Brown’s twentieth-century presidents have been revered, and occasionally reviled, for their service, stewardship, and leadership. Their task was to refashion the rich traditions and fundamental values of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a way that would make the University succeed and prosper in the twentieth. These nine men were charged first with upholding the University’s fundamental traditions and values within both the Brown family and the broader public. At the same time, they were forced to lead Brown through the generational challenges that marked the century, challenges that arose not only from the passions of Brown’s loyal constituencies, but from social, national, and international concerns outside the University. In many ways these challenges are not significantly different from those many other college and university presidents encountered. But what follows is a chronicle of the unique ways in which the University’s particular tradition—its emphasis on debate and dialogue, as well as controversy and change—allowed these presidents, from William Herbert Perry Faunce to E. Gordon Gee, to guide Brown through a troubled century.
The guiding light illuminating their actions is the Brown Charter’s unparalleled commitment to freedom. President Faunce, who served from 1899 to 1929, leaned heavily on the Charter in a sermon at the University’s sesquicentennial celebration in mid-October 1914: “Into this liberal and catholic institution shall never be admitted any religious tests: but, on the contrary, all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, uninterrupted liberty of conscience…and above all, a constant regard be paid to and effectual care taken of the morals of the College.” This fundamental, almost creedal affirmation of freedom articulates the foundation of Brown’s entire philosophy of education, and thus has been the platform on which its presidents have shaped Brown’s academic and intellectual life. This same commitment to freedom inspired President Francis Wayland to stimulate the curricular debates of the nineteenth century and informed the proposals that became the “new” curriculum of 1969, the unstructured curriculum brought into being by Presidents Ray Heffner and Donald Hornig that still stands today.
But presidents cannot be academic leaders alone. Brown’s twentieth-century presidents also became increasingly occupied with the stewardship and expansion of the University’s resources. Though more mundane than the high-sounding tenets of the Charter, the care and tending of physical, fiscal, and human resources, while easily overlooked, is equally important to the saga of an institution. This has certainly been the case at Brown. The physical plant grew in leaps and bounds during the twentieth century, in large measure as a result of the vision of Brown’s presidents. To see the dramatic alteration of the College Hill landscape from William H.P. Faunce to E. Gordon Gee one need only peruse pictures of the campus through the decades.
On the financial front, Brown has long played a game of catch-up in the endowment race with its wealthier competitor colleges and universities in and out of the Ivy League. At the beginning of the century Faunce believed that increasing the endowment must be a top priority. Much later, during the 1970s, Hornig faced the task of stabilizing the annual budget to stave off further decreases in the unrestricted endowment, which had been reduced by budget deficits in the 1960s and early 1970s. Having succeeded in stanching the flow of dollars, Hornig then rebuilt the endowment significantly, paving the way for the achievements of Howard Swearer, who acknowledged Hornig’s sacrifice of leadership capital by admitting that “Brown has gotten on top of its finances, and I had nothing to do with it.” Hornig’s success, in fact, enabled Swearer to lead with new initiatives and to mount Brown’s first major, successful fundraising campaign. Vartan Gregorian then exceeded Swearer’s fund-raising accomplishments, thanks in part to the work of his predecessors.
Another great challenge has been the struggle to recruit and retain outstanding scholars and teachers in the face of competition from wealthier and more research-oriented universities. On this front, Brown presidents have done remarkably well, from Faunce, who worried about faculty pay and managed to increase it to a competitive level, to such scholar-presidents as Keeney, Swearer, and Gregorian, who attracted faculty in part by the strength of their own reputations.
In fact, at the beginning of the century, and even at its midpoint under Wriston and Keeney, Brown had no assurance it would even remain a relatively prestigious regional college, let alone gain the reputation, as it did during the Swearer and Gregorian years, as a “hot” institution consistently ranked among America’s most prestigious colleges and universities.
The brown presidents of the last century also faced three major generational issues: the coordination of women’s education, the push for minority access, and, especially during the 1960s and early 1970s, the demand to respond to national and international crises. It may be true that presidents at Brown, like their contemporaries at other American colleges and universities, had no choice but to face these challenges; but what’s interesting is how they met them with a characteristically Brown response.
At Brown 100 years ago, women’s education was “coordinate education.” This term originated with the establishment of the Women’s College in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the same college that would later become known as Pembroke. Pembroke’s independence and the Corporation’s desire that Brown not become coeducational worked together to sustain the coordinate relationship. As Faunce put it at the time of the name change to Pembroke, “We are determined that through the present and future there shall be no coeducation [at Brown]…. [N]either alumni nor alumnae will ever desire it.”
