When my classmates and I arrived in Williamstown in September 1973, we took for granted certain aspects of college life. Fraternities were no longer the center of residential life. Williams was coeducational. Its curriculum was cutting edge. I don’t think any of us understood at the time how major these developments were or how much they were owed to the students, faculty, staff and alumni working for change under the leadership of the just-departed president, Jack Sawyer—that bespectacled, wily, ambitious, shrewd, strong-willed and farsighted leader—who has since been called “the most transforming leader Williams has ever had.”
Those words belong to his successor, John Chandler, president during my time at Williams. Chandler worked closely with Sawyer while serving as the college’s Cluett Professor of Religion, acting provost and dean of the faculty. When the Williams Alumni Review asked me to interview President Chandler on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Sawyer’s own installation as president, I was happy to do it. On an unusually balmy afternoon for autumn in Williamstown, we sat down to talk about Jack Sawyer’s leadership and his legacy to Williams. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
Michael Beschloss: Why was Jack Sawyer chosen as a Williams trustee at 34? Wasn’t that a little odd in those days?
John Chandler: It was odd. He was extraordinarily young. But I think that relates very much to the fact that at that time, President [James Phinney] Baxter regarded Jack as his successor. Anne [Sawyer] told me that Jack was embarrassed when he attended his first trustee meeting because, in introducing him, President Baxter said something to the effect of: “Meet my successor.” Knowing how process-oriented Jack was, Jack would immediately have thought—I’m surmising—“The trustees pick the president.”
MB: He might have been worried that it could damage his chances to be president?
JC: The scuttlebutt among the young faculty was that he was very conservative, very cautious. I was at Yale giving a talk on the day President Baxter announced at a faculty meeting who his successor was. When I got back and heard the news, the people with whom I talked—other young faculty—said, “There was a kind of funereal quality to the announcement.” You could tell that Baxter wasn’t all that enthusiastic. A lot of us had figured out that by then Vince Barnett [professor of political science] had become his preference. As a trustee, Jack had been critical of President Baxter’s failure to take action regarding fraternities. Anne Sawyer says that Jack was also unhappy with Phinney because Phinney had very low aspirations for fundraising and
wasn’t very active. In 1961, just before he retired, President Baxter announced the successful completion of a capital campaign in which he raised $4 million. Less than two years later, Jack announced a campaign of $14.6 million. And he raised it. Baxter certainly was devoted to fraternities. He frequently said that he came in with 15 fraternities and that he expected to leave with 15, and he held to his vow—with great difficulty.
MB: So when the trustees chose Sawyer, do you think they expected him to ultimately bring women in and get rid of the frats and change the curriculum dramatically? Did they have any idea?
JC: No. Of course, the trustees knew him well by that point. And I think they trusted him as a person of great loyalty to Williams, as a person with good judgment who wasn’t going to do anything that would be harmful to the college. I’m doubtful that they had in mind that that would be his agenda.
MB: Where do you think his strong feeling about fraternities really came from? It’s almost the last thing you’d expect from the former president of a Williams fraternity, whose background was hardly radical.
JC: Jack was certainly well aware that Williams had fallen behind Amherst and Wesleyan pretty substantially in its endowment—and that fraternities had a much more pronounced role at Williams than at Amherst or Wesleyan.
MB: Why were fraternities so important here? For those younger generations who didn’t have that experience—for example, I came here five years after fraternities were abolished. How central was their role in college life?
JC: Williams drew very heavily from Deerfield, Andover, Exeter and so forth. Just a little before that era of the 1960s, students were rushed from the moment they got off the train. Many students came to Williams largely because of the fraternities.
MB: How did the people who were rushing get information about who was coming?
JC: Some they would get from talking with alumni of the schools they were coming from. Later, when rushing had been postponed to the sophomore year, they depended upon junior advisors. If your fraternity had a few wellplaced JAs, you were going to bring in prime candidates.
MB: What kind of selection criteria would they use?
JC: I would say being an athlete was a definite plus. Frankly, being good-looking, socially affable, sometimes the school you attended. And of course, on the negative side, there was clear discrimination against blacks and Jewish students. I’d say about half of the fraternities had sizable contingents of Jews, but there were some that had secret agreements with their national organizations requiring them to discriminate. In some cases those were ignored, but the pressure was there.
MB: So Sawyer assumes the presidency and immediately has to deal with this student petition demanding the abolition of fraternities.
JC: The way that Jack reacted to the petition, which was literally there on his desk when he took office, shows how strategic he was in thinking.
MB: What was that phrase he liked to use?
JC: Oh, “high principle and low cunning.” He was usually ahead of almost everybody. And so instead of panicking, he’d say, “Ah, opportunity!” To examine the problem, he appointed the Angevine Committee, which was very brilliantly, strategically done. As members he chose people who would have credibility with alumni in particular as well as knowledge of what fraternities had actually become. Older alumni had very romantic notions of fraternities, based upon a lot of outdated experience. So it was a matter of educating the alumni.
