Sandra Day O’Connor, who became the university’s 23rd chancellor in 2005 following her retirement as associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, passed away Dec. 1, 2023. She served as William & Mary’s Chancellor, an honorary role, until 2012. Her term succeeded that of Henry A. Kissinger, former United States Secretary of State, who also passed away this week.

Recognized across the globe as a constitutional and legal scholar, O’Connor was appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan to serve on the Supreme Court. She was the first woman to serve on the bench of the nation’s highest court.

“Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was an inspiring trailblazer,” said William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe. “During her frequent visits to campus as our chancellor, she called countless William & Mary students to advance the rule of law and pursue distinguished careers in public service. We are honored to count Justice O’Connor among the William & Mary family.”

O’Connor was among the expert panelists featured during a public discussion at the World Forum on the Future of Democracy Conference, hosted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the College of William and Mary on Sept. 17, 2007.
O’Connor was among the expert panelists featured during a public discussion at the World Forum on the Future of Democracy Conference, hosted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and William & Mary on Sept. 17, 2007.

O’Connor was often on campus during her tenure as chancellor, providing keynote addresses for conferences, attending signature university events, and speaking with students to share her life experiences. In 2007, she helped welcome Queen Elizabeth II to William & Mary as part of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

“I have treasured my connection to this wonderful university,” O’Connor said in addressing graduates at the 2010 Commencement Ceremony. “The more I see of it, the more I like it. The professors here are wonderful – they’re tough! They really care about teaching you something that will stay with you. I’ve been close to several universities and this one truly is special, particularly in the quality and dedication of the faculty.”

O’ Connor at a February, 2008 luncheon with students from the Murray Scholars program.
O’ Connor at a Feb., 2008 luncheon with the university’s Murray Scholars.

O’Connor held a passion for education and public service, all of which she shared often during her time on campus. She also had a personal connection to the students.

“I care about each of you, and want you to have a wonderful future,” O’Connor said in 2010. “If you manage to provide some time in your life for public service, you will make me particularly proud. Our nation needs help, and it needs it now and you’ll be able to give it in a variety of ways. Thank you for letting me be your chancellor.”

O’Connor, a native Texan, earned a B.A. in economics (magna cum laude) from Stanford University, and went on to receive an LL.B. from Stanford Law School, where she graduated third in her class. 

Prior to her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1981, O’Connor had served as Deputy County Attorney of San Mateo County, California (1952 – 1953), a civilian attorney for the Quartermaster Market Center, Frankfurt, Germany (1954 – 1957), in private practice (1958 – 1960), Assistant Attorney General of Arizona (1965 – 1969), three terms in the Arizona State Senate (beginning in 1969) and as a Judge in Arizona from 1975 until her appointment to the Supreme Court). 

In addition to her dedication to the law and education, O’Connor was passionate about democracy. She founded two organizations that continue that legacy, the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy and iCivics. 

“We are fortunate in the United States to have a stable and a durable democratic government. But we can’t be complacent in assuming this good fortune will continue… It is the citizens of our nation who must preserve our system of government, and we cannot forget that,” O’Connor told an audience at the University of Missouri School of Law during the 2009 Earl F. Nelson Lecture.

, Director of News & Media