Although Williams has had 15 Presidents, the Presidential Search Committee has only been responsible for the election of three. A modern construction, the Committee has been in effect for little over a quarter of a century.
Early notes from the Board of Trustees mention little about the procedure used in selecting the President, unless an unexpected problem occurred. By the early 1820s, the Board of Trustees contained 15 men, and it seems evident that the Trustees were responsible for selecting a fit President. Notes from the Board of Trustees dating from 1825 reveal a resolution: “Noted, that the Trustees will elect two persons to fill the vacancy of the President, the second to be notified in case the first decline the office.” Even these measures to preserve stability in the process could not account for the chance that those selected would reject the appointment, which interestingly, happened frequently. Williams’ third President Edward Dorr Griffin, who took office in 1825, was actually the Board’s third choice.
In 1836, notes of the Trustees describe that the election of the President should be done by ballot, and cannot be a simple majority, but a unanimous vote. Notes about candidate discussions are not included, but it seems that the selection of the President was not always a perfect fit.
According to notes from a Board of Trustees meeting on June 18, 1937, President Tyler Dennett abruptly announced his resignation in the middle of the meeting, after only three years as President. The notes claim, “At this point in the meeting, Dr. Dennett offered orally his resignation as President of Williams College. He stated that he was finding the position increasingly difficult in his relations with Trustees, faculty, students and alumni; that the work was too hard and too unpleasant; he stated that he did not wish to discuss the matter in greater detail with anyone and arose from his place and retired from the room.”
The surprised Board sent a committee to talk with President Dennett, who confirmed that his outburst had been genuine. The Board had a series of emergency meetings, and, after only a month and two days, had chosen President Dennett’s successor, James Phinney Baxter, who served for 14 years. Baxter, a Trustee himself, accepted the appointment the same day, and began his term a mere month later.
Discussion of the candidates among the Trustees was rarely disclosed. The only notes that mention discourse are from 1881, when the Secretary recorded that “after a free and full comparison of views, Franklin Carter was unanimously chosen by ballot as the new President.”
In the February 1961 Alumni Review, the Presidential search is explained more fully. President John Sawyer noted that the search included Williams alumni as well as present and past faculty who were alumni of other institutions. They also looked over “men without Williams connections.” The list of 50 names were reduced to 15, and then even smaller before the Board voted unanimously to elect John Chandler, who served for 12 years as President.
The Presidential Search Committee wa first mentioned in 1973. Since notes from Board of Trustees’ meetings can only be read by non-Trustees after 50 years, the Alumni Review documented the new development publicly.
The Alumni Review notes that upon accepting President Sawyer’s resignation, they voted to “appoint a joint Search Committee to initiate, receive, and review nominations of candidates and to submit recommendatios for consideration and action by the Board at its April meeting or as soon as feasible.” Since then, the formal objectives of the Search Committee have changed little.
The makeup of the Presidential Search Committee has not changed much either. The first Joint Search Committee, of 1973, contained 16 members plus a secretary. Apponted to the committee were six Trustees, three faculty members, four students, and three alumni. The 1985 Committee contained one more faculty member; in 1992, there was an additional Trustee and faculty member, and one fewer alumnus.
Three of the students on the first Search Committee were campus organization leaders – of College Council, the Gargoyle Society, and Junior Advisors, respectively. Alumni members appointed to the committee have proved to be officers in the Alumni Society or members of the Society’s Executive Board.
As the Committee has developed, its goals have become more distinct. According to a November 23, 1992 letter to Williams faculty, staff, and students, the first meetings of the Committee was only “to listen to ideas and points of view; no specific candidates [would be] discussed.”
The procedure of reviewing has also changed. It is required that nominations must be submitted by interested candidates. The letter also noted that the position was advertised in national publications.
The numbers have grown, as well. During both the 1984 and 1993 committees, there were over 200 nominations submitted.
Overwhelmingly, elected Presidents have been members of the Board of Trustees. Many have been Presidents of other institutions. President Payne was only the second President not to have previously studied or taught at the College.