(Ed Note: I am moving Eric Soskins’ piece on President Dennett back to the top of the page. I have been trying to give each of the essays on the Williams presidents their moments at the top during their two-day first appearances. I further call readers attention to the post from Ken Thomas immediately following. DS 19 Jan 3:03PM PST)

As with our previous installment on President Garfield, today’s connection between author and president was inspired by the naming of a Williams residence. In the days when the houses of Mission Park served as sophomore dorms (from roughly the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s), I spent a year living the good life in the dorm named for Tyler Dennett, the shortest-tenured Williams president, aside from Carl Vogt (who despite being understood as a one-year interim president, nonetheless is counted in the official enumeration of Williams presidents).

Dennett’s bio in a nutshell: a transfer student from Bates, Dennett starred on the football team and was a Gargoyle before graduating in 1904. Briefly a Congregationalist minister and a journalist, Dennett eventually became a scholar of American foreign policy in Asia, earning a doctorate from Johns Hopkins in 1925. Dennett then served as the first head of today’s Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton before becoming Williams president.  His scholarship is best recalled for John Hay, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, but his Roosevelt and the Russo-Japanese War has arguably been more important, refuting the traditional claim that TR had negotiated the Treaty of Portsmouth in furtherance of his own ambitions and convincingly arguing that Roosevelt sought to conclude the peace to serve American purposes rather than his own.

Dennett’s speech, delivered in Chapin Hall on October 5, 1934, can be downloaded here. Tyler Dennett was a good orator. Or at least his induction speech reads well.

Dennett begins his induction address with a series of reflections on Williams that he claims are “in passing”, nothing but the frame for his visit to the ideals of a liberal arts education that every president discusses. But what a rich frame he gives — one could almost structure a winter study seminar around many of the individual ideas:

We seek not to get all we can, but to give all we can. It is the business of the college to give.

Does Williams live by this slogan today? Has Williams correctly prioritized building the endowment and/or directing its funds to “giving” endeavors, or to “getting” more influence, more staff, more infrastructure?

Williams College is a business organization; it has a capital investment, “up-keep”, “over-head”, and bills to pay. There is a process, one might almost call it an assembly line, which takes about four years to pass, and there is a product.

An important acknowledgment, and one that really must have signaled to listeners familiar with the induction addresses of the past that they were in a new era.

“Williams College must always remain a good citizen of Williamstown, of Massachusetts, of the United States.”

Another hot topic at EphBlog: Williams as a citizen of Williamstown. Dennett appeared interested in a more independent Williamstown that was less of a company town. And it would come to pass that Dennett’s swift ouster would be triggered by Dennett’s opposition to those who sought to have the College acquire as much land and economic power in Williamstown as possible. (Note also that Dennett prefigures our current fixation with a “more international”  Williams by referencing the “worldwide citizenship” symbolized by the Haystack.

“If Williamstown were to lose it’s character, the loss to us would be irreparable.”

A very interesting line. Since 1934, has Williamstown lost its character? Or had it “lost its character” even by the time Dennett uttered these words. I suppose it all depends on what “character” Dennett was focused on. Certainly some parts of its character were already wildly different from a century earlier. By the 1930s, the once cleared agricultural landscape of the 19th century had fallen into disuse and was undergoing rapid reforestation. The once entirely-isolated community had roads, rail service, even tourists. But clearly in Dennett’s mind, those were positives. What of the changes since then? We’ve discussed in this forum whether the College, by nature or by plan, has sought to keep the town a static place, and I don’t doubt that many leaders in the Williams community would express a similar sentiment today. Is that to the detriment of Williams and Williamstown? A thriving local economy with more opportunities for students and spouses would be an asset. Trying to channel change, whether by favoring some communities or industries or by disfavoring others is unlikely to boost Williamstown and the Berkshire region, and likely to have pernicious and unforeseen consequences. Will a biomass plant in Pownal upset the character of Williamstown? Perhaps. Has an attitude of resistance to change contributed to the partial transformation of Williamstown into a company town and weekend playground for the wealthy? Almost certainly.

Turning now to the core of his speech — his discussion of the Williams education itself.

[L]et’s not fall into the old and terrible error of crucifying people when all we really intended to do was express a dissent from their opinions.

Timely. This ties in neatly to Dennett’s earlier discussion of the College – and its students, faculty, and alumni – as good citizens of the nation.

 Williams College must never lag in the cultivation of and in the defense of freedom; political, intellectual, spiritual… it would be a sad day for education in the Berkshires if we were all were to come to think alike.

Timely, now and then. Has Williams contributed to its utmost to the last century’s struggles between freedom and the many totalitarian ideologies of oppression? It’s undeniable that many of our alumni have — from those who left Williams to fight in World War II like recently-deceased Dr. Jim Gray ’49 to those now fighting overseas, like Trevor Powers ’09. As for faculty and on-campus discourse? Particularly of late, the record is a pretty sorry one. It does sometimes seem as if the faculty has “all… come to think alike,” and often not in defense of freedom.”

Perry for facts… Hopkins for thought… Bascom for expression… that was education!

Expressed here is perhaps the greatest difficulty for a College that has expanded in size and complexity. How do we ensure that students, choosing their path so much more than the degree to which Dennett lamented, experience anything like the Tinker, Evers, and Chance represented by these three titans?

