Trustee Emeritus and class of 1916
Interviewed on November 9, 1979
Rights and citation information
[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions.]
J. Seelye Bixler ‘16
Trustee, Emeritus Amherst College
President Emeritus Colby College
At his home in Jaffrey, New Hampshire
November 9, 1979
Horace W. Hewlett
For: Amherst College
This is Horace Hewlett visiting former President of Colby College, J. Seelye Bixler, at his home in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, right below Mt. Monadnock, on Friday, November 9, 1979. Let it be recorded that I am seated in the chair once owned by Mr. Bixler’s grandfather, Julius Hawley Seelye (Amherst 1849), fifth president of Amherst College (1876-90).
HWH: Seelye, you did another interview with Al Guest, I think about three years ago, and that is most interesting and a copy is in the archives. One portion that you didn’t comment on in your relationships with Amherst was services on the Board of Trustees and I’d be delighted to hear what you might have to say on the differences in trustee meetings over the years that you’ve known, and who might have seemed the most effective chairman, who made the great contributions, you would feel, to them.
BIXLER: Well, it’s a fascinating subject and particularly fascinating because I think there is reflected in the Board of Trustees and its procedures the changes that are taking place in our whole educational scene. Colleges are so different. The expectations for education are so different. And I think that as one remembers the Board and the way it conducted its business, one feels that, as I say, those changes have their echo in board affairs.
Now you were asking about who had been effective. The most effective trustee by all odds was Eustace Seligman. He was wonderful! Eustace was so fine because of many qualities that he had. Of course he had a long association with the College. He was a graduate of the Class of 1910, I think, and had been on the Board a long time. He had a very sharp, lawyer’s mind. He was a wonderful cross-examiner, though, of course, when he talked with the President, or talked with us, he didn’t cross-examine from an adversary relationship, but he knew just how to question so as to bring out the meat of the matter at hand. He knew a great deal about the history of the College and he had this real astuteness, and understanding of what education was about, what Amherst’s needs were and how best they should be fulfilled.
One of the interesting things about Eustace always was that not only did he carry on these conversations with others, and this examination of others at Board meetings, but he used to go on with this at the President’s House, or at dinner, so the time spent at Amherst or in Washington at the Folger meetings was full of talk by Eustace, questioning by Eustace, insistence by Eustace, that the Board should deal with the really relevant concerns. I feel we all owe a tremendous debt to him-- as I say I can’t think of any Trustee who contributed on that same level. One, perhaps on the same level is Francis Plimpton. There were others, of course, whom we greatly respected, who did a great deal to make the Board meetings profitable. In recent years, I have had much respect for the work of Harry Knight, for instance, and Olie Colgan, and if I talk about them particularly, it doesn’t mean, of course, any derogation of the others, but they stand out in my mind. I used to think that Phil Coombs’s comments were very good when he was on the Board. And of course, the various Chairmen whom I’ve known-- I think there are only three: Shorty Ells, Jack McCloy, and June Merrill-- they were effective in their own way.
HWH: I’ve heard Walter Gellhorn referred to often.
BIXLER: I’m so glad you mentioned him. I certainly meant to include Walter Gellhorn right up at the top there, yes. Walter was very effective as a Trustee-- very incisive in his comments, very wide-ranging in his interests.
HWH: I’ve heard it said, too, that he seemed to have a gift to put into words or onto paper what a general discussion had been, to crystalize...
BIXLER: That’s very true. He has a wonderful gift for expression, very true. I’m lucky to have had an association with Walter Gellhorn and I’m so happy that Walter Gellhorn is keeping up his interest and attending meetings and able to contribute what he does.
HWH: Yes. I think you know that his wife, Kitty, is involved with Oral History at Columbia University.
BIXLER: I didn’t know that. No, I’m interested.
HWH: And has done quite a few tapes for them.
BIXLER: Good. May I just put in a little comment about Walter? Mary and I went to New Zealand. I was doing a little lecturing at some of the universities there and Walter gave us a letter to, I think they call it the Vice President, of the University at Auckland. Well, I presented the letter and nothing was too good for us. They just turned the college inside out, gave us this marvelous banquet, all because of the letter that Walter had sent us.
HWH: Do you have any memories of George Arthur Plimpton?
BIXLER: Yes, I can remember George Arthur-- is that his name?
BIXLER: Plimpton. One vivid memory is of a Commencement season before I went to college. It must have been certainly before 1912, perhaps 1911 or ‘10. I was with my father and my father knew Mr. Plimpton and Mr. Plimpton and my father got together right in front of College Hall-- I don’t know how I happen to remember it, but I do remember it-- and Mr. Plimpton was asking my father, who was Class of ‘82, (Plimpton, I think, was Class of ‘78?)
BIXLER: ‘76. Well, they were talking earnestly about some matter having to do with the College and Mr. Plimpton had with him some young relative about my age [Machine breaks down -- Interview resumes]
HWH: You were discussing George Arthur Plimpton and his talking with young graduates trying to get to know them at commencement time.
BIXLER: Well, what I had in mind, I think, was more the older graduates. This was a young man who talked to me, but he wasn’t a graduate; I don’t know whether he went to Amherst afterward, but what he was saying was that he, as one who was a younger relative, a nephew perhaps, of Mr. Plimpton, noticed how Mr. Plimpton in walking around the Amherst campus at Commencement would hobnob with one or another of the older men, in fact I think he used an expression like “old Grad,” only it was a little more pejorative than that, because I remember I didn’t quite like to have it apply to my father. But the point was that Mr. Plimpton was so eager to get all points of view, and so he would buttonhole alumni and talk with them and try to find out how they felt about Amherst and what should be done. And I always had the feeling that at the final debacle, 1923, when Meiklejohn finally left, that both Mr. Plimpton and Dwight Morrow were very, very regretful, they were very eager to avoid a final showdown with Meiklejohn. In fact, I think Morrow was quoted as saying, “We managed that badly.” Anyway, I remember, although I didn’t see it because I wasn’t there, but I heard about it, that at the final baseball game at Commencement, Plimpton and Meiklejohn sat beside each other and apparently enjoyed the game.
HWH: Do you recall when Meiklejohn came back to speak at Johnson Chapel for the first time after his departure?
BIXLER: I was not there, but I know you quoted in your introduction [to an Alumni News article] that remark that Meiklejohn made in reply to McCloy.
