The author, Francis Oakley, in the Oakley Center for Humanities and Social Sciences in Williamstown. During his four decades at Williams, including eight-and-a-half years as president, the college experienced several periods of monumental change. Photograph by Dana Smith
The author, Francis Oakley, in the Oakley Center for Humanities and Social Sciences in Williamstown. During his four decades at Williams, including eight-and-a-half years as president, the college experienced several periods of monumental change. Photograph by Dana Smith

A memoir by historian Francis Oakley offers reflections on teaching, research and the transformation of Williams—and American higher education.

In August 1961, Francis Oakley came to Williams to teach early European history. At the time, his concerns were “parochially personal,” as he writes in his memoir, From the Cast-Iron Shore: In Lifelong Pursuit of Liberal Learning, published late last year by Notre Dame Press. Like most young faculty members, he was focused on raising a family, meeting what he calls the students’ “dauntingly high” expectations for teaching and finding enough time for research. Writes Oakley, “I was blissfully unprescient about the dimensions of the wave of institutional discontent and change that, by the end of the decade, was to break over the world of higher education.”

But change came—and quickly. The end of fraternities, the start of coeducation and an expansion of the curriculum all occurred within Oakley’s first 10 years at Williams. In 1977, he was named dean of the faculty, and he served as president from 1985 to 1994, another period of transformation. As president, Oakley was instrumental in establishing tutorial courses, doubling the population of students of color, building the Jewish Religious Center and founding the Bolin Fellowships, which seek to diversify the academy. The Multicultural Center (now the Davis Center) and the Center for Languages, Literatures and Cultures were founded during Oakley’s presidency, and he was deeply involved in the effort to establish MASS MoCA in North Adams.
Williams figures prominently in From the Cast-Iron Shore, which is described by the publisher as “part personal memoir and part participant-observer’s educational history.” Turning his expert gaze on his own life and work, Oakley, who has written widely about medieval and early modern intellectual and religious history and about American higher education, reflects on social class, the relationship between teaching and research, and the challenge of educational leadership in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In the excerpt that follows, taken from the chapter “Williamstown and its College,” Oakley describes a Williams on the cusp of monumental change. But first he explores the college’s roots, beginning with the question of why it was chartered as a “college” in the first place. “For what exactly did that mean?” he writes. “The question is not as redundant as it might seem to be. In the 20th century, the institutional status of colleges like Williams came to be dogged by uncertainty.”

Photo of Francis Oakley teaching.
Oakley, not long after he came to Williams in 1961 to teach early European history. He went on to become dean of the faculty and then served as president of the college from 1985 to 1994.

The sharp distinction between college and university … is not one rooted in the earlier history of the American liberal arts college. It is, instead, something of a late 19th century American novelty. … It has tended to promote the idea that the freestanding residential liberal arts college is something less than the modern American university rather than something other than that. It has even encouraged colleges to permit themselves to be defined by what they lack—great research libraries and laboratories, graduate and professional schools—rather than in terms of what they profoundly possess, an undistracted and undiffused intensity of focus on a broadly based education in the arts and sciences which has long since become wholly extraordinary, not only abroad but increasingly so here in the United States, as well as the firm and unswerving commitment to bring to the education of all undergraduates the full resources pertaining to a small university. For that is what all the older colleges were and what those among them that … chose not to transform themselves into research universities still are—small college universities devoted exclusively (or almost exclusively) to the education of undergraduates. And that is the type of institution whose faculty I joined in 1961 when I came to Williams.

