Jack Sawyer, the Visionary President We Hardly Knew

Editor’s note: As undergraduates, many of us did not know how to appreciate the impact President John E. Sawyer was having not only on the college we attended but in the larger arena of higher education in the country. For those who wish to learn more about Sawyer’s projection beyond Williams, please follow this link to a video recording of an interview with Sawyer (and University of Texas Chancellor) on the CBS News show “One of a Kind,” recorded in February of 1964 (there are actually two videos, the first a shorter segment).

We thank classmate Bob Scott for bringing the video to our attention as well as for suggesting the topic of the Sawyer years for the web site.

The author of this article is Bob Heiss, co-editor of williams68.org and historian par excellence.

President John Sawyer was a distant figure to most of us, the more so because he was not the best of public speakers and seemed to have a certain reserve in gatherings. It was rather paradoxical, really, on a campus where the Mark Hopkins ideal of professors and students engaging in lively discussion in a very personal educational process was the norm. Nevertheless his bold innovations directly touched many aspects of our lives during our undergraduate years, and he was already on the way to making Williams a remarkably better place during his presidential tenure (1961-1973).

Jack came to the Presidency in 1961 with an impeccable Williams pedigree: legacy of Williams father (and brother), magna cum laude graduate with highest honors in history, Phi Beta Kappa, first thesis student of President James Phinney Baxter, fraternity member and participant in many student activities. He was a member of the legendary Class of 1939 along with James MacGregor Burns, William Gates, and John Savacool. He earned a master’s degree at Harvard in 1941, and taught economics at Harvard, Yale and Williams after the war. Jack became a permanent trustee of the College at age 34. President Baxter regarded him as his successor. At the age of 44 he ascended to the Presidency—youngest in the twentieth century.

With the arrival of the New Frontier in Washington, the excitement generated by youthful leadership was gaining momentum in the land. A prestigious, old-line establishment like Williams College proved not to be immune.

At the time Jack took office, the lack of a robust endowment was of great immediate concern to the College. We may not have been aware of this as students, but Williams was a distant third in endowment among the Little Three during the mid-sixties. In response, Jack and the Board of Trustees completed a capital campaign eight times the size of the previous one.

Of course, we were the first class to fully feel the impact of the recommendation of the study committee Jack had appointed, soon after his arrival in 1961, to replace fraternities with a residential house system. But that was just the beginning. Jack also experimented with admissions criteria, the so-called 10 percent program, as a means to broaden the talent pool within the student body. He ended compulsory attendance for the classroom and the chapel. Other innovations included paid assistant professor leaves; creation of the offices of provost and dean of the faculty; and building a science center (Bronfman) for research and computing, after being persuaded of the need by four science faculty, only one of whom was tenured!

Other forward-thinking initiatives he led were the revision of the curriculum to include non-western studies, the rearrangement of the academic calendar to create the Winter Study Program (in effect by our senior year), and the establishment of the first center for environmental studies anywhere at the college level.

Diversity was an early theme of Jack’s: he increased the number of African-American students, and expanded the recruitment of women and minorities for faculty and administration positions.

Of course, Jack was already exploring the sweeping reform of coeducation behind the scenes while we were there, but that was to come to fruition later in his tenure. However, he increased the trustee membership by including women, minorities, and young alumni.

One can say that no one of his accomplishments was truly remarkable. Of course colleges must raise large amounts of money to survive. Of course the issue of the exclusionary membership and residential practices of fraternities can be a problem, especially at small colleges, and should be considered in some fashion. Of course changing demographics and the civil rights revolution made the promotion of diversity an eventual necessity—if not a moral imperative. Of course coeducation was bound to happen at the New England colleges in light of the women’s movement. But Jack Sawyer was leading the way on all these issues during his tenure of 12 years, and before most of these trends had come to full flower. His record of achievement must be compared against the records of college presidents who held office at similar institutions of higher learning for much longer and accomplished much less.

Things don’t just happen, especially in any bureaucracy. In an interview John Chandler, who succeeded Sawyer, remembered Jack’s favorite phrase: “High principle and low cunning”. When confronted with issues, he was known to remark, “Ah, opportunity!” Chandler noted that Jack’s style of leadership included being decisive and strategic, and he cultivated “a cadre of leadership from each essential constituency”—both members of student organizations and respected members of the alumni.

Not surprisingly, for someone with a love of liberal arts education in his bones, Jack reflected eloquently on the subject in a public affairs program produced by CBS News in February 1964, shortly before our arrival on campus. Commenting on the flood of college-bound students in the sixties, Jack said:

“What we have to keep our mind clearly on is the purposes of it all. We’re ultimately concerned not with facilities but with people, with the growth of young men and women, and in that we must keep a very clear eye on the qualitative part of the problem to be sure we don’t sacrifice essentials of quality before the onrush of quantity.”

He wanted to be sure that “the vocational demands of an increasingly complicated civilization don’t press back into and cut away some essentials of the liberal arts program”. In his view, liberal arts education provided the “elasticity” and “the capacity to see and understand and respond over as wide an arc as possible”, to be able to deal effectively with the unforeseeable problems of the twenty-first century. And Jack realized that the students of the sixties needed a world-view (not merely an American or European one) to be players in the future. He also recognized the inherent lack of opportunity for the child of poor parents in our society, and the need to do something about it.

Jack Sawyer’s work as a dynamic educational reformer resulted in a Williams that was academically and financially stronger, more attuned to society, modern America and the world, and well positioned for the future. He has been called “the most transforming leader Williams has ever had”. If he did not inspire us with his words, he certainly did so with his deeds.



2 thoughts on “Jack Sawyer, the Visionary President We Hardly Knew

  1. Thoughtful tribute to President Sawyer. It reminded me of one lunchtime during our freshman year in Baxter Hall. I had just passed through the cafeteria line and was eating with friends when a distinguished looking gentleman asked if he could join us for lunch. It was President Sawyer. My recollection is that he asked about our first year experiences with genuine interest.

    My memory no longer extends to the specifics of the conversation. I did not have that opportunity again. What was left with me was the enduring impression of a college leader interested in conversing with random neophyte students about their everyday concerns.

  2. To Bob Heiss, What a terrific tribute to John Sawyer! I love the quotes — a liberal arts education provides the “elasticity” and “the capacity to see and understand and respond over as wide an arc as possible” and Sawyer’s leadership mantra, “high principle and low cunning.”

    I’ve had several dinner conversations with John Chandler over the past six months, and he often shared his perspective on Sawyer’s leadership. One issue stands out in my mind: the College’s success in the seventies (and beyond) with co-education and diversity hinged first and foremost on Sawyer’s moral and courageous leadership in getting the nettlesome and reactionary issue of fraternities out of the way.

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