HWH: Stanley King is someone who relied very heavily on Mr. Plimpton. Were you aware of that relationship?
BIXLER: No, I really wasn’t. No, I didn’t know about that.
HWH: Well, Seelye, we have missed the discussion that we had about your recollections of Jack McCloy and also of Lew Douglas, but I wonder if you would repeat what we missed here to the best of your ability.
BIXLER: Shall I tell about visiting McCloy in the War?
HWH: Yes, I think that’s very pertinent, it tells something about him.
BIXLER: Well this was in the fall of 1942 and Colby was eager to get military units, so I went to Washington to talk with Jack McCloy and Jack received me very pleasantly and cordially. As I was saying before, of course we were a small class, 1916, and we all knew each other very well, and Jack and I had known each other well as the whole class did. And so Jack talked to me very pleasantly in his office about whom I should see, where I should go in Washington, and what I should do to get this unit, and I think I remarked on the fact that it was all I could do to refrain from standing up-- bolt upright-- when three or four three-star or four-star generals came into the room. I wasn’t accustomed to that kind of company. I had risen no higher than a sergeant in the war. But Jack didn’t seem to be fazed and, in fact, Jack, I remember, was very abrupt and almost strident with his aide, Scooby, who was a Colonel. I was almost shocked by it, that he would talk to a Colonel this way, but Jack had real authority. As I think I said before, among Jack’s many stories of his experiences, I wish we could record his story that he told us at one time of his meeting with MacArthur right after the War. Jack was carrying instructions to MacArthur about how the Russians could be prevented from walking into Japan as they had walked into Europe and making trouble for Eisenhower. And MacArthur wasn’t at all inclined to listen. MacArthur insisted upon interrupting and going on his own way, making his own observations, and finally Jack said, “General, I can’t give you these instructions from Washington if you keep interrupting me.” And MacArthur said, “Mr. McCloy, I never would interrupt you, it would be contrary to my nature, it would be contrary to my discipline as a soldier who respects his superiors.” But it’s a marvelous story and I think we should get Jack sometime to repeat it. I might just go on to say, after that outburst, MacArthur did keep quiet and Jack did give him the instructions. Then Jack said, he, Jack, kept quiet and let MacArthur talk, and he said MacArthur talked brilliantly about the Orient and its future.
Well, so I had this very pleasant time with Jack and it wasn’t until the next day that the news came out that while we had been talking, the great-- one of the greatest, certainly, if not the greatest-- armada in history had been going, sailing through the Pillars of Hercules that was on the way to attack North Africa. And Jack must have been in touch with that, must have been receiving constant reports, and must have, couldn’t help being anxious about the tremendous catastrophe that at any time could occur, and he never showed it at all. There was not the slightest intimation, and I always thought it was a remarkable exhibit of poise as well as of friendship. Jack’s contributions to the College, of course, have been very great indeed. I don’t know quite how to express this and it would be better for Jack to express it than for me, anyway, but I just have a little the impression that Jack was troubled by what happened at Amherst. When I say what happened, I think troubled by the kind of difficulties all colleges including Amherst were having, and wasn’t quite sure how to meet them, so that in recent years I have been a little bothered by his-- I don’t quite know what word to use-- aloofness isn’t the word, distance isn’t quite the word, but his apparent unease about collegiate matters. But after all, for heaven’s sake, we were all uneasy.
HWH: It would be wonderful to have Jack sit down with a tape recorder and chat into it the things he’d never write.
BIXLER: Oh, I do think so. I do hope you can do that. I’ve told Jack he certainly should write his reminiscences, but so far he hasn’t done it and it looks as though now... Of course I’m 85 and he must be about that, so it looks as though now he wouldn’t do it.
HWH: His classmate and brother-in-law and your classmate, Lew Douglas, was a Trustee of the College for many years. Do you have recollections of him?
BIXLER: Yes, my recollections of Lew are very vivid indeed. Of course, Lew and Bill Avirett and I roomed together in Pratt Dormitory freshman year and Lew, as a member of my delegation, I saw constantly. Senior year he roomed with Stu Rider, who became my brother-in-law, and I would have kept in touch with him that way, if no other. I think I may have said, two people I know are writing books.about Lew, now-- writing biographies of Lew. One is, as I recall, a professor at the University of Arizona and the other is a teacher of English here in Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts. Both have written to me and this man from Nichols College has been up here to see me and to take a recording about Lew. I’ll be awfully interested to see what they finally come up with. Lew was a person of extraordinary ability, of course, and very much of an individual-- that’s one of the things that stands out in any memory of him. He was one who was sociable, surely, and enjoyed being with a group, but I should say at the same time that his individualistic qualities were what stood out about him. You knew he was independent. In College he was one of a group that brought in a plan to reform the honor system and it was not well received. I never could quite see why. I was all in favor of what Lew was doing, and yet I know it seemed to many others too dictatorial, and bureaucratic, and now as I talk about it, it’s interesting to remember. I remember Syd Chamberlain’s making a speech and opposing it. Yet how can I be right about that, because Syd was 1914? I guess we’d better erase this part.
HWH: It would be interesting to ask Syd; he would undoubtedly remember.
BIXLER: I’m mixed up there.
HWH: Lew was a Trustee for many years, as I mentioned, but it seemed in recent years, or for quite a few years, that his interest in the College waned.
BIXLER: I think one had that impression, yes. He didn’t come back very much and didn’t seem to join in with efforts to do this and that for the College. And when our Class would have reunions, as we did in New York annually for a while, it was hard to get Lew’s interest. I had the feeling he’d been caught up with a different set of associations, perhaps being ambassador meant that he had new interests and new friends and was more concerned to follow those new lines of thought.
HWH: Seelye, in a different direction, you have served on the Boards of Smith, Colby, Radcliffe, in addition to Amherst. Did you sense any difference in the ways that business of those Boards was conducted? Or their effectiveness?
