Henry Merritt Wriston (1889-1978), eleventh president of Brown University, was born in Laramie, Wyoming, on July 4, 1889. His father, Henry Lincoln Wriston, born in West Virginia, had attended Ohio Wesleyan University for two years before moving to Texas and then to Colorado, where he was in the first class to graduate from the University of Denver. His mother, Jennie Amalia Atcheson, was the daughter of a New York ship carpenter who moved to Missouri and then to Colorado. These two met in Colorado, married and moved to Wyoming. The senior Wriston, a Methodist minister, moved the family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he continued his theological studies at Boston University. Young Henry grew up in several towns in Massachusetts where his father held pastorates, went to Central High School in Springfield, and at an early age was able to enjoy the life of relative hardship which he later came to value as a positive experience. He made his way as delivery boy, bootblack, bellhop, and hand printer, and was able to enter Wesleyan University. While a student there in 1910, he made his first visit to Brown to attend a fraternity (Delta Tau Delta) initiation. At Wesleyan he majored in medieval history, edited the college newspaper, debated, and won the senior oratorial contest. After graduation in 1911, he pursued graduate study at Harvard for three years, but left without completing his dissertation to return to Wesleyan as an instructor in history. By 1919, he was a full professor at the age of 30, and still without his Ph.D. During the World War he was an assistant manager of the Connecticut State Council of Defense, and demonstrated administrative talent which led to his appointment in 1919 as executive secretary of the Wesleyan endowment fund campaign. Here he found himself in a compromising situation, when it was made known to him that the board of trustees wanted him to conduct a failing campaign in order to discredit the president. This was not the sort of thing that Henry Wriston did. Later he wrote, “The appointment could be a steppingstone to an old ambition only on terms that would prove me unfit for the reward.” The campaign was successful and raised $3,000,000.
Wriston then took a leave of absence to work for his doctorate, which he received from Harvard in 1922. His dissertation, which treated the extent of the use of personal executive agents by American presidents in conducting foreign relations, won him a reputation as an American diplomatic scholar, and when published in book form, became a standard text in the State Department. In 1925 he accepted the presidency of Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin. When he left to become president of Brown in 1937, Time magazine summed up his accomplishments at Lawrence in its inimitable way:
“Humming (enrollment: 979) and progressive, Lawrence is chiefly notable for the Institute of Paper Chemistry, a crack graduate school which President Wriston started in 1929. Under President Wriston’s eleven-year administration, Lawrence has pioneered in holding free classes for the unemployed, renting paintings for student rooms, fighting subsidies to football players. An enthusiastic tennist, Dr. Wriston likes to point out by way of contrast that Lawrence has a larger investment in athletic equipment per student than any other other Midwestern college.”
The newly-elected president was as different as possible from his predecessors. He was the first who was not an ordained Baptist minister and the first non-graduate of Brown since Francis Wayland. William S. Learned 1897, who recommended him, wrote, “He would undoubtedly provide a series of shocks to the old college, but I believe it would survive and profit enormously.” In fact, he was like a breath of fresh air, injecting new life into the University, and he himself later commented that his selection signalled the Corporation’s determination to make substantial changes in the University.
One of his early objectives was “to get Brown off the defensive in the matter of its public image – in short, to awaken a decent pride.” He told the Admission Office to admit no one who had been denied admission elsewhere, and furthermore, to admit no one who had not named Brown as first choice on the College Entrance Examination Board blank. Both the number and the quality of the applicants improved and so did the University’s image as the word got around that it was hard to get into Brown. He managed, not without resistance from some faculty members, to reduce the required number of courses per semester from five to four, and a few years later he launched a new study of the curriculum, which required that each student take a required number of courses distributed throughout the physical sciences, the sciences, and the humanities.
The routine of the University was disrupted by World War II and the placement of many Naval ROTC and V-12 students at Brown for education and training. After the war, Wriston’s solution to the problem of educating the war veterans was the establishment of a temporary Veterans College, which provided an opportunity for students lacking formal entrance requirements to prove themselves capable of transferring to regular college work.
