Winter 2021 Issue

Historical Revival

Cliff Fleet ’91, M.A. ’93, J.D. ’95, M.B.A. ’95 is Colonial Williamsburg’s new president and CEO

By Claire De Lisle M.B.A. ’21

For generations, William & Mary students, faculty, staff and alumni have explored the streets of Colonial Williamsburg and immersed themselves in its history.

Now, an alumnus is leading the one-of-a-kind living history museum. On Jan. 1, 2020, Clifford Bridges “Cliff ” Fleet III ’91, M.A. ’93, J.D. ’95, M.B.A. ’95 became the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s ninth president and CEO.

He is just one of 32 alumni in William & Mary’s history with four or more degrees from the university. Throughout his academic life and career, he has combined his interest in history and business.

After an extensive career at Philip Morris USA in Richmond, Virginia, in which he rose from intern to retire as CEO in 2017, Fleet returned to William & Mary to teach in the Raymond A. Mason School of Business. He also served as president of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation until he was tapped for the top job at CW.

“The opportunity to work with Colonial Williamsburg, to lead what is both a business and a historical institution, one that is tied so closely to two institutions I love deeply and dearly — William & Mary and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation — it was just an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up,” Fleet says.

He aims to keep the living history museum relevant, at the forefront of the national discussion about our history, and to attract audiences that are more diverse in all dimensions. To do this, he has three goals: “We want to broaden our impact on America by teaching the story of our founding, think deeper about digital explorations, and tell a more complete story of the people who made this nation possible,” he says.

Colonial Williamsburg is expanding the stories it tells to include more voices of women and Black and Native American people in Williamsburg. For example, CW is working in partnership with the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, which was founded in 1776 and is one of the oldest American churches founded by Blacks. One of its early ministers, Gowan Pamphlet, was the first Black person ordained as a minister in the United States. CW is conducting archaeology on the original site of the church in the hope of reconstructing the building. They’ve received national press coverage for the initiative.

Hands-On History: Every day, interpreters show guests what it was like to live in Williamsburg in the 18th century.

He’s looking ahead to 2026, when Colonial Williamsburg will celebrate its 100th anniversary as well as the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Fleet is also focused on restoring CW’s fiscal performance in a sustainable way — one of Colonial Williamsburg’s biggest challenges. Fleet took on an institution struggling to find firm financial footing. Then, soon after he began his tenure, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the nation and world. CW closed its properties to the public from March 16 to June 14, necessitating difficult staffing and budgeting decisions.

“Based on input from leaders across our organization, our regional partners and the health care community, we are convinced this is the most responsible course of action,” said Fleet in a press release on March 25. “Our priorities are safeguarding the health of our staff, guests and the community, and helping the community and our employees through this very challenging time, while also protecting Colonial Williamsburg as a cultural institution.”

The closure was an opportunity for CW to expand its digital offerings and find new ways of delivering educational content online, through blogs, videos, virtual tours and more — crucial to attracting the next generation of CW visitors and maintaining interest in the historic site even while it was closed. Since the streets were quiet and exhibition buildings were closed, CW also conducted necessary maintenance and landscaping.

“We thought that it was really important for people to see we are still a vital and beautiful destination to visit,” Fleet says. “Our donors have responded and it’s heartwarming to see what they have made possible. Their support has enabled us to sustain our operations during this time period.”

CW reopened with new safety protocols, including mask-wearing and social distancing. Visitors are returning, archaeology continues and historical interpreters are once again telling the stories of the nation’s founding, with renewed focus on Fleet’s goals of impactful and diverse portrayals.

Outside of his role at CW, Fleet was one of the contributors to the Memorial to African Americans Enslaved by William & Mary.

“It is very important that we recognize all of the people that shaped the country that we live in and the nation we have today,” he says. “For too long we haven’t fully recognized the heritage and history of all. This is one way.”

Fleet is also vice chair of the William & Mary Foundation Board and a longtime donor to his alma mater. He is a firm believer in the power of scholarships. He worked his way through William & Mary in Residence Life, by cooking at Second St. and the Polo Club and by coaching track at a local private school.

“I didn’t have a lot of money when I was going through school,” he says. “It’s important to me to help ensure students can financially afford to get through college and reach their potential.”

He sees his giving and board service as a way to give back to an institution that helped him reach success. He also helps support the next generation of William & Mary students through teaching a “Business Foundations” class he designed in the business school that introduces students to the major business disciplines, business ethics and the role of business in society.

“I had a wonderful history, business and law education. But in addition to that, I got a very strong alumni network that helped me and supported me as I worked through my career. I’ve hired alumni, and I’ve called on alumni for advice on how to solve problems,” he says.

Fleet looks back fondly at the many runs he took up and down Duke of Gloucester Street as a student and the hours he spent learning about early America in CW’s Historic Area. He sees Colonial Williamsburg’s and William & Mary’s missions as complementary and ripe for collaboration as both institutions work to educate about and conduct research on early American history.

He says his new role at Colonial Williamsburg is a way to give back to the community.

“I have been blessed in my life and if I can make an impact and help others in our community, it’s something that brings me great joy,” he says. “William & Mary, Colonial Williamsburg and the broader region have shaped me as a person. I’ve long had an interest in history, and so being a part of this is a real privilege and an honor.”

Hands-On History: Fleet helps plow a field in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.