BIXLER: Yes, I did sense a great difference and I felt it right away as soon as I came on the Amherst Board. I felt that it was a very interesting difference, interesting in itself, and also because it suggested that what was taking place on the Amherst Board was a reflection of what was taking place in educational circles in the larger society. I think I can best put it this way: the Amherst Trustees, 18 of them when I came on the board, were kind of a men’s club-- a gregarious club, a club where the members enjoyed being with each other and where they transacted their business from the point of view of these friends who had a common interest, a common loyalty, a common dedication, and who didn’t need to take time to formalize their actions. They didn’t need to have formal reports, so much. Of course there were plenty of reports, but the emphasis was not on making sure that this person had his say and the other person had his say, establishing a kind of an even-handed equilibrium. There was much more spontaneity, and I could almost say joyousness about it, and I always felt that this produced its own good results. It meant that a kind of insight into the problems of the College was achieved because it was achieved in that environment where a lot of friends or group of friends (18, as I say, of them) had this common interest and didn’t need to explain to anybody else what the interest was. They understood what the College was for them, they understood what the College was for their colleagues, and they worked on the basis of this common bond which seemed to stimulate their own insight into the particular problems the College had.
Now of course, as soon as one has said that, one recognizes that to express such an idea of what a college board does is to justify the worst fears and the worst criticisms of many who are judging colleges today. I know if I talked this way to students, they would at once say, “Well, that’s just the trouble. The college is a private corporation. It’s run by a group of like-minded people, lawyers and bankers and brokers, who aren’t really broad in their interests and who have this narrow, provincial notion. And that’s what Amherst has suffered from. We need to have Amherst brought out into the open, to have other groups, others in society represented, and in order to do that we must make the College public in a way in which it has not been public before.” I think one of the results we see today is that the government takes over, the government insists you do this in such a way, you maintain your own existence in such a way that the blacks are recognized, that women are recognized, that handicapped persons are recognized, that faculty rights, the younger employees, achieve their place in the sun. In other words, it isn’t what a group of friends decide is right and proper that is important; it is rather what society in its wisdom and through its governmental procedures has decided an educational institution shall do. Now I think as one looks at that situation, one simply has to say, of course this is progress, this is social progress, and we can’t turn the hands of the clock back and we don’t want to. But in a way, it’s too bad we have to lose the other, because I think there was something very precious about it. I think the loyalty that many alumni have to their College is not a bad kind of loyalty because it is focussed in private concerns that way. Why shouldn’t a group of people who have common ideals and common ideas of excellence, common ideas of how education can best serve the needs of the country and mankind, why shouldn’t such a private group say, “We’re going to establish our college, we’re going to express our point of view?” By itself, there’s nothing harmful about that, it seems to me. It is simply that we have reached a place now in history where society is so complex that, I agree, we simply have to say, “Well, the social problems are so severe that no institution, educational or other, can be allowed to be indifferent to them.” And so we run our colleges now in a way which is in line with the aims of social justice and certainly no one can quarrel with that. My only reservation would be on this point, that I think that at times we allow the social problem, the social difficulty, I mean the position of the minority member, which is an important consideration, of course, but we allow that kind of consideration to dictate educational policy, and that, I think, is very dangerous. I would simply say that I think Amherst throughout its history has maintained the purity of its academic and intellectual and educational goal. One hundred years ago the question was: Should the College teach Christianity, or pure, unvarnished, unsectarian truth? And I think the College won that battle. I think the College did dedicate itself to the pure, unadulterated, academic aim, and then, beginning, let’s say, with the regime of Meiklejohn, I think that the academic aim, the mission of the College as the unalloyed search for truth was more carefully defined. I think that one can say, perhaps, that from having allowed the Hebrew notion to dominate its own conception of itself, the College passed over to the Greek period. I remember very well Albert Parker Fitch saying to me one time, “Meiklejohn is three-fourths Puritan and one-fourth Greek, with the Greek on top.” I spoke to Mrs. Meiklejohn and she said, “That’s true.” And I think it is true, that Meiklejohn felt the lure of the old Puritan commitment, but he was a Greek essentially, he had the Greek point of view about education. And so from Meiklejohn’s time onward, the College was much more clearly and single-mindedly devoted to the truth ideal. But now, I do think we are in danger of losing that single-mindedness, in that the College, like everything else, as I say, in our society, is being forced to take account of the tremendous social problems that confront us and forced to adapt its own methods of governance, its own types of procedure, its own rules, and its methods, forced to adapt them to a situation where these social problems are so very difficult and so very demanding. In that process, I do hope that we won’t allow the special mission of the College to be lost sight of and that special mission is the intellectual mission. After all, we do have the school, and we do have the home, and we do have the church, and moral education ought to be carried on there. If we define the College’s aim in an essentially moral way, saying that its aim is that of developing character, or developing religion, or developing social-mindedness, I think we make a mistake. I think the College’s aim is not that. The College’s aim is that of developing intellectual ability, developing the capacity for thought, not to make men religious, but intelligently religious; not to make them good citizens, but to make them intelligent citizens, in the belief that if they have intelligence, they will be better citizens than they would otherwise.
HWH: Very, very well put.
I think that problem is going to get more severe before it gets better, because going back to what we said earlier of the minority influence on the College, some years ago blacks, who have increased in numbers particularly in the last ten years, tend to seek themselves, rather than mixing with other members of the College body, and thereby deprive both themselves and other students of the very advantage that they might offer.
