Gates is an undergraduate alumnus of William and Mary from the Class of 1965. He’ll replace O’Connor in February.

The chancellor’s job at William and Mary deserves some explanation. The post dates to the 1693 origins of the nation’s second-oldest college. The position originally went to an English subject, usually the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of London, who served as the school’s “advocate to the crown” while the president oversaw day-to-day operations, according to a backgrounder from the Williamsburg school.

George Washington has held the post, along with former President John Tyler, former Chief Justice Warren Burger, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and, not least, O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the high court.

A companion post from colleague Jason Ukman on Checkpoint Washington says, “Gates has uttered nary a peep publicly since leaving the Pentagon and returning to Washington stateat the end of June. He has said he is planning on writing two books — a memoir and a treatise on leadership — and on joining the well-trodden speaking circuit of former Washington officials.”

A page at the William and Mary Web site devoted to the “duties” of the chancellorship does not actually describe any significant duties. The college has gotten along without a chancellor for years at a time; the job sounds like it may now be largely ceremonial. It’s worth noting that the chancellor does not apparently serve on the Board of Visitors that governs the school.

President Taylor Reveley said in a statement, however, that O’Connor had had a “profound impact on our campus. With each visit to William & Mary she embraced her role as chancellor with a vibrant spirit and robust enthusiasm for our students. She has shared with them the practical wisdom and perspective of life born of her extraordinary career of leadership and service. And, of course, she wore her glittering green and gold robe of office with great panache.”

Gates was a history major at William and Mary. He joined the CIA after graduation and never looked back, eventually holding the distinction of serving as defense secretary under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

“What William and Mary gave me, above all else, was a calling to serve - - a sense of duty to community and country that this college has sought to instill in each generation of students for more than 300 years,” he told graduates in a 2007 commencement address.