MB: So he knew it was going to be a big change, and he wanted it to happen with the help of older, respectable and, in many cases, conservative lawyers.
JC: Right. I remember once asking Jack why he had so many lawyers on the Williams board, and he said that they think things through carefully, and if they tell you it’s O.K. to make this move, usually it’s O.K.
MB: And he took the precaution of persuading several trustees to make up the difference in case alumni withheld financial contributions.
MB: So who in the Williams community would have been for abolishing fraternities and who would have been against it?
JC: By and large, the majority of students were against getting rid of fraternities. But there was a very vocal minority that worked much harder to get rid of them than the proponents worked to keep them. Of course, a lot of Jewish alumni, who’d been the victims of discrimination, were in favor of getting rid of them. And the faculty was overwhelmingly in favor of getting rid of them. They saw the downside of fraternities in the same light that Jack did—that they occupied far too much time. And that some of them had become sort of animal houses.
MB: Did anyone make the argument that this was now keeping Williams from becoming as great a college as it could be? Pulling us backward and downward?
JC: Very much so, yes. When I received the offer to come to Williams to teach in 1955, I had friends tell me, “This is a big mistake if you go there.” And I remember a friend pulling out that Life magazine article on Williams in 1949—“Life Goes to College”—and he said to me, “Look, every hand has a glass. This place is afloat in alcohol!”
MB: Abolishing fraternities was a major social revolution at Williams. Did it happen abruptly?
JC: Not exactly. Within days of the Angevine report, Kappa Alpha—President Baxter’s fraternity—offered to turn over the keys to its house to the college. Baxter himself played a large role in facilitating that offer. But in the end the fraternities gradually melted away. By the time they were truly abolished by the trustees in 1968, only about 10 percent of the upperclass students were in fraternities. After they were abolished, we found that alumni who had been estranged from the college began to reconnect. This was particularly true of Jewish alumni. Someone who was not Jewish but who certainly illustrated this was Elia Kazan ’30, the great film director, who began to pay attention to Williams. And it made a financial difference too. People who hadn’t given to the college began to give again. And there was a new sense of pride in the college.
MB: What about on the other side? How many alumni would say, “I’m not giving to Williams anymore?”
JC: Initially there were a lot of alumni who said that. There were some holdouts, and a few of them, as a matter of fact, were behind a couple of clandestine fraternities that continued to operate up in Pownal, Vt. But they just didn’t get much of a following from fellow alumni and finally just lost interest. Furthermore, the college continued to remind students that that behavior was unacceptable, and the students were motivated primarily by free beer parties, so they fell away.
JC: Don’t dilly-dally. Be decisive. And a very important lesson was develop a cadre of leadership from each essential constituency. He was very careful to cultivate members of Gargoyle, which was a more powerful organization then than it is now, editors of the Williams Record, the College Council, alumni leaders who were respected.
MB: The second social change he presided over was bringing in women as Williams students. How did that start?
JC: There is a kind of debate about whether Jack came in with a grand vision, first eliminating fraternities, then bringing in women. I must say it didn’t quite feel that way. There was a widespread pattern, particularly in the Northeast—with Harvard-Radcliffe and so forth—that led Williams to consider establishing a separate, coordinate college. Mount Hope Farm had been acquired in the midst of everything else that was going on, and there were at least two conversations with Vassar. It was wellknown that Yale was trying to entice them to move to
New Haven, and Jack had a better idea—Mount Hope Farm.
MB: And the coordinate college-to-be was confidentially referred to as “Mary College,” as in “Williams and Mary.”
JC: That’s right. That was the code name. But we eventually veered away from that. Jack came in as president with a conviction that there could be considerable economies of scale if we increased the student body from 1,200 to 1,800.
MB: He felt that way, independent of whether or not women were admitted?
JC: Yes. Now whether Jack, in his cagey way, had the issue of admitting women in the back of his mind, I don’t know.
MB: Wouldn’t he also have known that women would be more easily accepted here if their arrival would not require the number of male slots at Williams to be cut by 50 percent?
JC: Yes, and he was very sensitive to that. That’s why he made the promise to alumni that bringing in women would not entail any cutting of the number of male students. As it turned out, I was the one who broke the promise.
MB: Did anyone make an issue of that when it happened? Did they notice?
JC: They noticed. I remember a meeting of alumni in Buffalo, where one alumnus whom I knew quite well, who had been a football player at Williams, said, “What’s going to happen to the football team?” And the other alumni told him, “Oh shut up!” So I knew that war was over.
MB: [Joking] Well, have you noticed any problem in our beating Amherst in football over the last four decades?
JC: [Laughing] No.
MB: So I guess it turned out well. Before Jack Sawyer brought women to Williams, did any prominent people try to stop it?
JC: I suspect some of the women’s colleges were nervous, and it did have pretty serious implications for them. The first fully coeducational class was the Class of 1975. There were also two vanguard groups of women—exchange students from women’s colleges and transfer students who came in as juniors. And the college learned a great deal about how to make this transition. Doing it that way was so typically Jack. Do it carefully, deliberately. Don’t have any surprises.
