- EphBlog - http://ephblog.com -

Williams Has Too Many ‘Nice Boys’: Part 1

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

Comments Disabled (Open | Close)

Comments Disabled To "Williams Has Too Many ‘Nice Boys’: Part 1"

#1 Comment By hwc On April 24, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

Was there a tinge of anti-semitism as a subtext here? This is the same time frame when Harvard had its “Jew Quota” and began looking for “geographic diversity” on the assumption that there were be fewer Jewish boys from the hinterlands than from the traditional New York – Boston breeding grounds of Harvard students. This is also when Harvard backed off test-based admissions and the notion of “wholistic” admissions began, a result of getting too many of a “certain” type of boy who scored well on standardized testing.

Williams was notorious for “overlooking” graduates from the best public schools like Stuyvesant High School in New York which had a very high Jewish enrollment.

#2 Comment By Parent ’12 On April 24, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

Guy- this is a great post… what a wonderful faux pas to stir things up.

And, what’s a “nice boy” now?

I’m curious about the rest of your senior thesis. Does the college host an on-line site of pdf versions of theses?

I realize looking at when you graduated, yours probably wouldn’t be there, although given this opening excerpt it should be.

#3 Comment By Soph Mom On April 24, 2009 @ 12:54 pm


This is wonderful. The language, the wording and style of the insults, the “nice boy” vs. the “country boy”, all of it has the makings of a theatrical production.

When I saw this line…

You are in no position to be God Almighty and give your opinion in public of the relative merits of different schools…

…I couldn’t help but wonder what Mr. Perry would say about EphBlog.

I hope you post further chapters.

#4 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On April 24, 2009 @ 12:57 pm


Somewhat. While Jews were admitted (e.g., Herb Stein was Class of 1935), I certainly read letters by Dennett where he was worried that Jews would be targeted by other students and so would become bitter or not able to cope. He certainly had a mental tug of war between trying to get more diversity in the student body while at the same time not wrecking boys’ lives.

During the 1930’s, Williams still had fraternities, and some “non-nice boys” didn’t get rushed. As upperclassmen, they joined the Commons Club.

#5 Comment By Dick Swart On April 24, 2009 @ 1:45 pm


An excellent post!

Reading your paper on the ’30’s in the ’00s has that sense of viewing a time gone by through filters applied by decade. Yours, the ’70’s; mine, the ’50’s.

I am sure the filters applied for the ’80’s, 90’s. and current decade produce a greater and greater sense of wonderment and disbelief at the Williams found by Tyler Dennett.

#6 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On April 24, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

Parent ’12,

David Kane has been a big proponent of making theses available to the public but I must admit I’m not sure where that stands.

As you note, I graduated in 1975, back in the olden days, before the days of PCs. (Wang Laboratories released its word processor in 1975 (sold for $20,000); Microsoft was founded in 1975). So I typed my thesis on the most cutting edge technology available: an electric typewriter.

#7 Comment By Parent ’12 On April 24, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

Guy- I remember well that cutting edge technology. At least we both had electric typewriters. Some friends used manual typewriters.

To help a friend & make a little money, I typed his Ph.D thesis on my Smith Corona. It would have been a lot easier with a Selectric.

I’m grateful that there were Xerox machines. Bye, bye, carbon paper.

#8 Comment By Dick Swart On April 24, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

In the olden days, fishing may have been the surest way to a college presidency.

Baxter fishes while Dennett burns!


For those who follow this sort of thing, please notice the spins and twirls of the Luce school of news journalism writing.

Although there is not a sample in this piece, Wolcott Gibbs in a
profile on Henry Luce for The New Yorker parodied Time-style with its’ counter-standard constructions: “Backwards ran the sentences until reeled the mind”.


#9 Comment By Parent ’12 On April 24, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

That’s quite a story in TIME. I obviously don’t know the details behind an of the Williams presidential successions.

I wonder if the trustees were waiting for Dennett to cook his own goose. The turn-around sounded really quick, faster than fly fishing.

#10 Comment By hwc On April 24, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

Dennett’s ouster doesn’t sound half as dramatic as that of Harry Payne’s departure after his screw-up with Herb Allen and the Class of ’62 Theater.

