Chandler revisits presidencies of the past

John Chandler, 12th president of the College, began his lecture last Saturday afternoon in true Williams fashion: with a 15-minute “study hall” to read the 24-page paper that he had written for the event. The lecture on Williams’ presidential past was held in Griffin Hall in conjunction with Convocation and Induction events last weekend.

After the audience had perused the paper, Chandler launched into a discussion of the presidency of Mark Hopkins, who served as president of the College from 1836 to 1872. Although current students know Hopkins as the legendary teacher immortalized the one end of a log, Chandler pointed out that he was not an ideal president in some respects.

The issues around Mark Hopkins’ presidency were in full view at the gathering of Williams alums in 1871, Chandler said. “Mark Hopkins is not present, but [Professor] John Bascom gave a long list of needs at Williams. James Garfield then defended President Hopkins with those famous words about the log. Both men were right.”

Chandler went on to explain that, on one hand, enrollment at the College had been essentially stagnant throughout Hopkins’ long presidency – while competitor Amherst’s enrollment had taken off. Additionally, Amherst had a sizable endowment while Williams had almost nothing, as Hopkins did not consider fundraising to be part of his job description.

However, Chandler emphasized that U.S. President James Garfield was also right.

“Mark Hopkins was the embodiment of the aphorism that is ascribed to James Garfield; he was a great educator,” he said.

Next, Chandler segued into a discussion on the tenure of Harry A. Garfield, son of the same U.S. president who had defended Hopkins.

“President Garfield came to Williams determined to overhaul the curriculum, and he did it by spending hundreds of hours with the curriculum committee,” Chandler said. “Faculty who opposed the curriculum he proposed stirred up the students, and he had a lot of problems. But eventually he prevailed.”

In addition to these curricular reforms, which emphasized academic rigor, Garfield was known for founding the Institute of Politics in 1921.

“It was famous worldwide,” Chandler said. “Mussolini, for example, would send a delegation to the Institute to discuss foreign relations.”

Although Garfield drew flack from students and faculty for the amount of time he spent organizing the Institute, Chandler defended his dedication to the College.

“I wondered whether Garfield was bored with his job, as he was used to a far bigger stage in Cleveland [as a lawyer and political leader], close personal friend of Woodrow Wilson,” Chandler said. “He may have been bored, but that doesn’t mean he was inattentive to the issues at Williams.”

The final president whom Chandler discussed was Jack Sawyer, who held the presidency from 1961 to 1973 when Chandler succeeded him.

“Jack Sawyer was a very improbable president in many ways,” Chandler said about his predecessor. “He had never been a tenured faculty member anywhere; he had published very little and he never had a PhD.”

Still, Sawyer stood out for a number of reasons. He had been a junior fellow at Harvard, a prestigious appointment that recognized research potential. Furthermore, he had extensive experience in management and strategy with the Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.’s precursor.

“Jack was strategically brilliant,” Chandler said. This brilliance was instrumental in resolving the dispute over fraternities, which had come to a head immediately before Sawyer assumed the presidency. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m a new guy, give me time,’ Jack Sawyer decided to see it through.”

Apart from dissolving fraternities, Sawyer’s main agenda also included coeducation and revising the curriculum that Garfield had instituted in 1911.

“Jack Sawyer was without question the most revolutionary president in the history of Williams,” Chandler said. “This took a toll on him – he was not in robust health. Jack collapsed at a dinner in Los Angeles once [during the period of opposition to closing fraternities]. He didn’t sleep well at all … He showed not only great courage and great skill but also sacrificial devotion.”

Chandler closed his lecture with another Williams tradition – he accepted comments and fielded questions from the audience. As President Falk took office that afternoon, Chandler fittingly offered general reflections on his presidency at the College.

“A lot of the work to the president has to be invisible to students, such as fundraising and cultivating alumni relationships,” he explained. “But people should understand that it’s imperative,” he said. “As far as direct relationships to students through teaching are concerned, styles vary. The style of leadership has to be an embodiment of the president.”

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