A common topic on Ephblog is student diversity–how to foster it, its interrelationship with financial aid, the impact of international students, and so on. In the 1930’s, such discussions were a lot less nuanced. During the Great Depression, the big diversity question was, “Should we admit more public high school students?”

What follows is an excerpt from my Senior Honors Thesis in History: The Concept of the Gentleman at Williams College: 1929-1939. This is the first chapter, where I talk about the fallout from President Tyler Dennett musing out loud that Williams had too many prep school students. The firestorm that resulted shows how far Williams has come in 75 years.

Read it and enjoy. It’s quite a story.

On March 11, 1937, an article on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune carried the headline: “Dennett Regrets Williams Has So Many ‘Nice Boys.’” The Herald Tribune went on to explain:

Tyler Dennett, president of Williams College, declared today his fears that Williams was growing less and less representative of the American people because its students run ‘almost uniformly to the “nice boy” type.’

‘My idea of a college community is that it should be a cross-section of American life,’ Mr. Dennett told the Williams Alumni Association of Boston, explaining that Williams’s ‘nice boys’ came almost exclusively from ‘good’ schoools like Hotchkiss, Kent and Deerfield.

‘We need more high-school graduates, but it is difficult to get them,’ he asserted. ‘We step down our courses in the freshman class, but our standard is, nevertheless, hard for the high-school graduate because of his poorer preparation…[sic] I wish we knew better how to do this sort of thing.’

So, according to the newspaper story, President Dennett had not only subtly insulted the college he headed, but also insulted secondary schools, both private and public. In his mind, Williams College accepted and taught only “nice boys” — in the vernacular, snobby, rich preppies who sat around and contented themselves with a gentleman’s C — while private schools turned out these decadent students and public high schools gave their students poor academic preparation for college.

Predictably, there was a large outcry against this speech, a speech which was given virtually national publicity. In addition to the New York Herald Tribune, the story was carried in, among other newspapers, The New York Times, the Boston Herald, the Boston Post, the Springfield Republican, the Troy Record, the Philadelphia Sunday Record, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Minneapolis Journal, and the Oregon Daily Journal.

Some of the first reactions against it came from the persons most affected by the statement — the preparatory school headmasters. The day after the speech, Lewis Perry, the principal of Phillips Exeter and a trustee of Williams, called up Dean Charles R. Keller, the head of admissions, and told him, “I’m not sure that there’s any use in your coming up here, because we have so many ‘nice boys.’” “I kind of shook,” recalled Dean Keller. “I went in…and said to Mr. Dennett, ‘Look, Lewis Perry called me up. Now what?’ ‘Oh, he’s only kidding,’ said Mr. Dennett. ‘Now wait a minute — call up Mr. Perry and see…’” “That,” remembered Keller, “is my memory of the first reaction to the speech.”

Perry later amplified his reaction in a two-page letter to President Dennett on March 25. In part, the letter read:

With your desire to have more high school boys in Williams I am entirely in sympathy, but it seems to me that you have created a false dilemma. You will never get more high school boys by damning graduates of preparatory schools, and that is what you seem to be doing…

If you would take my advice, you would bear down on the fact that you want more high school boys at Williams and let it go at that. You are in no position to be God Almighty and give your opinion in public of the relative merits of different schools…[no] head of an institution can do that. It would be a little absurd if at an Exeter Dinner I got up and gave my ideas of the relative merits of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Williams and Dartmouth, and it would rightly land me in a lot of hot water…

These blow-offs come periodically, and I am all for you, but, for heaven’s sake, keep the discussion general and do not go too much into particulars as far as schools are concerned.

I have talked a number of times with Kenneth Sill about the type of boy you seem to want. I know exactly, I think, what you want — the fine, rugged, unsophisticated, country boy who thirty years ago used to reach the campus of a New England college, put his carpet bag down and say, ‘I want an education.’ Well, Henry Ford and the radio have just about eliminated that type of boy. There ain’t no such fella as far as our eastern institutions are concerned, and if you think you are going to get him in Williams you are bound to be disappointed. He isn’t at Bowdoin, he isn’t at Dartmouth, and I don’t believe you will find him even at Bates or the University of Maine.

Father Sill, the headmaster of Kent School, was not far behind Perry in reacting to Dennett’s speech. On March 13 he wrote to Williams, thanking Dean Keller for sending him the marks of a Kent graduate:

I presume he is one of the ‘nice’ boys referred to by Dr. Dennett in his recent speech in Boston. I am sorry the President said that, that is if he was quoted correctly. Williams is at liberty to reject any boys it sees fit, and I take for granted when our boys qualify they are welcome…

continued in Part 2

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