Another persistent question through mid-century focused generally on women’s leadership, and specifically on their right to Corporation membership. Trying to urge change well ahead of his time, Wriston caused a stir at the 1947 dedication of Andrews Hall by commenting that “sooner or later women will be elected to the Corporation of Brown University…. In a day when so much is said against discrimination, the exclusion of women is surely an anachronism.” Hoping to make Wriston’s prediction come true, Keeney later advocated electing women to the Corporation. But it was Heffner who in 1969 finally succeeded in appointing the first woman, the first African American, and the first Jew to the position of Corporation fellow.
The 1960s also marked the period of advocacy for increased racial and ethnic diversity. Blacks and other minority populations were virtually absent at Brown before the last few decades of the century. The obstacles were considerable. Hornig’s 1970s campaign to right Brown’s fiscal ship through major budget cuts ran headlong into emerging pressure to increase diversity. He openly discussed the prospect of eliminating seventy-five faculty positions and, even worse, raised the possibility of cutting financial aid. This was perceived as a direct threat to the effort to increase racial and ethnic diversity at Brown, so much so that Hornig’s actions sparked a takeover of University Hall in the spring of 1975.
Shortly after Gregorian arrived in 1989, an incident involving racist graffiti tested his ability to lead in the face of racial tension. Rising to the occasion, he made an impassioned extemporaneous speech on the steps of University Hall. Unfortunately, no recording or transcript of these remarks exists, although a strongly worded press statement issued the next day likely carries the intent, if not the language, of his remarks. He described the graffiti as a “dastardly act of those who would poison our University,” adding, “There are many outlets in this country for racism and bigotry…. Brown will not be one of them, I can assure you of that.”
Twentieth-century Brown presidents have also had to cope with the effects of war, overseas corporate practices, and U.S. foreign policies. Faunce and Wriston distinguished themselves and the University with their leadership through two world wars. In the 1960s Heffner faced the effects of widespread domestic unrest over race relations and the Vietnam War. More than many college presidents of his time, Heffner succeeded in finding the middle ground. As a result, Heffner may best be remembered for maintaining civility and conversation, and thus protecting the University’s foundation of rational discourse. It was not an easy victory. In a fall 1967 speech Heffner, in a remarkably dark conclusion, outlined a modest set of proposals, including greater involvement by students in institutional governance. However, he also expressed fears that a chasm had already divided students and university administrators. Heffner warned that if this was the case, “the cause of education is already lost. It would mean that the young are not educable, or that their elders have no wisdom to impart.”
Heffner’s success at keeping the University talking during tense and divisive times could not have occurred without Brown’s centuries-old celebration of academic freedom. This same principle was also a foundation of Heffner’s successors, helping Hornig, Swearer, Gregorian, and Gee to work mostly in harmony with students on such issues as corporate investment in South Africa during the era of apartheid, the campaign for apparel workers around the world to be paid a living wage, and even the knotty issue of need-blind admission.
A final tribute to Brown’s historic dedication to the primacy of academic work freely pursued is that the Corporation, unlike some of its peer governing bodies, never turned to a corporate-sector leader as president. Nor did it ever select anyone solely for his managerial skill. It’s true that Brown, like many colleges and universities, closed the century with three career administrators, two of them—Swearer and Gee—career presidents. But overall, the presidents of Brown distinguished themselves and the University with an unwavering commitment to improving the quality of research and, especially, teaching at Brown. Each of them stayed true to the source; each employed, sustained, and strengthened Brown’s broad commitment to the freedom of thought and ideas.In the pantheon of Brown’s presidents, its ninth, William H. P. Faunce 1880, is a major name, though not as nationally known as Francis Wayland. Faunce was nonetheless a well-regarded president in the era of what many believe to be the giants of American higher education, a time when presidents mirrored the contemporary barons of business and industry as major public figures.