MB: And do it so smoothly that people almost don’t realize what’s happened. Did he also argue that since other great historically male colleges were taking in women, for Williams to refuse would leave us very much left behind?
JC: Oh yes. Yale, Princeton, Amherst—many colleges were making the same move. We would’ve been at a considerable disadvantage.
MB: So the third large change under President Sawyer was the curriculum, which had last been revised in about 1911. What was the impetus to change it?
JC: Jack was very much aware that the curriculum was brought in by President [Harry] Garfield [Class of 1885], who had essentially taken over his friend Woodrow Wilson’s curriculum from Princeton.
MB: Wilson attended Garfield’s inauguration here in 1908.
JC: Yes. In the late 1960s, there were new fields coming on—anthropology and sociology, for example—and the old model just didn’t work very well anymore. Many of the courses were yearlong courses, and the major was all mapped out for you. The first year you took this course, second year this and the final year—the senior year—there was a senior major capstone course. So you sort of marched through with your fellow history majors or philosophy or whatnot. The new curriculum entailed doing away with most of the so-called “hyphenated” yearlong courses, except in the languages. And it provided a lot more flexibility and built more elective content into the major. Winter Study was brought in at that point. As an educational leader, Jack did so much. He immediately saw the great educational advantage of establishing close ties with the Clark Art Institute. One of his first moves was to bring onto the Williams board Talcott M. Banks ’31, chair of the Clark board. Williams also was a pioneer in environmental studies. He was very close to the leaders of the National Academy of Sciences. I remember Jack talking about global warming back when it was barely mentioned. In so many ways, he had such vast peripheral vision. He looked at Berkshire County—and Pittsfield at that time was a very prosperous city. GE had 12,000 employees. They’re all gone now. The population of Pittsfield has probably fallen by about 20,000 people. Jack was concerned that the character of south Berkshire was going to leap or creep up to this part of the county, and he wondered, “Is this going to be good for Williams?” That’s why when Mount Hope Farm became available he got the money from a foundation and acquired it.
MB: You have said Jack Sawyer was the most transforming leader Williams has ever had. What were the essentials?
JC: Well, the strategic thinking, the vast knowledge. It’s very interesting that he never finished his Ph.D. I mean, he had so many interests. He knew so many people. He used to talk about Alfred North Whitehead, the great British philosopher who was on the Harvard faculty. He knew people in literature and the arts, and he was constantly reaching out. And that gave him leverage with the faculty. You know, the faculty felt a little intimidated. Jack seemed to be ahead of them. He was very active in identifying potential candidates for appointment to the faculty in a way that presidents now might get in trouble for doing. Some faculty would probably look upon that as an intrusion into their turf. But Jack was listened to. He would encourage faculty members. He once told me, “O.K. You’re teaching religion. What do you know about Hinduism or Buddhism?” So I decided that maybe I’d better get a Fulbright and go to India and see what’s going on. The curriculum was internationalized tremendously during his presidency. And he also was a wonderful counselor to people in other places. NESCAC was one of his babies—a great method for small liberal arts colleges to organize and manage athletic competition. Some people didn’t like working for Jack in the sense that they felt that he was too much of a driver. My wife used to wonder about that too, occasionally. Jack was on the phone constantly. But I must say I loved working for him because I learned so much all the time.
MB: He showed you how to sail when you and Mrs. Chandler used to visit the Sawyers during the summer at Woods Hole on Cape Cod.
JC: Oh yes. He’d say, “Here, sit down, take the wheel. See that?” He would make sure I understood where I was aiming for. Then he would say, “O.K., get us there!”
John Edward Sawyer: A Snapshot
The son of a Williams alumnus (Class of 1908) who ran the Sawyer Lumber Co. of Worcester, Mass., Jack Sawyer was born in 1917, attended Deerfield Academy and was a member of the Williams Class of 1939 (which included three other future members of the college faculty—political scientist James MacGregor Burns, economist William Gates and professor of French John Savacool). After a wartime tour choosing strategic bombing targets under the Office of Strategic Services in Europe, Sawyer served as a junior fellow at Harvard and associate professor at Yale. At age 34, he was named a permanent member of the Williams College Board of Trustees before being appointed in 1961 as the college’s youngest president of the 20th century. He succeeded James Phinney Baxter, Class of 1914, who had once served as Sawyer’s history thesis adviser. Soon after taking office, Sawyer named the Angevine Committee to study the 15 Williams fraternities, which led to the trustees’ decision to replace them with a new system for housing, dining and social life. After leaving Williams in 1973, Sawyer served as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for 12 years before retiring to the home he and his wife Anne kept on Cape Cod. He died in 1995.
–Historian Michael Beschloss ’77, who received an honorary degree from Williams in 2003, is the author of 10 books on the American presidency and, most recently, provided the introduction and annotations for Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy (Hyperion, 2011).