Sawyer, John Edward (1917-1995)

Williams College President 1961-1973

In this nation, in this century, Jack Sawyer was a giant among leaders of higher education, among executives of philanthropic foundations, and among the pioneers in environmental studies. To all of these endeavors he brought high intelligence, wide knowledge, humanistic values and keen analysis.

It is his impact on this college that brought him national prominence and it is that leadership which this memorial minute celebrates. Jack’s involvement with Williams started early. He came to campus with his father, Class of ’08, and his brother, Class of ’37, before his own matriculation here as a freshman in September 1935. By the time he graduated magna cum laude with Highest Honors in History (he was the first thesis student of President James Phinney Baxter), he had joined a fraternity, been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, sung in the Glee Club, worked on the Gul , served as a Junior Advisor, and helped edit the Purple Cow magazine. The Class of 1939 was unique in this century because it provided four distinguished members of this faculty: in addition to Jack, they were Jim Burns, Bill Gates, and Jack Savacool.

Jack Sawyer’s next official connection to Williams came in 1952, when he was appointed a permanent trustee at age 34. He was named our 11th president in 1961; at age 44 he was the youngest Williams president in this century. He served as president for 12 years and, when he left in 1973, every aspect of this college was transformed: students, faculty, curriculum, administration, trustees, alumni, finances, and physical plant. It is difficult to convey the scope and manner of these changes. Within days of his arrival here he appointed a committee to study the fraternity question, and he had its report in less than a year. The trustees’ decision to replace fraternities with a residential house system set the stage for the construction of housing and dining facilities. A new record for annual alumni giving that winter of 1962-1963 helped dispel the notion that alumni were upset over this bold move. It should come as no surprise that the Alumni Fund outdid itself. Behind the scenes, generous donors assured Jack the goal would be exceeded, an action that thwarted a pro-fraternity group calling for funds to be withheld. At the same time, Jack experimented with more flexible admissions criteria (the so called 10% program), ended compulsory attendance for the classroom and the chapel, instituted paid assistant professor leaves, created the offices of provost and dean of the faculty, and was persuaded by four science faculty (only one of whom was tenured) to build a science center for research and computing.

In mid-decade he took the lead in revising the curriculum to include non-western studies, changing the college calendar to create the Winter Study Program, establishing the first center for environmental studies at the college level, increasing the number of African-American students, expanding the recruitment of women and minorities for faculty and administration positions, and completing a capital campaign eight times the scale of the previous one.

At the end of the decade he helped create the Twelve College Exchange Program, he engineered the change to coeducation here more sensitively than any other institution undergoing the same transition, and he was one of the leaders in establishing the New England Small College Athletic Conference. His last curricular contribution was the Graduate Program in the History of Art. Throughout the decade he increased the diversity of trustee membership by including women, minorities, and young alumni.

These extraordinary changes, for the most part, met with ready acceptance and surprising harmony. Jack’s presidency, however, was not without stress. There was the expected hostility from some alumni over the demise of fraternities, and there were objections from similar quarters over the coeducation decision. Internally, younger faculty in 1968 were expressing displeasure with an entrenched committee structure that dominated faculty governance. The result was the Faculty Steering Committee, the introduction of term limits for committee assignments, the addition of students to most faculty committees, and limited attendance by students at faculty meetings. In 1969 black students occupied offices in Hopkins Hall to protest deficiencies in the curriculum, in social and cultural events, and in admissions as they related to Afro-American concerns. What followed were increased staffing, funding, and diversity in the Afro-American Studies Program, in social and cultural events, in admissions and administrative activities.

Finally, in May 1970 the U.S. government’s military actions in southeast Asia, especially the Cambodian incursion, resulted in protests on many campuses. The deep feelings expressed by students and faculty at Williams, shared by Jack, led to the canceling of the last two weeks of classes and the suspension or postponement of final exams. Those were the easy moves. He then organized delegations of students, faculty, and trustees to call on members of Congress to press the case for disengagement. It was characteristic of him to insist that a trustee be part of each delegation in order to demonstrate a consensus within this college community. These public crises were not easy for Jack because many of the college’s constituencies were neither shy nor uncertain about offering advice. The fact that we survived as well as we did is testimony to his leadership and that of many others.

Throughout his public career Jack’s leadership reflected his sense of stewardship. He was acutely aware that the institutions he led were entrusted to him for only a short time and that prior events implied both limitations and opportunities. Above all else, however, he aspired to lead a life that was useful and, in doing so here, his vision for Williams redefined this college. His multiple initiatives were all part of a larger schema. His horizon was further and his sight was clearer than most of his contemporaries. He was wise, compassionate, witty, gracious, and extraordinarily well read. He cared foremost about people and ideas. His desire to effect meaningful change and his ability to chart the clearest pathway sometimes resulted in an attention to detail that not everyone appreciated. In observing these situations, I was convinced that such micromanagement did not stem from pettiness or a need for power, but rather from an unavoidable desire to have everyone’s energies coherent and focused.

Sometimes his analytical prowess could not be restrained. During CAP interviews with faculty candidates, he occasionally became so engaged with their description of the doctoral thesis that he would redesign their expositions and suggest an additional chapter or two, citing the key primary literature that ought to be consulted. Applicants’ responses ranged from barely-concealed resentment to profound gratitude.

The biographical facts are these. John Edward Sawyer was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 5 May 1917. He attended Deerfield Academy, obtained an A.B. degree from Williams, and earned an A.M. degree from Harvard in 1941. He completed all requirements for a Ph.D. except the thesis before serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1946, assigned to the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, North Africa and Europe. He than returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows (1946-1949) and as an Assistant Professor (1949-1953). He was an Associate Professor at Yale University (1953-1961) before becoming President of Williams College (1961-1973). In 1974 he became Vice President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and served as its President from 1975 until his retirement in 1987 at age 70.

His many honors included the U.S. Navy Bronze Star medal, thirteen honorary degrees, the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal, the Phi Beta Kappa Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Chairman’s Award, and the Williams College Bicentennial Medal.

In June 1941 he married Anne Swift, who in 1984 was the first recipient of the college’s Ephraim Williams Medal. Jack Sawyer died in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on 7 February 1995 at age 77.

His foremost legacy is this college. His life was splendidly useful.

By Prof. J. Hodge Markgraf (Williams Class of 1952)


Markgraf, J. Hodge. “John Edward Sawyer.” 8 March 1995. Williams College Faculty Meeting Minutes. Williams College Archives.