Williams College President 1934-1937
Tyler Wilbur Dennett served as the 9th president of Williams College, holding the position from the fall of 1934 until his resignation only a few years later, in the summer of 1937. Despite his short tenure as president, Dennett is often heralded as playing a major role in the liberalizing of Williams.
Dennett was born on June 13, 1883 in Spencer, Wisconsin, but raised in Rhode Island. He was descended from a long line of New Englanders, and his father, no exception, was a Baptist Minister. After graduating in 1900 from the Moses Brown School in Providence as the valedictorian of his class, Dennett enrolled at Bates College. He transferred to Williams as a sophomore.
A notable member of the football team while at Williams, Dennett played in all but one game in his three years at the college. He was also a distinguished student, winning many academic prizes as a history and economics major, as well as being an editor for the Gulielmensian and Literary Monthly and a member of the Gargoyle Society.
After his graduation in the spring of 1904 and a year of work in Williamstown, Dennett attended the Union Theological Seminary, where he was awarded a diploma in 1908. He served briefly as a Congregational Minister, but soon left to pursue a career in journalism. In 1922 he published Americans in Eastern Asia, a study of American policy in the Far East, which was well received and was long held as an important work in the field. Dennett was awarded a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University in 1925, doing work on Theodore Roosevelt and the Russo-Japanese War.
After teaching at Johns Hopkins for a year, Dennett took on editorial and administrative duties in the State Department as Chief of the Division of Publications and Editor (1924-1929) and historical advisor (1929-1931), also teaching for a brief time at Columbia University (1927-1928). In 1931 he resigned from the State Department to chair the new School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He taught and continued his scholarship at Princeton, winning a Pulitzer in 1934 for his biography John Hay, until assuming the presidency of Williams in 1934.
Dennett’s short tenure as president came between two of the longest terms in the college’s history: he was preceded by Harry A. Garfield (1908-1934) and followed by James Phinney Baxter (1937-1961). While president, Dennett was extremely critical of the conservatism and homogeneity of Williams and sought to modernize Williams on both counts. Dennet’s term is often overshadowed by comments he may or may not have actually made about Williams having “too many nice boys” from New England prep-schools, and by his controversial resignation. (The two were occasionally tied together by fairly groundless editorial speculation).
In 1937, a disagreement between Dennett and the Board of Trustees over whether the college should purchase the Greylock Hotel became a major issue, with arguments extending into the role of the presidency. Dennett’s resignation was accepted by the Board in 1937.
By Benjamin Roth (Williams Class of 2003)
The Williams Alumni Review, June 1934, pp. 240-341
The Williams Record, May 15, 1934, pp. 1-2