Williams College President 1872-1881
The life of Paul Ansel Chadbourne, the fifth president of Williams College, began in North Berwick, Maine, on October 21, 1823. When he was 16, Chadbourne became a druggists’ assistant and decided to devote his life to medicine. He later attended Exeter at 19, an age when many young men would already be at college. Paul was not discouraged by his age or lack of money, but used his “unusually keen and receptive mind and an indomitable spirit” to pursue his education. During his first year, he copied the documents of Mr. John Woodbury for one cent each. Chadbourne worked hard, and graduated from Williams as valedictorian of his class in 1848.
After graduating, Chadbourne taught in Freehold, New Jersey, and it was here that he developed a passion for the stars. This passion confused him because he had begun to believe that his future was as a preacher, even though Williams College president Mark Hopkins had advised him against it. Throughout his life, Chadbourne experienced many health problems, and this part of his life, directly out of college, was especially troubling for him. After a bad case of pneumonia, he had a lung removed because it had become infected with gangrene. Chadbourne continued to have hemorrhages after leaving Maine, and pulmonary trouble eventually made him leave teaching. Even with his doubts about preaching, he entered a theological seminary in Connecticut, only to leave with more health problems. He became the principal of a high school in Great Neck, New Jersey upon recovering, but was there only a year due to further ill health. Finally, young Paul came upon the job of tutor at Williams College in 1851, and worked through his illness. This same year, Chadbourne married Elizabeth Sawyer Page. He moved to another teaching job for one year, but returned to Williams in 1853 as the chair of Chemistry, Botany, and Natural History. During his professorship and later, Chadbourne led many scientific expeditions to places such as Newfoundland, Florida, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, writing many noteworthy essays on these trips. Trips during his Williams years were often made with the student Lyceum of Natural History.
After teaching for fifteen years at his alma mater, Chadbourne was offered the presidency of the State Agricultural College at Amherst (University of Massachusetts-Amherst). Due to pulmonary attacks, he would become president for two separate terms, in 1866 and 1882. He was also offered the presidency of the University of Wisconsin. Chadbourne was president of Wisconsin for only two years, but left his own legacy behind. He was strongly opposed to coeducation at the University, insisting that women were “a distraction.” He created a separate “Ladies College” where the women slept and studied. This former “ladies dorm” was renamed Chadbourne Hall to commemorate the man who did not want women to attend the University of Wisconsin. Now standing on that spot where Chadbourne Hall was located is Chadbourne Residential College, part of the University.
In 1872, President Mark Hopkins recommended Chadbourne as his successor. The students and faculty received him very warmly at Hopkins’s announcement on July 27, 1872, for they saw Chadbourne as a friend and not a stranger to the college. One student, R.M. Chamberlain (Class of 1873) commented in his speech, “For your broad and scholarly culture, your scientific erudition and acquisitions, your versatility of talent, your valuable experience, your energy and executive ability, we greet you.” As to Chadbourne’s presidential career, many people related to the college held opposing opinions. He did many things that were for “the good of the school” and he devoted himself to attracting students to Williams; enrollment went up 90% during his presidency. He wanted a good education for all young men, even those who could not afford one, and he tried to improve on the old college buildings and build new ones, including the Chadbourne Gymnasium and Clark Hall.
Chadbourne’s relationships with the students were not always pleasant, however. He was a good teacher and wanted to relate to the young men, but some people thought “his manner was sometimes harsh and protective, and many students disliked him.” Another student said, “He was a good instructor and could make a student think. But he was arbitrary, dictatorial, unjust, without any notion of fairness.” In his book, Williamstown and Williams College, Arthur Latham Perry characterizes Chadbourne as “transparent, over-sanguine, fickle-minded, gifted, versatile, superficial?trustful and worthy of trust.” One student who did not get along well with Chadbourne said that he was the “most unpopular president Williams College ever had,” and because of this lack of popularity with the students, and because he commanded more respect than he was given, he was made a target of many pranks and mockeries. The young men would sing a song about Chadbourne to the tune of a spiritual:
Rise and shine and give Chad the glory
He carries the freshmen in his bosom
He leads the sophomores by the still waters
He sends the juniors to the Devil
He charges the seniors for their diplomas.
In 1881, Chadbourne began to feel like a failure at the job of Williams president and he knew that he should resign. He resigned at the commencement ceremonies of that year, despite the protest. In his life after and beyond Williams, Chadbourne became an editor of The Public Service of the State of New York and The Wealth of the United States. He almost did not accept the presidency at Amherst Agricultural College in 1882 because “he could not afford it,” after losing money in bad business ventures. He was also given honorary doctorates at Berkshire Medical College, Amherst, and Williams College. Chadbourne became involved in politics because of personal interests and his friendship with James A. Garfield. He was a state senator in 1865 and 1866, a delegate to the Republican Convention in 1876, and a presidential elector-at-large in 1880. He even experimented with religious poetry before his death.
Paul Ansel Chadbourne died on February 23, 1883, and was buried in the Williams College cemetery, leaving behind the mixed reviews of his life.
By Elizabeth O’Grady