BIXLER: Yes, I think that’s a very sad situation. One goes to the College today, not only Amherst but other colleges, and sees these minority groups associating with each other, and associating with each other, it seems at least to the outsider, in a way which suggests the adversary relationship-- flaunting their own ethnic qualities and so on. Of course, today we live in an age of fragmentation; we never knew the word ethnicity before the last few years, and so it’s a part of a trend which is just a terribly strong one-- and, as I say, it seems to me terribly sad. And when things go so far in that direction, as they did in Amherst last spring, why certainly the educational procedures are interfered with, certainly the college’s job as an educational institution is badly frustrated, so just from the practical point of view if no other, we simply can’t allow that to happen. I don’t know what the answer is-- how we’re going to prevent it from happening, but I would like to say this: I think that the concern these ethnic groups are showing for their own development, their own interests, their private interests, is part of a change in educational philosophy. But perhaps I can best explain it if I refer to a situation when I was a graduate student. It was when I was a graduate student, way back then, sixty years ago, that the distinction between subject-centered curriculum and student-centered curriculum began to be made. This was all under the influence of the progressive movement, and the progressive educators were saying, “Now, here we’ve had a subject-centered curriculum, which means you go and you teach Latin and Greek and so on, and we want a student-centered curriculum where you take account of the student’s response and where you recognize that it’s the student’s growth, the cultivation of the student’s abilities, that we’re really after.” Well, I always rebelled against that. I always thought the emphasis was dead wrong. Of course we’re interested in the student’s development, that’s the one thing we’re there for. If we say a college exists so that a professor can show off his own knowledge and make a great splash and so on, of course we make a horrible mistake. Our real concern, it’s just too obvious to say, is the development of the student. But do you accomplish the development of the student and the cultivation of the student’s interest in the best way by defining your aim in terms of a student-centered curriculum? I don’t think you do. I think you have to recognize that education is an indirect affair. You cultivate the student’s interests by directing the student toward other interests than his own interests which he doesn’t yet have. It’s all very well to say we want a student to learn what he likes. That isn’t the same as saying we want him to like what he learns. We simply aren’t justified in allowing the student to say, “I’m going to take what I like. I’m going to elect what I like.” It’s satisfying the whim of the moment. It’s not the student’s interests of the moment that we are supposed to cater to; it’s the interests he will have when, as a rational, mature individual, he has a greater understanding. And we can only give him that larger interest, that wider interest, by pointing to something outside himself. When we talk so much about a student-centered curriculum, we allow the student to feel that he is the center in an abnormal and unhealthy way. Of course, in one way he’s the center, naturally, nothing else could be the center of our education; but if he thinks that our aim is to cater to his interests of the moment, he is all wrong. I just could not understand, for example, what the Amherst faculty had in mind a few years ago by presenting the student with a curriculum where he had no requirements, as far as I could see, at all. He got through by choosing studies along the lines of his own interest. I even saw that some faculty members made the remark that they didn’t want to dictate to the students, that they were afraid of interfering with the unfolding of his own interests. Heavens and earth!! What were they talking about? What did they mean? Did they think that a freshman, eighteen years old, really knows what he ought to study as well as a faculty member, fifty years old, who’s spent his life working at these problems and familiarizing himself with the things that are important to the education of the world? It just seemed to me plain silly, and I’m awfully glad that the faculty has changed its mind and has said, “We are going to have requirements of this sort.” The requirements now seem to me very sensible.
Well, I started out to say, it seems to me that this emphasis that these ethnic groups are placing on their own concerns, their own private interests, their own exclusive ways of doing things, and their own inheritance from the past, while it’s understandable, of course-- all of us have this love for our ancestral traditions-- can nevertheless be a very great impediment to the kind of education we want to provide for them. And if there’s any remedy for this, it must be to pay less attention toward catering to the individual student or the individual ethnic group, and suggesting, rather, that there is a common body of knowledge which we are supposed to attain. There’s a common intellectual environment we must measure up to. And in doing that, we will find that our own idiosyncrasies and our own private and selfish and self-centered interests become less important to us, because we are introduced to a world far greater than any we had known.
HWH: Well said. What you just said reflects also an attitude among faculty which has changed, particularly, I would say, in the last ten or fifteen years, that is that they are more centered on their disciplines than they are on the institution-- which is as it should be, of course. But there was a time when practically the whole faculty felt that Amherst was first. We don’t lose many faculty members to other institutions, but I think many are tempted.
BIXLER: Well, you say, “This is as it should be,” and in one way it is as it should be. But in another way it seems to me we shouldn’t say that when a faculty member becomes involved in his own work and in his own discipline, he is necessarily turning his back on commitment to the institution. What bothers me, as an old man, so much, is that when I was much younger, I saw these institutions, like Amherst, commanding the interest, the loyalty, and the devotion of these brilliant faculty members who never thought of using the college as a stepping-stone to go somewhere else and who, as a matter of course, took it that this college, having chosen them, had a right to their complete loyalty and would receive, while they were active, all the devotion that they could give. Now I think, as you say, we just don’t find that today, and I think the tenure rule is partly responsible. I think this adversary relationship which has developed between the older and the younger faculty is a tragic thing. Now, of course, we have to have the tenure rule or something like it, but it surely is wreaking havoc now. And while we’re on this subject, I just have to say-- maybe we’ll want to erase this later-- but I have been so troubled by the brutality of the faculty toward the President. I think that is a very, very, tragic thing. I read the Amherst Student a week or two ago-- the first meeting or perhaps the second of the faculty after the new president came-- and I only got the Student report. I don’t know whether it was accurate, but here one member of the faculty stands up and says, “This agenda is silly-assed, it’s vapid.” And another says, “You’re a liar because you didn’t tell them so and so.” And another gets mad. Is that what faculties do nowadays? And do they do it at each institution as well as Amherst? I was just aghast! And how can one believe that the best interests of the institution are served when faculty conduct their business and have that kind of attitude? Here’s a new president-- isn’t it worse with a new president, even, than it would be with others? And this is the kind of greeting he gets. Why, now, as I say, Bud, we may perhaps want to erase all this, but I was awfully troubled.
HWH: I was, too. I’m told, I was not present, but I’m told that Julian Gibbs responded to this by commenting that in, I believe, his nineteen years at Brown, it may not have been that long-- he’d never heard such language used in a faculty meeting.
BIXLER: Is that so? Just think of it!
HWH: There’s another aspect of Trustee service, Seelye, which I think would bear inspection or discussion: that is service on Trustee Committees. You must have served on several at Amherst, and on committees elsewhere on other boards, too. Do you have any recollections of there being greater joy on some committees than others, or more accomplished?
BIXLER: For some reason I find it hard to reply to that. I can’t seem to remember very well. One committee I enjoyed serving on was the honorary degrees committee, and I was Chairman of that committee at Amherst for a while. But just as a comment, which may be significant or may not, it was when the faculty began to come in and began to demand this and that and the other, that I felt the work of the committee was just losing its power. Now again, I am faced with this dilemma in talking. I think I’ll talk freely and we can erase it, Bud, if that’s what we should do. But when I became a college president after teaching at Smith and teaching at Harvard-- I’d had 18 years of experience there-- I remember feeling, well, I’m a faculty member and I know faculty points of view, and I’m going to have trouble in understanding trustees. And I was all wrong. I found that good trustees were invaluable in their ways of approach to subjects having to do with the college; bad trustees were, of course, awful. But the thing that interested me was, that trustees, if they were good, so often seemed able to approach a question more directly, deal with it more quickly, than faculty members. Now again, I say this as a person who’s a faculty member himself, and some of my best friends are faculty members... [Laughter]
HWH: May I interrupt here?
