As stated in my bio, I’m a Texas resident. When I got ready to apply to college, I wasn’t interested in the schools in my state. I figured I would end up at a private school – if I wanted to go to a huge public school I could find plenty in Texas for half the price. But in the end, the small, prestigious, yet public W&M married all the things I was looking for most in a college. It was undeniably the right place for me and being directed to it has been an awesome blessing.
Of course, it’s hard to call W&M a public school with all the opportunities to thrive on campus. It’s been our tagline for decades – “the public Ivy.” I’ve always taken pride that our public school has such a private school feel. However, lately I’ve also been grateful that there are a few significant ways where we are NOT like a private school.
First of all, our diversity policy is not like that of a private school. I have a large group of friends who ended up at a small private college in the Midwest that expels students who are openly gay. The students have started fighting back against this policy – establishing a Gay-Straight Alliance on campus and petitioning the administrators. The fight has gotten pretty nasty because the students have no leverage against the crusty old Board of Trustees with outdated ideologies. The students truly have no voice in the matter. The student government is only a “government” in name, not in practice. At William & Mary, administrators take our concerns to heart, as exemplified in the annual opportunity to submit revisions to the Student Code of Conduct. Also, there are student representatives on the Board of Visitors to voice campus opinion. Administrators, alumni, students and board members alike are dedicated to making this campus a happier place. Activism is a responsibility encouraged for all parties.
This brings me to another aspect of W&M that makes us awesome as a public school, rather than private: free speech codes. I recently attended a forum with a speaker from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). The speaker talked about some college campuses with horrific rules against free speech. Many campuses have a designated area, a free speech zone, and only there are students allowed to pass out pamphlets and flyers for their causes. This area is usually small and in a secluded part of campus. Students who pass out flyers in other parts of campus have disciplinary action taken against them. A ridiculous example occurred a few weeks ago when a student at a college in California was prohibited by school officials from passing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day.
I listened to this presentation in disbelief – I couldn’t imagine going to a school that violated such fundamental individual liberties. Nor could I imagine the student body of William & Mary accepting such limitations on free speech. We take for granted being able to walk across Sadler Terrace and listen to various student groups advertise their causes. Free speech on campus, however, should not be considered a privilege, but a right guaranteed by the very men who walked the streets of Williamsburg centuries ago.
After the presentation, I went to the FIRE website. William & Mary has consistently been rated as a school with some the of best free speech codes in the country. This honor of a “green light” has only been given to a dozen other schools. Perhaps it’s because we are public, perhaps it’s because we’ve had 320 years to figure this out, or perhaps it’s because those men who structured our school also structured our country. Whatever it is, we are lucky to go to a school that values diversity, human rights and the pursuit of happiness.
In sum, W&M adopts the characteristics of a private school, but remains public for the sake of the issues that matter. Our school is the ultimate hybrid, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.