Seen from the beginning of the twenty-first century, Faunce’s term, the longest in Brown history, has a kind of magical confidence and prosperity. He oversaw the construction of building after building, including Metcalf Hall, Alumnae Hall, and the John Hay and John Carter Brown libraries. It was Faunce who erected the Van Wickle Gates. At the same time, the Brown endowment grew at an exponential rate; it contained $1.2 million when he entered office and almost $10 million when he left. Somewhat of a world traveler, he exuded confidence and a breadth of experience. “I believe in keeping the open mind,” he said, “in facing facts in every quarter of the globe. I believe with James Russell Lowell that the world is fireproof and that it is safe to strike matches.” Faunce died a few months after his retirement, in January 1930.Clarence Barbour, class of 1888, was the last alumnus and the last Baptist to head the University. Picking up where Faunce left off, Barbour was about to head an endowment campaign to help the University keep up with the academic competition when the Great Depression struck. Sadly, Barbour’s legacy was not merely threatened but deeply harmed by the stock market crash and its aftermath, which robbed his presidency and Brown of wealth and promise. Although Barbour traveled widely to alumni clubs and Baptist missions, his efforts to guide Brown through the Depression eventually took its toll. In 1935 he suffered a nervous breakdown, and his health declined until he was forced to give up his duties as president. He died two weeks before he was to retire, just a few days after telling a Brown Daily Herald reporter that he considered his greatest presidential accomplishment “holding Brown steady in a very critical time.” Henry Wriston, Brown’s eleventh president, headed one of the most important—and one of the longest—presidencies in University history. It was also one of the most successful. Wriston entered office determined “to get Brown off the defensive in the matter of its public image—in short, to awaken a decent pride.” He raised admission standards, established course distribution requirements, ordered the architectural restoration of University Hall, convinced John D. Rockefeller Jr. (class of 1897) to pledge a half-million dollars (he later gave $5 million more as a tribute to Wriston), and improved the academic life of Brown, in particular by expanding the graduate school and hiring promising faculty.
Wriston also navigated Brown through the tense difficulties of a world war, which was followed almost immediately by the regional conflict in Korea and the beginning of the Cold War. Wriston’s approach to these crises and the demands they created for higher education pushed him and Brown onto the national stage. He established a veterans college for returning World War II soldiers and worked to turn the University into more of a residential college. After he left, one alumnus remarked that Wriston “took Brown by the scruff of the neck and shook it into greatness.” He died in New York City on March 7, 1978.Barnaby Keeney succeeded a living legend. He, too, faced a time of great national change: the intensification of the Cold War, the scientific competition triggered by the space race, the chilling legacy of McCarthyism on academic freedom, the stirring unrest of the 1960s.
Humorously highlighting one of the chronic (then and now) problems for presidents, especially in raising money, Keeney remarked that “once in a while an alumnus or friend of this institution comes to me and says: ‘Here you are, trying to raise money! Why don’t you stop this radical talk among your students and faculty? Why don’t you tell them to keep quiet, and be quiet yourself, at least until you have finished raising the money?’ I reply: ‘If we do that, we won’t have anything worth raising money for; we shall have killed the thought for which Brown has lived for nineteen decades.’ ”
Keeney continued the work of physical expansion. He acquired the Bristol, Rhode Island, property that houses the Haffenreffer Museum and the thirty-nine acres where Brown’s athletic buildings now sit. Keeney oversaw the raising of $82 million and expanded the faculty from 496 to 911. After leaving Brown, he joined the Johnson administration as the first chief of the National Endowment and Council on the Humanities. Two years before his death in Providence in 1980 he was identified as having worked for the CIA during his term as president. According to Martha Mitchell’s Encyclopedia Brunoniana, Keeney “admitted that he had advised the CIA in matters such as ‘setting up covert funding operations,’ adding in explanation, ‘I suppose nowadays it is improper to attempt to serve your country…but then I felt I was doing what I should.’ ”Ray Heffner’s presidency followed thirty years of extraordinary leadership and unprecedented growth and change at Brown. But Heffner inherited two problems: the increasingly volatile climate of the 1960s and a strained financial picture created by Brown’s self-imposed pressure to enhance its reputation.