#11 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On April 24, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

What an interesting thesis topic. Prof. Miller of the Philosophy Dept., who was there when Williams changed, told me that the change away from an overwhelmingly preppy Williams would not have been possible without dropping the 4 year Latin or Greek requirement. Williams was, I think, the last of the elite schools to drop the requiremnet of 4 years of classics. But, since relatively few high school grads had 4 years of Latin, the faculty realized that it needed to drop this if it had any chance of getting anywhere near 50-50 in public vs private school grads. So the faculty reluctantly approved dropping the classics requirement. This was just before our time. The old catalog I looked at still had it.

#12 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On April 24, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

Dennett’s resignation was a cumulative thing. His “Nice Boys” speech didn’t win him any friends with the Trustees. He’d also cut faculty salaries by 10% to save money, and while that was still in effect, the Trustees decided–seemingly on a whim–that Williams really needed some squash courts. When Dennett protested that (1) they weren’t that crucial to the Williams educational mission and (2) there was no money for them, the Trustees said, “No problem” and raised the money among themselves in an afternoon.

The final straw was the Trustees deciding to buy the Greylock corner. Dennett felt the college would never expand that far (he was wrong on that one), and that it was not worthwhile paying upkeep on land that the college would never use.

Dennett felt that this pattern of decisions proved that he and the Trustees were ultimately at cross-purposes, and he resigned. From the documents and accounts I’ve read, Dennett wasn’t bitter over this, he just felt that the relationship was dysfunctional, and it would be better for everyone if Williams got a President who saw more eye to eye with the Trustees. Hence the appointment of Baxter, who was a much more jovial, get-along-with-everyone kind of guy.

Regarding the Latin requirement, by 1933, Williams was the only college east of the Mississippi to require four years of Latin for entrance. Lowering the Latin requirement cut both ways. While lowering it would allow the admission of more high school students, it would also allow the admission of more prep school students. By 1932, the number of prep school students graduating with four years of Latin was dwindling: at Choate it was 31%, at Loomis it was 32%, and at Phillips Exeter it was 18%. A Williams Record editorial in 1932 argued for relaxation of the entrance requirement by saying, “The Williams budget cannot stand the strain under which it is laboring at the present time, and an increase in paying members [i.e., rich prep school students] of the incoming class is the only remedy for the impossible situation.”

In May 1934, at the same faculty meeting at which Tyler Dennett was announced as the new President, the faculty changed the Latin entrance requirement to two years.

#13 Comment By Blogus Flatulus On April 25, 2009 @ 1:00 am

Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur

#14 Comment By David On April 25, 2009 @ 8:42 am

Great post! I hope that you will put up more excerpts over time. If so, you ought to create a new category (as I did with for our discussion of Lindsay Taylor’s ’05 thesis).

Getting senior theses on-line was a long-standing obsession of mine. Fortunately, the College did so for recent theses a few years ago. Kudos to College Librarian David Pilachowski! Almost all of the theses on-line are post-2003, but the College does have up a selection of some of the most relevant to Williams’ history from before that. I especially recommend the ones by Pendleton, Doleac and Sawyer, occasionally discussed here at EphBlog.

I think that, with Guy’s permission, we should be able to get them to post a copy of his thesis there.

#15 Comment By JG On April 25, 2009 @ 10:28 am

I’m sure they’d be willing to post more, it just costs staff time (aka money) to scan the old ones, particularly old and bound old ones. But seeing as how you want us to deeply cut the library budget, I would have thought you’d find such activities a luxury in these times.

#16 Comment By Larry George On April 28, 2009 @ 7:36 am

DK – If you want to do Williams a service, call up the librarian and find out how much it would cost for Williams to put the remaining theses online, using a part-time temporary worker. Then raise the money for it.

I remember watching the mill workers on Water Street in the early 70s, coming to work in the dark, with the shifts and the workforce cutting back, with fuel prices going through the roof, with the bottom end of the New England economy collapsing and the manufacturing tradition dying… The poverty and desperation are more hidden now, but there is someone in the Williamstown area who would be deeply grateful for the work.