Obviously, like Williamstown itself, it had undergone a great deal of change since it was chartered in 1793. At the heart of the campus, however, still stood its first building, West College (1790), situated on the east side of Main Street at the crest of what used to be called Consumption Hill. And right opposite it on the westerly side still stood the elegant house that General Sloane had built in 1801 and that has, for more than a century, served as the house of the college president. And such obvious symbols of continuity make it all too easy to forget just how different and, indeed, tiny the early college was. When Mark Hopkins, its fourth (and most celebrated) president, retired from that office in 1872, the student body numbered no more than 119 and the faculty amounted to no more than a handful of professors and tutors—these last playing much the same role as graduate assistants later on. To remind myself of that fact, I hung in my office as president a picture of Hopkins and his entire faculty, taken in 1866. They numbered only 10 and fitted easily, even posed in space-consuming Victorian casual style, on one half of the porch of the President’s House. The administrative burdens shouldered by the president can hardly have been very pressing and, so far as I know, Hopkins didn’t even have an office.

By 1961, with its decline as an agricultural community, Williamstown itself, with a population of around 7,500 (not very different from today) was well on the way to becoming a destination point for skiers and cultural tourists. The all-encompassing forest, which, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, had been pushed back and well up the slopes of the surrounding mountains, was now reclaiming with astonishingly rapid second growth the ground it had reluctantly yielded to the tenacity of the early settlers. And with that partial return of James Fenimore Cooper’s “boundless woods” was coming also, after a century of marginalization by agriculture, the return of an abundant wildlife: black bears, wild turkeys, coyotes, bobcats, possibly cougar (i.e., catamounts or mountain lions), the occasional lugubrious itinerant moose and everywhere, it seems, white-tailed deer. It is interesting that the town history felt it noteworthy enough to record for posterity that in 1905 some “wild deer” had been sighted in the Hemlock Brook area. By 1961 that had come to be a phenomenon taken simply for granted.

If the town had changed, so, too, had the college, which now boasted a student body of some 1,100. For its first 70 or 80 years, its main achievement was that of having survived to become a rather modest if reasonably stable institution whose mission it was to serve the needs of the region and locality, in the process sending a goodly proportion of its graduates into the ministry. That achievement was not something to be taken for granted. A great crisis had to be surmounted in 1821. In that year, the trustees having failed to persuade the legislature to move the college from its westerly rural backwater to the more civilized of environs of Northampton in the Connecticut valley, the then president, Zephaniah Swift Moore, took matters into his own hands and led some of its students over the mountains to establish a new college at Amherst. It was a secession reminiscent of the moves that had led, five centuries earlier, to the foundation of the University of Angers by secession from the University of Paris and to the foundation of Cambridge via a similar breakaway from Oxford. Williams somehow survived that moment of crisis, and by 1872 when Hopkins stepped down it had begun to attract students from the midwestern as well as the eastern states and, probably because of its missionary connections, from Hawaii and countries like China and Persia.

It was also beginning to attract students from prosperous families with backgrounds in commerce, business and finance. Its graduates were now beginning to pursue callings in those same realms, as well as in the professions at large, and the wealth controlled by its alumni was accordingly on the increase. While it had long been surpassed both in endowment and enrollment by Amherst and by Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., Williams began, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to develop into a more prosperous institution, graced with an array of handsome collegiate buildings and possessed of the resources enabling it to mount a much richer array of curricular offerings, especially in the natural sciences. Its Latin requirement for admission tended to limit its applicant pool to students of privilege graduating from the old preparatory boarding schools. But when it dropped that requirement in the late 1930s, something of a quickening in intellectual tempo began to occur. Under two presidencies marked by a measure of activism, those of Tyler Dennett (1934-37) and James Phinney Baxter (1937-61), a good deal of accumulated deadwood was cleared from the ranks of the faculty and some stellar appointments made. At the same time, and especially in the wake of the influx of veterans on the G.I. Bill after the war, the nature of the student body had begun to change. It was becoming somewhat more diverse in religious and racial terms, and an increasing number of gifted students from public schools nationwide matriculated.

