II. The road to Lawrence

Peter Gillette

TL: Do you recall a moment in time when you realized that a college presidency was for you, or did you more or less end up at Lawrence and then this presidency opened up -RW: And I tumbled into it?

TL: Yeah.

RW: Well, a little of both. I finished my Ph.D. at Yale in 1968, and applied for a job at Kenyon College, which was again a place like Williams, like Lawrence. They didn’t choose to hire me. Yale happily offered me a job on the faculty, so I taught there from 1968 to 1977 in History and American Studies. And during my time at Yale, I was asked by a variety of people – the president, Howard Taft, the dean – invited me to take on different administrative responsibilities, and the last one I took on at Yale was associate dean of Yale College. I think at that point I began thinking of administration as being the route I would take. I was nominated when I was, I don’t know, 34 years old or something like that, for a college presidency, and I got interviewed. It was just nonsense. I mean, I was hardly ready to tackle something like that. But I think that put the bee in my bonnet, and I came to Lawrence as chief academic officer. I was looking for a place where I could tackle the responsibility of an academic program and a faculty and a curriculum. And the fact that my predecessor, Tom Smith, who just died last week, retired a year-and-a-half in – he announced in January of ’79 that he was going to retire. I was an inside candidate for the job here, obviously; kind of an awkward time in my life, I will confess, since everybody on campus was talking about nothing but the presidential search, and that was the one thing nobody would talk to me about, and so I kind of felt, not isolated, but sort of out of the loop, at the time. So, I suppose I was fortunate to be here at a right time. I’m not sure that at that point, 39 years old, I would have been considered for college presidencies elsewhere. I was here, I knew the place; I cared about the place. It turned out to be my good fortune to be selected, and I’ve had a great run.

TL: What about Lawrence University in the 1970s could draw you away from a place like Yale, where you were on a track?

RW: Well, I said this to the alumni: I can remember there was a Saturday morning in May 1977 when I visited Lawrence. I had already visited Lawrence and another college in the Midwest, both in effect for the same job. It was called V.P. for Academic Affairs here; it was called provost at the other place. And within an hour on that Saturday morning I got phone calls from both places offering me a job, and I was debating what to do, and one of my friends said, “Well, which place strikes you as most interesting and with the most potential?” And that made the choice pretty easy.

And so what drew me was that Lawrence was a national liberal arts college that I thought had a distinct and impressive mission. It was the kind of place I wanted to be at, and so I guess I would say I was at a point in my life when I was looking for a chief academic officer position, a dean of the faculty position. I had told Howard Taft, who was the dean of Yale College – I said, “I’m not going to look for a job, but I’m going to be open to jobs that may come my way,” and somebody put me in for this job. They actually offered this job to a couple other people who turned it down before they got to me, at the very end of the game. Professor Bruce Brackenridge came out to Boston, and I drove up from New Haven to meet him. That was my first contact with the college, and then I came here for an interview. After I was offered the job, I came back out for a second look.