In his 1943 inaugural address, Wesleyan’s 11th president, Victor L. Butterfield, challenged the conventional notion of a university president, something he would continue to do throughout his 23-year tenure here.
“A college president is usually thought of as an administrative convenience and academic nuisance,” said Butterfield in his address. “But if he tries along with others to build a brotherhood of liberal scholars reaching after wisdom and its methods, he can, by virtue of his position, help significantly to shape a little higher destiny for the students of the college.”
As Wesleyan reveals the new College of the Environment, the Roth administration is in a way following in Butterfield’s giant and unconventional footsteps, building on his administrative vision and blueprint for a federation of small colleges, which was known as the “College Plan.” Butterfield’s legacy runs deep in Wesleyan’s history and tradition, but with the revitalization of the College Plan, it has become increasingly relevant. The longest serving president in the university’s history, Butterfield oversaw the most important period of transformation at Wesleyan, taking the chair of a tiny, oft-overlooked college ravaged by WWII draft-notices and leaving it two decades later looking more like the school we know today. A 1961 article in Connecticut Life magazine put it simply:
“They say that the pre-Butterfield Wesleyan, for all its ivy, its tradition, and its little three link with Amherst and Williams, was second rate by national standards. Today almost anyone who has had any contact with Wesleyan’s big, brainy, high-charged faculty, its bright, self-starting students, or its ingenious new programs… ranks the college with the select few at the top.”
Born in Kingston, RI in 1904, Butterfield was raised in a family of academics, his father presiding over Rhode Island State and Michigan State, among others. He would attend Deerfield academy and later Cornell University, where he garnered praise both in the classroom and on the football field, playing quarterback in 1925 and 26.
Upon graduating in 1927, he returned to receive his Master’s degree a year later and began his teaching career at his alma mater, Deerfield boarding school. Butterfield would teach at the Riverside school and Lawrence College before earning his Ph.D from Harvard and entering Wesleyan in 1935 as a Dean of Admissions, where he tightened the admissions process by weeding out “fill-ins” that supposedly compromised 25 percent of entering classes.
In the classroom, Butterfield the philosophy instructor encouraged philosophical debate—a tradition still upheld in Wesleyan’s seminar classes today.
Continuing to ascend the ranks of administration, Butterfield would later become the dean of freshmen and then associate dean, before spending a year as acting president. As James L. McConaughy stepped down, Butterfield was elected to the president’s chair in 1943 amidst the throes of the Second World War. Application numbers had dwindled with the institution of the draft and while the school remained open, course loads and curricula were compressed, and faculty stretched thin. But when Professor George M. Dutcher welcomed the new president at the 1943 inauguration, he expressed hope for a new era:
“Today, for the first time, this university is inaugurating a president in the midst of war, the most colossal in history” said Dutcher. “Never was the horizon so darkened with troubles. Never was the prospect of the liberal arts so uncertain. Yet we have faith that the skies will clear… Realizing, keenly as we do, that these times call for wisdom and powers more than human, our hopes are confident.”
From a statistical standpoint, Butterfield’s time as president was extraordinary. The new president established contacts at leading graduate schools and handpicked the best faculty, more than doubling their ranks. Enrollment also doubled, but even with expanded size, Butterfield emphasized keeping Wes “a small college”. The number of volumes in the Olin library doubled as the library budget, a meager $55,349 in the 1941-42 school year, skyrocketed to nearly $400,000 by the time Butterfield left Wesleyan. Part of what made this possible was the staggering explosion in the endowment. Below $10 million during wartime, it spiraled up to over $100 million in the mid-sixties. The entire attitude of Wesleyan began to change, asserted David Fiske, the Argus executive editor in 1961.
“Wesleyan has developed a critical attitude towards everything,” he wrote at the time. “You no longer just swallow things. You ask ‘Why?’”
This dynamic shift was the direct result of Butterfield’s sweeping reform of both campus and curriculum. In 1955, the Public Affairs Center was built, housing the economics, history, and government departments, an unprecedented interdisciplinary push. This approach would fuel possibly the most exciting of Butterfield’s reforms.
By 1960, Butterfield had put in motion his innovative “College Plan”—an initiative that essentially converted Wesleyan into a coalition of small colleges, each with specific faculty and students.
“The college plan provides a way of offering students more of both the freedom and responsibility of self-determination and self-directed growth,” said Butterfield of the plan.
The College of Public Affairs (later changed to “social sciences”), the College of Letters, and the now obsolete College of Quantitative studies were put into action and plans for the College of Behavioral Science and College of Contrasting Cultures were being developed. “A gamble in maturity” in Butterfield’s own words, the College Plan garnered attention from Time magazine and earned widespread student approval.
“This program made me realize for the first time what education is,” said Larry Jones of Ames, Iowa in the 1961 Connecticut Life article. “So many of the decorations are stripped away. We no longer complete an assignment and feel we’ve completed a day. This kind of education involves you—all the time.”
“We’re trapped.” said another student. “We were just given a three-week vacation, which most of us spent studying, because unfortunately we got interested in something.”
By the time Butterfield stepped down in 1967, he had erected numerous buildings and programs that are campus staples, including the Center for Advanced Studies (renamed the Center for the Humanities), the Davison Art Center, and the dorms on Foss Hill, along with some of the earliest graduate programs in the liberal arts, the world music program, the University Press, and the beginnings of a return to co-education.
“I have hope and faith that Wesleyan will continue the restless search for a kind of learning and a kind of human quality and concern, and a kind of purpose that can generate kindred hopes in the hearts of those who follow [us],” said Butterfield, in closing, at his final commencement service in the June 1967. “This is the Wesleyan of our love and gratitude.”
Long after his departure and death in 1975, Butterfield remains a presence on campus. The Butterfield dorms—widely referred to as the “Butts” –affectionately hold his name and his portrait remains a commanding presence on the upper floor of Olin. The College of Social Sciences and College of Letters remain staples of the Wesleyan education, and Butterfield’s interdisciplinary bias is now infused in all of the University’s academics. With the arrival of the College of the Environment, the Butterfield legacy remains strong and increasingly important. Butterfield’s work was critical in the development of the Wesleyan we now know, where still today his vision appears to capture the imagination of our contemporary administrators.
“[Wesleyan] is… so strong in the quality of her human resources,” wrote Butterfield in his letter of resignation. “And at the moment so fluid in her possibilities of growth that her potential for even greater impact and distinction in liberal learning is extraordinary.”