states and nation," said Reveley.
Before leading the crowd in a cheer of "319" at the end of the annual ceremony, Reveley asserted that the College's deep roots in history and its contemporary accomplishments "make a dynamite combination."
"This is to say, when you mate being one of the very first colleges in North America, and having been present at the creation of our country, with the dynamism of vibrant success in our time, you get an institution of enormous power and promise," he said. "William & Mary really is quite something. It's iconic."