I am filled with dismay when I observe how large a proportion of our college graduates are not willing to go back where they come from, how many elect to strike off for the big cities where they are so little needed and so likely to get lost and find themselves in middle life eating husks while at home there is plenty. The last word I shall say to your boy is to go back or, if he comes from some large center, then to summon a little of that pioneer spirit which still runs in his veins, and strike out into the country where our people perish for lack of leadership.

How does Williams measure up today? Surely economic opportunity is less diminished in most places than in the 1930s? Or has the consolidation of industries increasingly concentrated “elite” economic opportunity in a few elitist cities? Coupled with the continued centralization of might and power by the federal government that began in Dennett’s day and now reaches hitherto-unseen heights?

It’s hard to say. Williams alumni overwhelmingly flock to Boston, New York, and Washington upon graduation. Why shouldn’t they? By all means, be within driving range of Weston Field for your first homecomings, when your freedom is great but your budget is meager. A perusal of the alumni directory reveals that afterwards, many of our ilk do choose to wander far afield. Some live in Shreveport, others in Shiprock. The list of Amherst/Williams telecasts includes Fort Wayne, Newport News, and Santa Fe. And Ken and I recently discussed the numbers of alumni — quite numerous, in my view — who can be found entirely beyond the borders of the USA.

What drives the alumni diaspora? Is it the desire for a homecoming and the pioneering spirit that Dennett sought to draw forth? Is it a success of inspiring public service that sends students out beyond the havens of coastal elitism?  No matter – although it couldn’t hurt to have Eliot Coleman ’61 back to campus to inspire a few more Ephs to live as small farmers.

As with the majority of these speeches, it’s remarkable the extent to which Dennett put his finger on the timeless questions for Williams College. It’s equally remarkable that so little of his remarks foreshadow the tumult of Dennett’s next three years.

In the official account at the Williams Archives website, Dennett was forced out because he opposed the acquisition of the Greylock Hotel as something  “for which no educational use is apparent,” and what its purchase over his objections signified for his relationship with the Trustees. (The College is not so eager to mention, as a contemporaneous account in Time does, that upon assuming the presidency Dennett had discovered the “[C]ollege was piling up steady deficits,” and that the trustees’ hunger to buy up Williamstown threatened to undo the effects of his work to “install[] a budget system [and] launch[] a money-raising program for Williams’ library, laboratories, teachers’ salaries, [and] scholarships.”). The most relevant passage is this:

I am not yet prepared to say that our present resources are unequal to our task. Obviously our first duty is to make sure that we are making full use of what we have, of the talent of the present staff of instructors and administration, of our plant-equipment, and that we avoid the ever present temptation to think that merely because we are spending more money we are therefore doing better work. It may be, however, that when we have stretched our present resources to the limit, when we have asked of every teacher all that is reasonable, and utilized every room on the campus, and every book in the library, it may be that we shall find even then that new and more instructors are required, that to realize the advantages of the small college there must be an increase of administrative expenses, and that more and better adapted rooms are required for both large-group and small group instruction. If by any chance we are launching out on a voyage with such a discovery in prospect, I shall not view it with alarm or apprehension. It is to me, as I am sure to you, unthinkable that anything essential to the instruction of the youth of Williams College will ever go long undone for mere lack of money.

It’s certainly clear where Dennett’s spending priorities would lie, and it suggests debate and concern at the time about the adequacy of the College’s resources. But there’s little indication that Dennett, who had previously addressed the importance of Williamstown to the College, would ultimately link the issues of the town and the budget together in a way that would lead to his termination.

Nor is Dennett’s induction address suggestive of the other great controversy of his presidency: a March 10, 1937 speech to the Boston-area alumni association in which he remarked that Williams had too many blue-bloods from elite preparatory schools criticizing them as “Nice boys—I mean the well-mannered, sophisticated and generally well-disposed young men now apparently in the ascendancy here.” Over the ensuing months, controversy raged — among alumni, in the pages of the Record, and far beyond Williams over President Dennett’s remarks. Perhaps the closest passage to indicating Dennett’s thinking in this way is this:

I do not wish to enter into a debate as to whether the American home has broken down, whether the Church has lost its way, or whether preparatory schools have become commercialized and school-teaching converted into a trade; but I venture to observe that each year an astonishingly large number of young people enter college lacking the most essential quality in character. They are deficient in the simple quality of honesty. I do not mean that they lie and steal. I mean that they are not honest with themselves. A deplorably large number of these young people are victims of disordered homes, of wrong ways of living, of wrong thinking which they learned from their elders who themselves have gone wrong.

Even if it’s a criticism of prep schools and the students they graduate — and that’s arguable — it’s hardly an explicit call for more diversity.

The official position has always been that this controversy had nothing to do with Dennett’s ouster — a position as implausible as Harvard’s more-recent claim that Larry Summers’s controversial and un-PC positions on science and the military played no role in his ouster as their president.

The limited links between Dennett’s remarks and the incidents that ultimately defined his tenure are a good reminder that the best way to approach the induction addresses are as we’re doing in this seminar — using them as a lens to examine the broad themes shaping a Williams College education over the generations, rather than mistaking them for a guide to the presidents who delivered them.

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