This discussion on President John Edward Sawyer ’39 is being led by his grandson Rob Sawyer ’03

Thank you for joining me today to discuss the induction speech of President John “Jack” Sawyer. If you haven’t had the opportunity to examine the speech you can find it here. Reading the speech I was struck by three themes that are interwoven throughout his induction.

The first theme is Change and the importance of Strong Principled Institutions. He illustrates these points by relating how far America has come in just under two centuries of existence and how it is as important as ever to stand up to her ideals. He also focuses on the need to be able to adjust and change institutions so that this can be accomplished.

The second is how the speech foreshadows the transformational changes he accomplished during his presidency, many based on these same idealistic principals of inclusiveness, equal rights and opportunity.

The third is his focus on the Williams faculty and how they can add value to students and the broader educational establishment.

I will go into each theme in much greater detail, however to put his speech in context I will give you a brief overview of President Sawyer’s background and a brief bit about the history of Williams leading up to his speech. (For a more in depth biography go here.)

Before continuing I would be remiss if I didn’t make a disclaimer, many of you will have noticed that my last name is the same as John Sawyer’s. I am proud to say that he was in fact my grandfather. Unfortunately, he passed away before I could fully appreciate his love for Williams, which I now share, and what he helped it to become.

John Sawyer first experienced Williams early in childhood visiting with his father, class of ’08 (1908), for Williams-Amherst football games, reunions, and baseball matches. He followed in his father and brother’s ’37 footsteps and arrived at Williams in 1935. While at Williams he became president of his fraternity, sang in glee club, edited the purple cow magazine, and was a history major, graduating magna cum laude with Highest Honors (he was new President Phinney Baxter’s first thesis student). His next official interaction with Williams after graduating was in 1952 when he was elected the youngest Trustee in Williams’s history at 34 years old. He came back to the purple valley full time as President in 1961 at the age of 44. For the 12 years previous to rejoining Williams he had been teaching Economic History at both Harvard and Yale, after completing his military service.

The college President Sawyer rejoined had changed little since his time there as a student. Phinney Baxter’s primary focus had been on the faculty and curriculum. He had expanded the faculties’ budget and numbers as well as established a few new majors and the center for developmental economics. He had also built out the physical plant adding the theater and student union, but these were small changes given his 24 year tenure. A Williams Trustee at the time, Ferdinand Thun’s description of Baxter is telling, stating he was, “by and large . . . for the status quo.” The winds of change were a blowing by 1961.

In October 1961, President Sawyer stepped up to the podium in Chapin Hall as a cautious reformer. As a member of the Board of Trustees for the previous 9 years, he knew there were many changes that had been postponed, but at the same time Williams alumni, faculty, and students might be resistant to it.

1) The first theme is Change and the importance of Strong Principled Institutions. He illustrates these points by relating how far America has come in just under two centuries of existence and how it is as important as ever to stand up to her ideals. He also focuses on the need to be able to adjust and change institutions so that this can be accomplished. While much has changed in the US, he stresses that an enduring factor has been

“a persisting strain of accompanying idealism, a faith that all the striving for abundance would produce not just a richer world but a better one as well.”

He dives deeper into this theme by discussing that while mankind has progressed extremely far it comes with responsibilities.

“This is a change without parallel in the economic history of the species. Instead, in endowed lands such as ours, men face the immeasurably more difficult task of finding how to control the new potentials at their disposal, how to order life within and among ourselves so that the enterprise may continue on its course under conditions of decency, dignity and in the deepest sense, humanity.”

He states,

“We must brace for an acceleration of change and a magnitude and newness of problems to come that we must expect will exceed anything heretofore experienced.”

He stresses the point later,

“These kinds of transcendent change underlie many of the stresses now and ahead. They confront this generation and the next with the task of making institutions and ideals to which we are deeply attached operative under [new] conditions . . .”

And in all this change, I hear a reassurance that it’s a natural part of a strong society as well as a ringing endorsement for a liberal arts education. He states,

“The most versatile, the most durable, in an ultimate sense the most practical knowledge and intellectual resources which they can now be offered are those impractical arts and sciences around which a liberal art education has long center”

2) The second theme is how the speech foreshadows the transformational changes he accomplished during his presidency, many based on these same idealistic principals of inclusiveness, equal rights and opportunity. He alludes to three changes in his speech. The most fully outlined is what will later be called the 10% program. What would certainly fit under the equal opportunity category he states, it’s an “Important part of the potential diverse leadership of a coming generation.”

