Baxter, James Phinney III (1893-1975)

Williams College President 1937-1961

James Phinney Baxter’s twenty-four year career as Williams College
president made him one of the most admired and fondly remembered
presidents in Williams history.

Baxter was born on February 15, 1893, in Portland, Maine. By the time
he graduated from Williams in 1914, the list of activities under his
name in the yearbook was long and illustrious. The valedictorian of his
class, Baxter was also senior class president, president of the
Gargoyle society and the student council, editor of both the Williams Record and the Gulielmensian, and Phi Beta Kappa. He was voted the man “most likely to succeed” by his classmates.

While convalescing from tuberculosis, Baxter earned his Master’s Degree
from Harvard and met Anne Holden Strang whom he married in 1919. The
couple moved back to the East Coast and Baxter worked on his Ph.D. in
history at Harvard. He was offered the presidency of Williams in 1934,
but declined. When the presidency was offered to him once more in 1937,
following Tyler Dennett’s tumultuous three-year relationship with the
college, Baxter accepted.

From the beginning of his term as president, Baxter changed the
Williams way of life greatly. Although the number of students during
his first years as president jumped from 820 to 1100, he stood by his
decision to keep Williams small. He continued to uphold the right to
academic freedom, defending a professor with leftist ideas. “You don’t
get this freedom we talk about without paying a price,” Baxter said,
“And the price in this case is one I am willing to pay.”

Baxter quadrupled the school’s budget for instruction and brought in
many new professors. He undertook many improvements to college
buildings, making additions to Stetson Hall and the Thompson Labs, as
well as renovating The Log, constructing Adams Memorial Theater and the
student union (later named Baxter Hall), and putting a roof on the ice
rink. During Baxter’s tenure, new majors were added to the curriculum,
such as Music, Spanish, and Psychology, and the Center for Development
Economics and the summer program that would become known as the
Executives Program were also introduced. Although his administration
diligently tried to reform the Greek system at Williams, fraternities
remained in place during Baxter’s presidency.

Outside of Williams, Baxter was on the boards of many colleges and
universities, and was given 17 honorary degrees throughout his
lifetime. He was the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Scientists Against Time,
which he wrote in 1947 when he was the historical researcher for the
Office of Scientific Research and Development. Baxter was very active
during World War II, and left Williams for a few years while he served
as research coordinator of information (1941-1943) and Director of the
Office of Strategic Services (1942-1943). Baxter also enjoyed fishing
and hunting.

Baxter resigned as President of Williams on June 30, 1961, but remained
active in college activities, especially enjoying Williams football
games. He died of a heart attack at Sweetbrook Nursing Home in 1975.