#17 Comment By David On April 28, 2009 @ 8:33 am

LG: I could be wrong, but I believe that your suggestion is impossible. The College does not allow an alumni to, say, raise $10,000 and then specify that this amount must be spent on project X, whether that be putting theses on-line or buying new shirts for the rugby team or anything else. Now, obviously, if the College is already planning to do project X, you can ask that your money be spent on X, but that’s not the case here. And, if you have enough money (millions, I think) you can have a discussion with the College about how that money is spent, perhaps on something that would not exist otherwise.

But, as best I know, your plan does not work, which is one of the reasons why I keep advocating for Ephs Choose.

JG: I don’t think that the library should spend time/money scanning every old thesis. I do think that they should spend the few hundred dollars it would cost to put on-line the few theses about Williams. (I will note that getting other theses on-line for, say, reunion classes, might be an interesting project, depending on interest from reunion organizers.

I do want to deeply cut other library spending because it is obvious that, with each passing year, the physical possession of books and journals becomes less important. It is already the case that current students consult physical copies much less than students of just a few years ago. Many of my academic buddies claim that, for many students, if resource X is not on-line, then X does not exist. This will only become more true as the mega-libraries come on-line. Even though I consult the academic literature in my field as often as most Williams professors, I almost never have occasion to visit a library.

In ten years, it will seem positively stupid to have a three story building full of books in the middle of campus. The College may need a centralized location for study space and what not. Book warehouses are going the way of the Dodo.

#18 Comment By JeffZ On April 28, 2009 @ 8:40 am

I’ve said it before, but once again, I want to echo David’s views of the library. The biggest favor a new President can do is creatively re-think the library project. It will still be a large building full of a lot of study spaces and technological resources, and should be a centerpiece building on campus, but does it REALLY need to be as large as Sawyer in terms of storage capacity? It is no easy task to predict the exact future, and I am not ready for anything so radical as no on-site book storage, but certainly radically reduced storage (with a smaller collection, many books already in the off-site facility, and perhaps a few basement levels of rarely accessed books in compact shelving) could dramatically reduce the size, cost (both construction and long-term), and environmental impact of this building. I really hope Williams is a leader rather than a follower when it comes to creative thinking about the role of the library on a college campus. Let’s not just say hey, let’s build a gigantic library because that’s what defines a college campus. I bet the book storage could be reduced by 50 percent without a demonstrable impact on academic life.

#19 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On April 28, 2009 @ 9:36 am

David, Jeff,

You are quite right. Much leess space is going to be needed in the current century for physical copies of books and journals. Harvard began a major renovation of Widener a few years ago. In announcing the plans it said that it was not going to creat much additional stack space, since there would be much less needed for the future than in the past.
For two reasons(1) Most stuff will be preserved electronically rather than in hard copies. Who wants to read the multi volume US Budget for 1980 in a hard copy? (2) Books have become too specailized. I once researched the British iron and steel industry and was charmed by reading a 19th century textbook of iron and steel metalurgy and its charming misconceptions I found on the shelves in Widener. Since blast furnaces glowed more in winter than summer, some thought combustion was more effecient in cold air and actually blew cold air on their furnaces in the summer. But, few economic historians today are going to read much of metalurgy books of the 21st century that are even 20 years out of date. There are too many metalurgy books and they are too technical. And if he or she really wants to they can borrow one from a deposit library or an engineering school.

#20 Comment By JeffZ On April 28, 2009 @ 9:52 am

So if we all agree, why is Williams not seeing this (at least so far as I can ascertain from the plans)? Is it too late to convince the college to revisit this (my sense was the plans were being tweaked during the delay, but perhaps not dramatically so), especially in light of the changes to the financial situation — which in this one case, could be a blessing in disguise? At the very least, the vast majority of shelving for books in the library should be made easily adaptable to other uses, more study areas, classrooms, office space, multipurpose space. But again, I’d rather see the overall footprint of the building reduced in light of the increasingly electronic nature of knowledge storage and retrieval. I guess the question is, how to get the college and in particular the incoming administration to really look hard and think outside the box on this?

#21 Comment By frank uible On April 28, 2009 @ 9:56 am

As human beings we very much tend to be unreasonably shortsighted.

#22 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On April 28, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

If they are going to put hard copies of books in stacks the first half of the 21st century will take more space than the whole rest of their collection combined. They will be drowning in books. Its just crazy.