U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will be the next chancellor of the College of William and Mary, an honorary appointment with particular resonance for the school's new president, constitutional law scholar Gene R. Nichol.
"She's clearly one of the most influential jurists in American history," Nichol said. Her impact has gone far beyond her role as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, he said; on the court, "she may be the one whose opinion counted most."
"I think she's demonstrated remarkable skill and wisdom and, particularly, courage -- so to me she's a great hero, and that makes it all the more exciting," Nichol added.
The position of chancellor is a role with an undefined framework at William and Mary, and chancellors vary in how much time they choose to spend with students and faculty. The college is working out the details with O'Connor. "We're not going to be asking her to punch a clock," Nichol said. The college does not have specific dates for events, he said, but, "I think we'll see a good deal of her."
O'Connor comes to William and Mary as the Supreme Court is generating much debate. She surprised many when she announced this summer that she would retire from the court, where she has served since 1981. The death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist left a second opening and an unusual opportunity to dramatically shape the future of the court. Last week, John G. Roberts Jr. was sworn in as chief justice, and on Monday, President Bush nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to take O'Connor's place.
When justices have visited the Williamsburg campus, students have been surprised and delighted by how approachable they have been and their eagerness to discuss ideas, said Pete Alces, a professor at William and Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law. "There's an awful lot of enthusiasm for this appointment," he said.
Megan Bisk, president of the student bar association, said she hoped that students would have a chance to really get to know O'Connor.
O'Connor said in a statement that she is delighted to serve "and looks forward to being an active member of the campus community."
The royal charter of 1693 proclaimed that henceforth, "one eminent and discreet person" would serve as chancellor of William and Mary. For years, the bishop of London and the archbishop of Canterbury held the post. After the Revolutionary War, George Washington was elected chancellor and served until his death.
In recent years, Warren Earl Burger, the 15th chief justice of the United States, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger have served. Kissinger announced that he would step down when President Timothy Sullivan did, so Nichol arrived at the school looking for the next chancellor.
He immediately thought of O'Connor, he said. "I'm a large fan."