[END OF SIDE ONE, TAPE ONE. BEGINNING OF SIDE TWO]
HWH: You had just finished saying that some of your best friends are faculty members.
BIXLER: Well, I remember when I went to Colby as president, one of the phrases often used was, “A faculty member doesn’t have to meet a payroll.” And I remember using that in a speech at the Bangor Rotary Club one time, saying how ridiculous this is-- you don’t have to be ready to meet a payroll in order to know how to deal with a subject, that’s a foolish way of judging a person. But you know, there’s something to it. I came to believe that, as I attended faculty meetings, there is so much wasted time and faculty members some times, alas, are irresponsible in the way they talk, and it may be because they don’t have to meet a payroll, because their talk can be irresponsible and there are no ill effects. Now again, I don’t want to be misunderstood, because the truly effective faculty member, I think, is one of God’s great creations. I think there is no kind of occupation, there is no kind of influence that’s superior to that. It’s a perfectly marvelous thing. But it has seemed to me that faculty, especially in recent years, have became surprisingly-- now when I say “faculty” I mean a few, perhaps many, but a few-- surprisingly unable to get the larger view of the institution and surprisingly quick in pressing their own particular causes. Now that brings me to a rather interesting thing I’d like to comment on.
I think that having boards-- trustee boards-- expanded, I think that forcing boards to include members of faculty, and even members of students, is a good thing, though this may seem to run counter to what I said first about the Amherst Board which was composed of these like-minded individuals who were somewhat the same age and didn’t include faculty or students or women. But however successful that was, we do face the fact now that boards are different, and different constituencies made up of different ways and represent different interests, and that being the case, I think that it’s well to have faculty representation and student representation. Now that’s going further, of course, than Amherst has, but I observed that at Colby and I think it works well. The thing that is apt to shock you at such a suggestion, of course, is, well you don’t want faculty there when you’re discussing salaries, you don’t want students there, for heaven’s sake, when you’re discussing lots of things. But the truth is, in the first place you can always go into executive session when salaries are concerned, and in the next place, if you can get responsible students, and, of course, responsible faculty, I think they’re surprisingly-- surprisingly at least to the critics of this point of view-- surprisingly able to get the larger view and to fit in with the purposes of the Trustee Board as a whole. I can’t take any credit for the changes that have come at Colby, though I did initiate measures which brought more faculty onto more committees and so on, but as I’ve watched the changes, I thought they were very salutary, that is, having two members of the faculty on the Board, without voting power perhaps-- I don’t think that matters too much, the faculty seemed perfectly willing to accept that condition-- that’s very valuable because it does two things: it makes clear the point of view of the faculty, it gives them some means for expression, and it introduces two members of the faculty this year, perhaps two more next year, perhaps two more next year, to some of the problems they seem surprisingly unaware of, and the same thing is true of students. So I am happy for the trend in this direction and I think it’s all to the good.
HWH: At the last meeting of the Alumni Council at Amherst a couple of weeks ago, maybe three weeks ago, there seemed to be an effort to have representation of trustees, alumni trustees, on a geographical basis. The West Coast particularly felt the need for representation. Do you have any feeling on this?
BIXLER: I was most interested to see that issue come up because it was a very live issue fifty or more years ago. I can remember Bill Avirett quite active in that cause, of wanting to have wider geographical distribution. Then, I had had the impression that it just was lost sight of and that perhaps communication was so rapid that it wasn’t necessary. But if people in California, for example, feel outside and feel that they ought to be represented, why I’m all for making that geographical, raising that geographical issue.
HWH: In your memory at the other institutions you’ve served as a Trustee, did they take that into account?
BIXLER: I can’t remember that that ever became an issue of importance at all. And I would say-- I can’t off-hand think of any situation where the geographical provenance of the board member made a bit of difference. But if, as I say, if these people in a certain district feel that they should be represented, why I’d like to have them.
HWH: There have been very few from the West Coast. Harrison Fuller was one. Another trustee who was named geographically was Wills Engle from St. Louis.
BIXLER: I just saw Wills at this... Yes, I was glad to see Wills.
HWH: Yes, and both of them were write-in candidates, as Alumni Trustees.
BIXLER: Were they really?
HWH: I tend to agree with you, though, that if it makes a big difference to an area, by all means study it and perhaps nominate all three candidates from that area during a given year. But like you, I feel that where a man lives really has little to do with his ability to serve the College as a Trustee.
BIXLER: You know this question of what the qualifications are for a trustee and so on brings up once more-- you reminded me quite rightly of Walter Gellhorn who was so very, very valuable, and it makes me think again that a good academic trustee, I do think, is a fine thing to have. Now as I said before, Phil Coombs-- I think he was an excellent trustee, and there was one... I can’t remember. I must say I have doubts about whether a college president should be on another board, and, of course, that’s a terrible thing for me to say, because I was on three boards aside from Colby. But I do think there can be divided loyalty, and, of course, a good trustee finds the job so exacting and so completely demanding, that there ought not to be any question, it seems to me. Now as soon as I’ve said that, I begin to question myself and ask what kind of issue would the loyalty be divided on, and it’s a little hard to answer that question. Yet, I still feel a kind of shadow there, there’s a suggestion. There might be occasions when you wouldn’t be completely forthcoming, when you wouldn’t be completely able to serve this institution when your first loyalty, after all, was with another.
HWH: I would think that would occur most in an economic sense.
BIXLER: Yes, I think that’s true.
HWH: Did being a trustee of four institutions simultaneously take a lot of your time?
