Wednesday, August 17, 2022

William & Mary law students speak out after series of controversial speakers

William & Mary students expressed upset after two speakers came to the college and expressed or represented controversial viewpoints. (WYDaily/Courtesy W&M News)
William & Mary students expressed upset after two speakers came to the college and expressed or represented controversial viewpoints. (WYDaily/Courtesy W&M News)

An air of frustration and confusion hangs over students at the William & Mary Law School after recent college speakers have raised controversial issues.

On Nov. 1, James McGlothlin, CEO of the financial services, oil, and gas conglomerate The United Company and donor to the college, came to speak to 49 law students during an annual McGlothlin Leadership Conference, according to statements from administrators at the William & Mary School of Law.

Students were upset during the talk when McGlothlin stated views that disrespected minorities, said Ryan Walkenhorst, president of Lawyers Helping Lawyers, a William and Mary organization aimed at creating a nurturing environment through mental health awareness events.

William & Mary did not have any transcript or recordings of what McGlothlin said, according to Brian Whitson, the chief communications officer at the college.

Dean Davison M. Douglas sent out a message to students on Nov. 10, in which the comments were referred to as “a number of controversial topics which unintentionally offended some students.”

McGlothlin’s words were powerful enough with the students that the college quickly sent out emails and planned separate forums in which students could express their concerns.

Students like Ariana Cheng, president of the Asian Law Student Association, said the emails and forums only left students with more confusion.

During one of the town halls, Cheng said the administration indicated that as an institution they couldn’t condemn nor condone McGlothlin’s remarks.

“They weren’t very transparent about it and that caused a lot more rumors about what had happened,” Cheng said.

In Douglas’ message to students, he addressed this issue.

“During the Forum, we failed our students,” Douglas said. “Discussions within our community this week highlighted a wide discrepancy between our stated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and our actions.”

Some of the students believe this form of defense correlates to the amount of money McGlothlin has donated to the school. The school did not release any information about the exact amount McGlothlin donates each year, but there is a building on campus — McGlothlin-Street Hall — named after the donor in addition to the James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Law Scholarship funded by the speaker.

“It really comes down to money,” Cheng said. “I think when that much of your money comes from one person, you’re bound to them.”

McGlothlin heard about the controversy surrounding his talk and returned to the school to issue a formal apology on Nov. 8. But for many members of the student body, the damage was already done.

“William & Mary’s mission of teaching, learning, and research depends crucially on our ability to empower all members of our community to offer principled dissent, ensuring open debate as we air diverse viewpoints,” said William & Mary president Katherine A. Rowe in a statement. “We fell unacceptably short of that core principle and must hold ourselves to a high standard going forward.”

To follow the already-present tensions, the school continued with hosting Chief Legal Counsel to the Alliance Defending Freedom, Kristen Waggoner who spoke to a room of approximately 80 students on Nov. 12 as part of the Dunn Lecture Series.

William & Mary’s website describes Waggoner’s talk as covering “The Free Speech Clause and the Defense of Religious Liberty.”

The event was planned before the previous week’s lunchtime speech with McGlothlin but students like Walkenhorst commented on how having someone from such a well-known organization that speaks against LGBTQ rights contributed to an already tense atmosphere.

The Alliance’s tagline is “For Faith. For Justice,” according to its website. But the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal organization aimed at fighting hate and bigotry, deemed the organization as a hate group because members have “linked homosexuality to pedophilia and claims that a ‘homosexual agenda’ will destroy Christianity and society,” their website said.

The school quickly responded to student concerns on Nov. 13 by sending an email with the subject line “Healing.” In the email, Dean Patricia E. Roberts addressed how Waggoner’s presence affected students.

“Recent events have served to divide us, and to create a pressure-cooker of emotions that leave us emotionally drained, and sometimes quick to judge and criticize others,” Roberts wrote in the email.

The school stood by Waggoner as a speaker, with Whitson saying it was “an example of the kind of civil discourse about difficult topics, even in disagreement, that is expected to take place in an academic setting.”

But the issue, Walkenhorst said, was not that Waggoner was the speaker but that it heightened tensions after an already controversial speaker had been on campus.

“Students were frustrated that they had been told by administration a few days before that this was a welcoming environment but then had someone come who doesn’t support LGBTQ rights,” she said.

The email from Roberts proceeded to offer a number of services to students following the speakers, but for Walkenhorst and others felt it seemed too little too late.

“The administration means well and are trying to fix what happened,” Walkenhorst said. “But it just feels like they’re being reactive instead of proactive.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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