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 Sweet Brook Nursing Home in 1975.