BIXLER: Well, perhaps I should say it should have rather than it did. For instance, the Radcliffe Board didn’t take any time at all. I think it probably should have taken more; I used to go to meetings, but I never was on important committees and I didn’t take time. But Smith, to some extent. You asked about committees. I can’t remember any particularly significant committee work that I was connected with. I think one of the most important issues that came up while I was on the Amherst Board was the question of the fraternity property, and I used to marvel at those lawyers as they talked. I was silent because I just didn’t know. But they put in a lot of time on that, and the Board put in a lot of time on it, and the Board really acted as one big committee. You know that brings up one personal matter which is a sort of confession. I was thinking about it the other day. My attitude toward fraternities has been so sort of ambivalent. My own choices, experiences in college, are connected with my fraternity life in Alpha Delta Phi. I was with this marvelous group of boys, not only my own delegation with Stu Rider and Homer Lane and Bud Whetstone and Lew Douglas and Bill Avirett and Chuck Weeden and the two marvelous boys who died in the first war, Tom Ashley and Bob Gillett. Now you may not believe it, but I think about those last two every day, every day-- usually at night when I go to bed. Just think of the fact that those boys died in 1918, had nothing of this world that the rest of us have had! Well, that was the kind of delegation. Then in 1915, Doc Agard, a dear friend of mine, and Johnny Gaus and Ted Cross and Ack Robinson and Tuffy Cutler and Senator Ralston and all the rest of them. Then Beanie Greene in ‘14 and Ted Greene and Frank Babbott and Jack Coates and Harry Wilder and the rest in ‘13. Well, what an environment, Bud! What else could you do but bask in the light of the affection that that group had. But, of course, I always had a guilty conscience about it. I think, as a matter of fact, I talked about this to Al Guest so I’m afraid I’m repeating here. But just before stopping this subject, may I just say it was dramatized for us initiation night. We’d go out and we’d sing, sing our hearts out. The Gammys would sing next door and the D.U.s would sing across the common and the Betas would sing. But what about the non-fraternity boys up in the dormitory? That was the awful, awful thing about it, and it bothers me. Well, I started to say, when I began to get on committees and so on, before I came on the Board, I was on that committee that had as over-all chairman Charlie Cole.
HWH: Yes it was the Alumni Council Committee. It issued a report called “Amherst Tomorrow.”
BIXLER: That’s right. And I was chairman of a sub-committee, I think it was on religion. Anyway, all of us who were on the committee had to vote on the fraternity issue and what was to be done. Well, it came down to quite a close vote, I remember, and I didn’t know how to vote because I was so bothered by the fact that it seemed to me the exclusiveness of the fraternity system was a bad thing. At the same time, I’d had this marvelous experience myself, but the thing that finally decided my vote was: If I vote for the abolition of fraternities, what would I put in their place? It seemed to me I didn’t have any responsible answer to that, especially economically speaking. Where would you house these young fellows? Are you prepared to go out and get a whole new housing system? Well, on that basis I voted to retain fraternities and I think my vote was the decisive one. I think that’s right. And I’ve always wondered since: “Well now, you didn’t really vote your convictions there; you allowed economics to influence you.” And yet there was also that feeling: “Can I confront the College with this issue, when I haven’t got any practical solution for it?” So that’s been a bit of a troublesome memory for me ever since.
HWH: I think the decision to keep fraternities after the war-- most of them had been closed or were housing military groups during the war-- was done well in the case of Amherst, because the Trustees were again, I believe, the first in the country to insist that there be no bars to membership such as the one that bothered you as a student based on race or color.
BIXLER: I’ve always wondered about that because the College had 100% rushing for a while, didn’t it?
HWH: Yes it did.
BIXLER: Now that sounded as though it ought to be an ideal solution, but apparently it wasn’t.
HWH: I think the growing problem of how to treat women, whether to have them as fellow-students or as occasional or regular visitors from other colleges, had much to do with de-railing the course the fraternities were going on.
BIXLER: Is that so?
HWH: So that they became very irresponsible. I had much the same experience as you as a student. I tried hard for two and a half years to get a good friend of mine into the fraternity who was Jewish. I finally persuaded the house to do so, went back to him, and he quite naturally declined. He said, “If I wasn’t good enough two and a half years ago, how have I changed?” And of course he hadn’t at all.
BIXLER: I was so interested in this new agitation for coeducational fraternities, and Julian Gibbs was saying that the girls look at the Psi U house, with its beautiful white pillars and extensive brick structure, and they say, this is for men and we aren’t given anything comparable at all. Well, in a way, that expresses the nub of the problem, doesn’t it? The girls claim that they are only there on sufferance and in a way they are. The College was a different kind of college and, of course, it takes time to adapt to these new situations.
HWH: Right now, I believe half the fraternities have women as members and the other half don’t.
BIXLER: And I can see Gibbs’s point that from the point of view of housing, if nothing else, they’ve got to be coeducational. But my goodness! For an old man like me, what a wrench that is to think that Alpha Delta Phi is coeducational. Why Bud-- it’s unthinkable!
HWH: Given your experience, I heartily agree.
BIXLER: May I just reminisce again, and I may be simply repeating what I said to Al, but if so we can easily eliminate this. Tuesday night-- always a wonderful time-- we took Goat seriously and we had excellent literary exercises, and then when they were over-- they took an hour and a half or two hours-- we’d march down to the first floor and have our sandwiches and milk, and as I think I may have said before, I’m afraid I’m repeating myself, we never wanted alcohol. It never occurred to us. A sandwich and milk-- what more could you want than that? And of course, studying for me was out of the question from then on. We had bull sessions and all; that was the high point of the week for me, always. I never shall forget that.
HWH: I think you said, too, no one was ever absent.
BIXLER: Yes, yes. Oh, there was the strictest law about that, not that anybody was threatened with a penalty, but you just took it for granted that this was the situation, and we always had dark suits, dark shoes and black socks.
HWH: You said over the phone, Seelye, that you had a song, a medley of 1882.
BIXLER: Well we did! Oh my goodness! Shall I sing a song for you? Really?
HWH: That would be great!
BIXLER: Well, well, well. Now I haven’t written this out so I may stumble over it. But you know when my father was here in Jaffrey, you see my father was Class of ‘82 and Fred Greene, Beanie and Ted Greene’s father, was ‘82 and Charles Mills was ‘82 and Lucius Thayer, who was my wife’s uncle, but who was over here in Dublin-- they were all Congregational ministers and all the Class of ‘82. They used to congregate here in Jaffrey and we would always go up the mountain and we’d sing this old Amherst medley. I’ve never heard anybody sing this, so I don’t believe they know it, and of course it wasn’t in the old Amherst Song Book that Jimmy Hamilton got out (‘06), so shall I sing it? [laughing and radiating enthusiasm]
HWH: I’d love to hear it.
BIXLER: Well now eighty-five-year-old cracked voice:
It’s a way we have at old Amherst,
It’s a way we have at old Amherst,
It’s a way we have at old Amherst
To drive dull care away.
And away! and away!
For I can’t wait any longer,
And away! and away!
