Margaret Thatcher, College of William and Mary’s first female chancellor

By virtue of being the nation’s second-oldest university, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg upholds some of the oldest and most storied traditions in American higher education. One of those traditions, spelled out in the 1693 royal charter officially founding the college, is the naming of a chancellor who will serve for no more than seven years.

Margaret Thatcher poses with William & Mary students during a 2001 visit. (Courtesy of the College of William and Mary)

Margaret Thatcher visits with William and Mary students in 2001. (Courtesy of the College of William and Mary)

The chancellor outranks the college president, but the position is mostly an honorary one. In the early days, the bishop of London or the archbishop of Canterbury often held the job and served as a link between the small college in the Colony of Virginia and the royal family, British government and the Church of England, according to the college. In 1788, school officials offered George Washington the position, which he at first turned down because he thought it might involve travel. He later accepted.

The tradition was not always upheld, but school leaders revived it in the 1980s by naming U.S. Chief Justice Warren Earl Burger as chancellor. He was succeeded by Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Great Britain, who served as the college’s first female chancellor from 1993 to 2000.

In the role, Thatcher advocated for William and Mary in Richmond, helped with fundraising and visited the campus several times. At the conclusion of Thatcher’s term, then-President Timothy J. Sullivan said: “Lady Thatcher, we will never forget the vital lessons that you have taught, or cease to feel the powerful inspiration that you have given in the cause of liberal learning, in the service of freedom and in the rich and noble history of English-speaking peoples. You have captured our hearts, strengthened our resolve and changed our lives — and as a consequence we will never be the same.”

Chancellor Thatcher was followed by Henry A. Kissinger and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The current chancellor is former defense secretary Robert M. Gates.

Upon hearing the news of Thatcher’s death Monday, William and Mary President Taylor Reveley released this statement: “Margaret Thatcher was a great force in British and world politics. She was also a cherished member of the William & Mary family, serving splendidly and inimitably as our Chancellor for seven years. We will miss her enormously and deeply mourn her loss.”

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