In light of his abbreviated tenure and his times, more prophetic words are difficult to imagine than Heffner’s own to the faculty on the day his appointment was announced: “These years, I am sure, will not be easy. Institutions of higher learning today are being asked by society to do more than ever before…. Students across the land are restless—uncertain about the values of the society they are entering, and impatient with the universities which are trying both to preserve and to criticize these values.” Later described as “years of turmoil,” Heffner’s reign was a defensive one, as his administration was forced to move from one crisis to another rather than address the University’s long-range needs. Heffner’s last six months included the December 1968 walkout by black students, the approval of coeducational housing, the banning of ROTC, and the passage of the New Curriculum in May 1969. Heffner resigned that month, saying, “I have simply reached the conclusion that I do not enjoy being a university president.”Hornig became Brown’s fourteenth president more than a year after the sudden resignation of Heffner. Hornig, a former Brown professor and a group leader at the Los Alamos Laboratory during the first tests of the atomic bomb, faced an extremely difficult financial picture, which had been developing for a number of years. The budget he inherited, in fact, was projected to be $4.1 million in the red. Hornig’s reductions cut the deficit to $1.25 million in two years, and by 1973 it was projected to be only $750,000. Austerity presidents tend to be unpopular, and Hornig’s threatened elimination of seventy-five faculty jobs did not endear him to that part of the Brown community. Hornig also oversaw the merger of Pembroke and Brown and the inauguration of the program in medicine, which awarded the University’s first medical degrees. He was also a man of conscience who sent telegrams to President Nixon protesting the invasion of Cambodia and the bombing of North Vietnam. Asked to look back on his presidency, he once said, “I would not call it a satisfying experience. It was bittersweet.” Asked what he would change about it, he answered, “The times.” HHoward Swearer’s arrival at Brown was greeted with great anticipation and hope. He brought a new and needed sense of optimism, urging the community, almost by force of personal will, to shift its focus away from the problems plaguing it for much of the preceding decade. Swearer brought a youthful, almost Kennedyesque appearance and enthusiasm and a can-do spirit to Brown. He oversaw ten balanced budgets, a $180 million capital campaign, and an increase in the endowment from $95 million to $357 million. During his administration a number of buildings were added to campus, including the CIT building. Swearer also strengthened Brown’s public-service tradition by cofounding the Campus Compact to encourage public service nationally. He pointedly avoided buying into the developing notion of Brown as a “hot college” in the 1980s, but his emphasis on increasing research grants to Brown scientists and on establishing the University’s various centers (including what would later become the Watson Institute for International Studies) ensured that Brown would become a truly national educational force. Swearer died in October 1991. If Swearer arrived at Brown as a can-do leader, Vartan Gregorian was billed as that and more. Richard Salomon, who knew Gregorian from both the Brown Corporation and the New York Public Library Board of Trustees, described his philosophy as “ ‘Everything can be done.’ There is no such word as no.” Gregorian made his priorities clear right at his inauguration, when he described the three things that in his view make a university great: a great library, great students, and great faculty. Of the three, a great faculty was most important. When the Campaign for the Rising Generation, Brown’s largest capital campaign ever, was developed, Gregorian made sure that nearly half the money raised would go toward improving faculty, academic programs, and academic facilities. A president of tremendous imagination and verve, he developed the idea of endowed assistant professorships, an unprecedented step that enables Brown to recruit excellent junior faculty and provide the support for them to develop their research and teaching skills on College Hill. A man of passion and principle, Gregorian resisted the intrusion of the courts into the University’s affairs. He fought the Title IX lawsuit brought by a group of female athletes who alleged gender discrimination in the way Brown supported its varsity teams. Despite losing every round of the litigation, Gregorian pursued the closely watched case all the way to Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.
In what might be viewed as an epitaph for his presidency, Gregorian commented at the close of his tenure that the key ingredient of his success was that the mission had to be “right for me and others like me,” explaining that “you have to have transcendent goals. Otherwise the nitty-gritty dehumanizes you, routinizes you, and marginalizes you.” Gregorian will certainly never be accused of being marginalized, and his earnest work placed Brown among the very best universities not only in the nation but in the world. He now heads the Carnegie Corporation.Gordon Gee’s brief tenure as the University’s seventeenth president—the briefest in Brown history—concluded just as the century ended. His appointment was generally praised, despite concern that his experience consisted almost exclusively of leading large public universities. “I will adapt to Brown,” he vowed after arriving on College Hill, “and Brown will adapt to me.”
The adapting turned out to be more difficult than either side imagined. Citing a poor fit, Gee resigned after only twenty-five months in office to accept the position of chancellor at Vanderbilt. He left a limited legacy that is largely managerial in nature. A lawyer, Gee held the opposite view from Gregorian’s on the Title IX battle, quickly ordering the athletic department to comply with the court-ordered remedies. Gee was known for recruiting talented senior administrators, and his background at public universities prompted him to get involved in Providence politics, chairing the search committee for a new public school superintendent. He was succeeded by Sheila Blumstein, who was appointed interim president after his resignation in February 2000.
Stephen J. Nelson is a research associate in Brown’s education department and an adjunct professor at Rhode Island College’s School of Education. His book, Leaders in the Crucible: The Moral Voice of College Presidents, was published in August.