For I’m going home,
And a little more mathematics,
A little more Latin, too,
A little more Greek five times a week,
And then tonight we’ll merry, merry be,
Then tonight we’ll merry merry be,
Tomorrow we’ll get sober.
Landlord fill your flowing bowl
Until it doth run over,
For the Dutch Company is the best company,
For the Dutch Company is the best company,
Forth Battalion, ‘tallion forth, Battalion, ‘talion forth, Battalion!
Way down on the old plantation,
That’s where I was born.
I used to see the whole creation,
Hoeing in the corn.
‘Twas there I live, ‘twas there I played
So happy all the day, ‘til Angelina Baker came
And thus began to say:
Lauriger Horatius, quam disisti verum,
Tant fugit, Eurocitius, tempus edax rerum
As I was going down Newgate stairs,
I heard those two thieves say their prayers—
Rum Skum diddley hum, rum tum tuttle la ta ta tum.
First time I saw, the second time I say,
Rum scum biddle-um, b-a-bay, b-e-be, b-i by, baby bye.
R-O ro, Ra, re, ri, ro--lling,
Reeling, rolling, reeling, rolling home, boys,
Rolling, reeling, rolling, reeling rolling home, boys,
And happy is the maid that shall greet us
As we come- ring-ring, ring the banjo,
I love that good old song
Where you been my true love, oh where you been so long?
Ring, ring, ring the banjo, I love that good old song,
For once I was a sophomore, But now I’m off the blue Canary Isles,
One glorious summer day, I sat upon the quarterdeck
And breathed my cares away.
And as the volume of smoke arose, like incense in the air,
I breathed a sigh to think in sooth
That a grasshopper sat upon a sweet potato vine,
On a sweet potato vine, on a sweet potato vine
Turkeye gobbler came along behind, And yanked him into the
Old Oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,
The moss-covered bucket that hung in the well.
Three crows sat on the tree
And they were black as crows could be,
Said one old crow unto his mate, Billy McGee, McGaw,
Said one old crow unto his mate, Billy McGee, McGaw,
Said one old crow unto his mate,
What shall we do for bread to eat?
And they all flapped their wings and cried:
Why do we sing these songs, Why do we sing these songs?
It’s a way we have at old Amherst,
It’s a way we have at old Amherst,
It’s a way we have at old Amherst
To drive dull care away!
[Laughing and clapping]
HWH: That is great! How on earth can you remember all that?
BIXLER: Well I don’t know, but as a child, you see, it’s a childhood memory.
HWH: I recognized a number of them from... You remember Jimmy Russell of the Class of about ‘95?
BIXLER: I’m afraid not.
HWH: Well, he had a son Sherm Russell who was ‘32 originally, graduated later. They were an encyclopedia of Amherst songs and I recognized some of those from them. You know that’s great!
BIXLER: One more. Not a medley. This is shorter, but it is one we always used to sing.
My name is Sam Johnson, a pedlar am I,
I sell charcoal cheap to whoever will buy.
To Amherst fair town I drive many a time
And what I saw there I will tell you in rhyme.
Gee, whoa, Dobbin, drive on your wagon,
Gee, whoa, Dobbin, Gee Dobbin, Gee Whoaooo, (repeat these 2 lines)
One evening when loudly the fire bells rang,
They called forth the boys of the East College gang.
The funniest thing happened that ever was seen,
A soph was arrested for throwing a bean.
Gee, whoa, Dobbin (and so on).
To the justice they took him, while many folks swore
He’d thrown away apples and beans by the score,
While the innocent townies were left to go free
To drink up the cider of Mickey McGee.
Gee, whoa, Dobbin, etc.
I left out the second verse.
The fire department of that mighty town
Consists of one hose-cart and that broken down,
The Lafeyette, cataract, rescue relief
Is martialled and run by the town’s mighty chief.
Gee, whoa, Dobbin etc.
HWH: I marvel, though, that you can remember those.
BIXLER: Well as I say, childhood memories.
HWH: Seelye, you were President of a college about as long as you were a teacher. Did you have any preference for either job?
BIXLER: Well I’m a teacher. Teacher born and teacher bred, and when I’m gone there’s a teacher dead, or whatever it is. When I’m gone, there’s a teacher dead. And you see in these last nineteen years since retirement, I’ve done a lot of teaching-- shows what my real interest is. I’ve taught at Wesleyan, Bowdoin, Carleton, University of Maine, University of Hawaii, and then, of course, I’ve lectured in Japan, Taiwan, Beirut, Wales, Germany, New Zealand, and so it’s that kind of association that I really love. The college presidency is a strange, strange job. I never would be equal to it now, I’m sure. I think that it must be, for those men who are brave enough to take it on now, must have many, many, many distressing experiences. I found that in my day, the distressing experiences were outweighed by the very pleasant ones, and of course I thought of it, when I went to become a college president, as kind of continuing the teaching job. I’d had eighteen years in the classroom, nine years at Smith and nine years at Harvard. And I thought, well, this is teaching in a little different environment-- the trustees, alumni and faculty and students. I don’t mean I set myself up as their teacher, but simply I had certain ideas I was glad to try to communicate and get their response to, much as in the classroom procedure itself, as one does there. So, also, I was very lucky in going to Colby at the particular time I did when I was associated with a wonderful team. They were bound that Colby should go ahead. It was faced with that terrific challenge, of course. I never would have gone if I’d known the War was going to come on a few months later, but I went there when it had just a few brick shells out on Mayflower Hill and we couldn’t do anything during the war. And then afterward we were able to get started. But, as I say, there were some very loyal people, especially Neil Leonard, who was chairman of the board for most of the time that I was there. He was a marvelous help. Also, I would just like to make this point if I may-- it was more fun being president of Colby than some other places, because Colby had an objective, it had a place to go to, it had to complete the new campus, and it would have the joy of feeling the difference in the educational atmosphere when the new campus was completed. It wasn’t a place where you had to sit down and determine what’s the next step; you knew what the next step was.
HWH: That was an enormous undertaking though, moving physically from...
BIXLER: And it was my marvelous predecessor who had the vision, you see.
HWH: Was that Johnson?
BIXLER: That was Frank Johnson. When I went back to the inauguration of Carter, a month ago, at Colby, I couldn’t resist saying that my overpowering wish was that Frank Johnson could be there to see that, because for so long that campus simply existed in his imagination and nowhere else. May I tell the joke that I told then?