He also is not against testing outcomes, hoping that

“We may find a foundation interested in helping us conduct an experiment here in which we would admit each year a designated fraction of the entering class- perhaps ten percent- who might not ordinarily have been admitted on prevailing formal criteria.”

In this program I see the basis of Williams today, one in which quantitative measurements and qualitative measures are used to select a class. I also see the first steps towards increasing the number of African-American students as well as the outreach towards women and minorities for faculty and administration positions which occurred during the Sawyer Presidency.

The second change alluded to is the fraternity system that had been a thorn in the side of the Baxter administration. The system had clearly grown into an institution that did not allow “decency, dignity and in the deepest sense, humanity” which all institutions should aspire to.

During his speech President Sawyer, for the first time as President shows us his trademark ability to obfuscate his intentions from both sides of a position. This ability became so well known in his administration that some members referred to it as Sawyereeze. An example of this distinct dialect is found here,

“The Board of Trustees has also established a small, serious committee of review to make such studies and recommendation on various fraternity questions not unknown on neighboring campuses as it believes will best serve the long run interests of the College in its central purpose.”

This small serious committee became known as the Angevine Committee and led to the elimination of Fraternities. If interested in learning more about the history of the Elimination of Fraternities, my thesis on the subject can be found here.

The last change is not alluded to in his speech, but I would be remiss to not address it. Williams allowed in women within 6 years, first as exchange students and then as full time students. I stress it because I immediately thought of the integration of women when reading the quote,

“[transcendent change] confront this generation and the next with the task of making institutions and ideals to which we are deeply attached operative under [new] conditions . . .”

Williams was changing the institutions of the school to better reflect society and create one that was more equal and diverse.

3) The third theme is his focus on the Williams faculty and how they can add value to students and the broader educational establishment. I’ll include the whole quote because I think it’s as applicable today as it was 50 years ago.

More urgent still is the need to survey the whole burgeoning business now loosely called “research.” At its best it produces the noblest fruit of our vineyard — a genuine addition to the truth we seek. But let us as a profession be more candid with ourselves and with each other about the avalanche of wordage and factitious methodology whose scholarly worth and final weight is close to zero. If we cannot better screen for quality the mounting output that multiplying academic apparatus engenders, we will be so inundated by mediocrity that, as another has said, we may find a Gresham’s law invading scholarship as well. Scholarship deserves better of us.

It is right here that I think the strong liberal arts college faculty such as this can make a most important contribution. Somewhat removed from the more frantic centers of output, less harried by exploding numbers of graduate students who must get topics today and pages in print tomorrow, those faculty members so endowed and inclined have an opportunity to sift and sort and reflect and write on what I hope is a less hectic and perhaps more thoughtful plane. Not all, naturally, will have such gifts but it is worth noting that the kinds of problems on which the West is likely to founder — the kinds we discussed earlier — can for the most part be at least as well analyzed and evaluated at an institution like this as at a large urban university.

Our civilization is not going to collapse for lack of technical competence or specialists. Its crying intellectual need is for men who can not only create but comprehend and relate what expertise produces to the main streams of knowledge; men who can bridge the widening gaps in the culture. The natural meeting place of well trained scholars from different fields that the good liberal arts college provides can, at its best, offer fertile ground for such linkages. In whitehead’s phrase we need “fresh combinations” far more acutely than mere poundage of meretricious publications.

President Sawyer doesn’t parse his words here. He focuses on the importance of high quality research and not publishing for the sake of published. In this I personally see publishing less, as giving professors the opportunity to interact with their students more. This is alluded to elsewhere in his speech when he states, “Steps are already underway to increase the natural meal-time opportunities for faculty-student conversation — an ancient art worth cultivating.”

The second and third paragraph creates an avenue for what he sees as beneficial faculty research. Liberal arts colleges’ ideal for long term projects that require more time and thought, he also stresses the importance of the need for interdisciplinary collaboration. This foreshadows the creation of the first Center for Environmental Studies in the US that was created at Williams under his Presidency.

Overall, I see President Sawyer’s speech as a reminder that change has been a vital part of our nation and that change can make our institutions more inclusive and stronger. I believe he was able to accomplish this with all the change he helped bring to Williams.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on his speech.

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