Dear Members of the Hamilton Community,
I am saddened to have to inform you that John Wesley Chandler, the 15th president of Hamilton College, died Friday morning. He was 98.
John was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and earned his bachelor’s degree at Wake Forest College in 1945, before completing a doctorate at Duke University in 1954. Over the course of his career, John received honorary degrees from 16 colleges and universities. He taught philosophy at Wake Forest and religion at Williams College, where he also served as acting provost and then dean of faculty. In 1968, during a turbulent period in American history that included the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, he became Hamilton’s president, a position he held for five years before moving back to Williams to become its 12th president.
In On the Hill: A Bicentennial History of Hamilton College, Professor Maurice Isserman aptly described President Chandler as “a flexible and pragmatic leader, who deserves credit for steering the College through a tumultuous era with little damage to the institution.” Chandler also presided over a set of wide-ranging curricular reforms and encouraged a spirit of openness to the outside world that served the College well. Christopher Wilkinson ’68, in his Class Annalist letter, recalled that a review of the curriculum that John initiated soon after his arrival led to the elimination of distribution requirements. The new curriculum, Chris recalled John saying, reflected “too much emphasis on Western Civilization resulting in educational parochialism.”
Samuel Babbitt, who was president of Kirkland College during John’s tenure, called him a good partner and said the two presidents enjoyed a good working relationship. In 1972, at Kirkland’s first Commencement ceremony, Sam presented John with the Kirkland College President’s Medal. The citation read, in part, “While running the affairs of your college, you have given leadership to all of private higher education … and have thereby helped to establish patterns of public support for private institutions which are a model for the nation.”
In 1985, John was named president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advances liberal education. He once again returned to Williams, this time in 2001 as a distinguished visiting professor of leadership studies, after spending more than a decade assisting colleges in finding new presidential leadership. A former chair of the Duke University Board of Trustees, he received the institution’s highest award, the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service, in 1995. His autobiographical A Special Kind of Boarding School: Growing Up in an Orphanage During the Great Depression was published in 2016.