Such developments, however, desirable though they might be, turned out to cause growing tension with the fraternity culture that had established itself so firmly at the college during the Gilded Age. That culture reached its apogee in the years leading up to the Second World War, when fraternity membership climbed to as high as 80 percent of the student body and when it was no longer the college but the fraternities—independent, self-governing corporations—that had come to carry the primary responsibility for the feeding and housing of students. And it was the fraternities, with all their self-selecting exclusivisms, that had come to shape the social mores and dominate the social life of the campus. The bulk of their members periodically failed to meet even an average level of scholastic performance, and they came increasingly to be seen as heading into collision with the college’s academic mission and as constituting, indeed, an impediment to its intellectual vibrancy.

Colleges … profoundly possess an undistracted and undiffused intensity of focus on a broadly based education in the arts and sciences which has … become wholly extraordinary.

The fraternities were closed during the war years, and their functioning, once reopened and as the 1950s wore on, came to be dogged by controversy. They were shadowed by suspicion (sometimes well founded) that they were still following the racially and ethnically discriminatory practices encouraged by some of the national fraternal bodies with which they were affiliated. As a result, an enormous amount of institutional energy at the level both of the students themselves and of the president and trustees came to be devoted to the attempt to rectify any such wrongs and to align the functioning of fraternities more effectively with the college’s institutional values and academic goals. Committee after committee was formed to address the intricate issues involved, but their recommendations (not always implemented) usually took the form of tinkering with the system rather than of calling it into question. Only one of them, the student Committee of 22, chose to bite the bullet, calling in 1957 for the outright abolition of fraternities at Williams and the substitution of a system of college-administered residential units to which students would be assigned via a system of random selection. But to no avail. If the drawbacks of the prevailing system were becoming daily more evident, the identification of generally acceptable solutions proved elusive.

Of all of this I was almost totally ignorant when I arrived at Williams in August 1961 as a new, wet-behind-the-ears member of the history department. Never having been an undergraduate in the United States, I knew little or nothing about fraternities or about the degree of power they were capable of wielding over student life. I tended to view them, I think, as a species of self-selecting exclusive club that merely punctuated the general disposition of student living. Something akin, perhaps, to Yale’s Skull and Bones, whose building I passed regularly on my way into campus and which, or so I assumed, was little more than a rather childish (if well-endowed) survival into the present of late-Victorian group sentimentalism. Nor did fraternity-related concerns come up as a topic of conversation when I first met Jack Sawyer (John E. Sawyer) in the spring of 1961 and not long after he had been elected to succeed Phinney Baxter as president of Williams. Robin Winks, a friend of his and a colleague of mine in the Yale history department, had invited me along with Dan O’Connor (just appointed to the Williams philosophy department) to meet him over lunch at one of the Yale colleges. On that occasion, as I recall it, Jack talked mainly about the Williams faculty members he had known and admired, not least among them Richard Newhall, by then emeritus, a medieval historian of some distinction who, in his day, had been a student at Harvard of Charles Homer Haskins, the great pioneer of medieval historical studies in America. (The Newhalls were to extend a gracious welcome to us when we got to Williams and, by virtue of his kind gift, on my bookshelves proudly sit Mr. Newhall’s six volumes of R.W. and A.J. Carlyle’s A History of Mediaeval Political Theory in the West). At that time an associate professor of economics at Yale, Sawyer was a graduate of Williams, Class of 1939, and as an insider to the fraternity scene and a long-standing trustee of Williams, had to have been acutely conscious of the mounting unease on campus about the way in which the fraternity system was now functioning. But he had not yet had to confront the urgencies of the situation created when, at the end of the 1960-61 academic year, a group of 45 students, most of them campus leaders and fraternity men, submitted to President Baxter a petition requesting the formation of a committee charged with finding some alternative approach to the fraternity selection process that would involve collegiate decision rather than student election. That petition and Sawyer’s ultimate reaction to it were to determine not only the shape of his own presidency but also much of the dynamics of institutional life at Williams as the transformative and eventually tumultuous 1960s unfolded.

Adapted from From the Cast-Iron Shore: In Lifelong Pursuit of Liberal Learning, by Francis Oakley. Copyright © 2018 by Notre Dame Press. Reprinted by permission of Notre Dame Press.