Wriston took pride in the campus and an interest in its architecture. Soon after becoming president, he arranged for the reconstruction of University Hall, which, after restoration to its Colonial appearance, became the administration building. After the war he sought to make Brown a residential college again, and launched the Housing and Development Campaign that financed the quadrangle later named for him. Georgian architecture was chosen, and moveable partitions designed by Wriston were installed within the units shared by fraternities and independent students. In order to explain the post-war situation and win the necessary support of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. 1897, who wanted Brown to remain a small college, in 1946 Wriston wrote and distributed to the alumni four pamphlets. The Structure of Brown University clarified the roles of the Corporation, the Faculty, the Students, and the Alumni, and included his often quoted description of the president, who is “expected to be an educator, to have been at some time a scholar, to have judgment about finance, to know something about construction, maintenance and labor policy, to speak virtually continuously in words that charm and never offend, to take bold positions with which no one will disagree, to consult everyone and follow all proffered advice, and do everything through committees, but with great speed and without error.” Educational Housing aimed to “re-create a domestic environment hospitable to our educational ideal: and called for two quadrangles to house six or seven hundred undergraduates, including the members of seventeen fraternities. The University College defended the liberal arts college in an age of “educational empires” made up of specialized schools. The Size of Brown University informed the alumni in general and Rockefeller in particular of the reasons why Brown should scrap its unrealistic enrollment limitation of 1,200 male undergraduates and grow with the times. Won over to the need for growth, Rockefeller promptly pledged a half million dollars to the housing campaign. The construction of the quadrangle made possible the englargement of the student body, while the wider geographical distribution of students did much to change Brown from a local college to a nationally recognized institution. Wriston’s building program, including his remark that the removal of a row of old houses on George Street was “the greatest slum clearance since Sherman burned Atlanta,” did manage to raise the ire of local residents. In the same vein, an anonymous alumnus, whose classical knowledge extended to the quote that “Caesar found Rome brick and left it marble,” remarked on the brick addition to the John Hay Library in 1939, that “Wriston found Brown marble and left it brick.” Undergraduate and alumni members of the fraternities were also distressed by the proposal, first brought up in 1943, that in return for quarters in the quadrangle the fraternities should When the quadrangle opened in 1952, the fraternities moved into the living quarters provided for them at the ends of the dormitory buildings and took their meals in their separate dining rooms in the Sharpe Refectory.
Among the accomplishments of Wriston’s administration were the integration of Brown and Pembroke classes, the growth of the Graduate School, the acquisition of new and younger faculty members, and the establishment of new departments such as Applied Mathematics and Egyptology. Vice-President James P. Adams said of Wriston:
“He left the University immeasurably stronger and more widely appreciated within the educational economy of the country, and better prepared to discharge its enlarging responsibilities. ... He was not at all times an easy man with whom to work. He was volatile at times, but he was never sluggish. He was an historian by scholarly profession, but he had little regard for historical roots unless they would nourish the growth he planned and projected. He could manifest sympathetic concern over the plight of an individual. He could also be ruthless in the presence of recalcitrant opposition. He was impatient with deliberative proceedings, but he was not precipitous in the making of decisions. He was less than tolerant with anything short of perfection as he measured it, whether it was in a building code, in a curriculum requirement, in the language of a report, or the texture of an argument. His mien and manner were such as to command respect but seldom to inspire warmhearted friendship. He was a complex personage, but he had a brilliant mind, a steady nerve, a provocative manner, and an unwavering determination. He was not at home in companionships of equals, but was happier when he was presiding.”Thomas J. Watson, Jr. ’37 called Wriston “the greatest president Brown ever had.” Garrett Byrnes ’26 said that he “took Brown by the scruff of the neck and shook it into greatness.”
After his retirement in 1955, he was named executive director of the American Assembly, an organization to hold conferences on current national problems, which had been founded by Dwight D. Eisenhower while he was president of Columbia University. In 1960 Eisenhower named him chairman of the President’s Commission on National Goals, which produced a volume, Goals for Americans, which made recommendations concerning economics, government, education, foreign policy, and science. Wriston returned to Brown at Commencement in 1976 to receive the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal. He died on March 7, 1978 in New York City.
Wriston’s writings, especially his book, Academic Procession, and his 1,083 speaking engagements from 1937 to 1955 have yielded some quotable opinions:
“Give up security as an ideal. Anyone who promises security is misbranding his political, social, and economic goods ... If you insist on being cheated, buy gold bricks or perpetual motion machines. It is now clear that if you live at all, you will live dangerously, not only during the instant crisis but for all our lives.”
“A committee is not a good instrument for final judgment.”
“Faculty meetings represent the lowest common denominator of the group. Perhaps that is true of all meetings, but at first blush it seems surprising in a body of intellectuals.”
“Of the endless number of speeches a college president must make, those to students are of greatest importance – or can be. This group is interesting because it is of high intelligence, and difficult for precisely the same reason.”
“Students are not assigned to colleges. When they select a college which has published its requirements, they elect to do what it prescribes for the attainment of a degree – and, perchance, an education. That includes chapel if attendance is an announced feature of its life.”
On leaving Brown: “I have often thought that no student can walk the paths of the College Green for four years – if he has any sensitivity at all – without learning something from the appearance, something from the atmosphere that its buildings breathe, something from the way history looks down upon him.... Brown has a certain type of conservatism. Almost unconsciously, it has gained enough self-confidence so that it has not followed every fad that appeared across the educational scene. The imitativeness of institutions has been the undoing of many. While sometimes we have missed the boat by not seizing imaginatively upon ideals, we have let a lot of leaky boats go down without being passengers in them.”