HWH: Please do.
BIXLER: This is Colby rather than-- well no, this may apply to Amherst, too. Anyway, some friends of ours from Jaffrey were up at Mayflower Hill a year ago and a sophomore girl guide took them around, and when they came to the Art-Music Building, these people said, “Well we know the man for whom this building was named. He’s a neighbor of ours in Jaffrey.” And the girl said, “Oooh, is that possible? I thought he’d died years ago!” And I said, she should have known “Old Prexys never die, they simply lose their faculties.”
HWH: I’ve never heard that. Well that, as I said a moment ago, was an enormous undertaking. Do you think it could be done today?
BIXLER: I don’t think it would be any different today from what it was then, really.
HWH: Just different difficulties.
BIXLER: Yes, just different difficulties. And you see the, everything was against the college psychologically, Dear Frank Johnson had his first money-raising meeting in Boston the night of the Bank Holiday-- the banks were all closed the next day and so the most inauspicious start that could possibly have been. They hired Marts and Lundy as a money-raising firm and for years they didn’t make enough to pay the fee of the money-raiser.
IIWH: Oh, that was Joe...
BIXLER: Joe Smith.
HWH: Joe Smith.
BIXLER: Joe Smith was first an employee of the college-- I mean he was, oh I can’t remember, anyway he was official photographer-- oh he was public relations man, that’s what he was. Then afterward he went with Marts and Lundy as a vice-president. But Joe Smith was with the college at first when Marts and Lundy was hired, and then Marts and Lundy sent its man, Allan Lightner, who was called Assistant to the President, and he stayed with the college the rest of his life. He was there about fifteen years and just doing money-raising.
HWH: I believe Dick Dyer came in...
BIXLER: Dick Dyer came in early in my regime and he has been absolutely invaluable. And he thinks very highly of you, Bud, and he often talks to me about how much you’ve done for Amherst, and I think so, too...
HWH: It’s reciprocal.
I had the good fortune to come to know Bob Strider fairly well, too. I always thought very highly of him.
BIXLER: Well, he has done a perfectly magnificent job and, of course, what I admire him for especially is that he stuck it out in the awful ‘sixties, when they had those terrible times. It took a lot of courage to do that. Then he really showed himself to the manor born, his instincts were all for that kind of job, he fitted in so well, understood the types of things to do, and the college has gone ahead by leaps and bounds.
HWH: Well he was unfairly maligned, it seemed to me, quite recently, just before he retired. Those miserable articles in the Boston Globe.
BIXLER: Oh yes. That Boston Globe article. I don’t know what in the world got into that woman, whoever she was. That was a strange, strange thing. But then there have been lots of articles since that have praised him very highly, so I think that he hasn’t come out so badly.
HWH: A fine man. Colby, I believe, was always coeducational.
BIXLER: Yes, or at least since 1870.
HWH: Were you pleased to see Amherst take that path? Or did you have a different feeling?
BIXLER: Well, Bud, it took me a long time to be reconciled to it and the thing that did it was I had a long talk with Ted Greene, Professor of American Studies, and he had chaired the Committee which went around to visit Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, and Yale, I guess-- various places which had gone coeducational. They had talked with the Amherst men on the faculties, and according to Ted’s account, the Amherst men had said, this place is greatly improved by coeducation. And I thought, well, if you have Amherst men who know the College and have that kind of experience, and if they are able to say improvement has come, why I think that’s convincing. I’d always felt, as so many other people felt, I think, that in the Five-College situation, with all the girls everywhere, it was just a mistake to say you’ve got to have girls here taking part in this particular way. I used to talk that way to Mike, my grandson, and he said, “No, you’re all wrong,” of course. And Ted Greene said you’re wrong, and Ted put it on this basis, he said that we pride ourselves at Amherst in having this individual relationship with the student-- the faculty and student know each other and the faculty member knows his students as individuals. Now the girls come in; it’s true we have them from Smith and Mount Holyoke, but it isn’t the same thing. They come late and they go early and they aren’t here when you want to have a conference, and so on. So the teaching situation is not good. I could see there was a point there, but I do think there are severe growing pains, at least as an outsider going back to the College.
HWH: Williams, Wesleyan, Bowdoin, Trinity all enlarged significantly after going coeducational. Do you think Amherst should?
BIXLER: I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t know enough to say. I don’t know what the facts are, Bud.
HWH: The Athletic Department, of course, thinks it should. But if Amherst wins tomorrow, Jim Ostendarp is going to have to eat crow.
HWH: He says Williams has gotten so many more men-- where Amherst has stayed smaller, it has fewer men now than it once had-- that Williams has an advantage on the football field.
BIXLER: When I was at Amherst two weeks ago-- was it the Inauguration?-- Jim Ostendarp came up and spoke to me and he told me about going to the Albert Schweitzer Friendship House in Great Barrington and how he had gotten this bust of Albert Schweitzer. I was very much interested because of course the point-- there is my portrait of Schweitzer right up there. My great idol. I was so interested that Ostendarp has this feeling for him.
HWH: I didn’t know that. Seelye, I don’t want to go on before your patience...
BIXLER: Oh my patience is fine, and I suppose the more we have the more easy it is to erase, and I think there’ll be a lot of erasing that has to be done.
HWH: I don’t. I don’t think so. When you were a student at Amherst, did you study a science of any kind-- biology or physics?
BIXLER; Yes I took three science courses. We had to take two. I took Biology as a freshman and chemistry as a sophomore, and then I took physics as a junior. And I just wrote today to my grandson, who’s a freshman at Dartmouth, and he has done very well in physics, and I couldn’t help remarking, “the physics you’re studying is so different from the physics I studied”-- just a whole new world. And I quoted William Whewell, the physicist in England in 1860, who made the remark, “the great discoveries in physics are all behind us now. Just a matter of mopping up and systematizing.”
HWH: I asked that question because I have chatted with a number of members of chemistry, physics, biology departments. It strikes me that it’s a whole different field, a whole different approach, even. I think John Mason Tyler, for example, as a biologist whom you probably knew...
BIXLER: Yes. I had him.
HWH: ...was as much interested in extending the Word of God as he was the creation of God.
BIXLER: Yes and no. Tyler was certainly an Evangelist in his way, yes. And they tell a wonderful story-- of course I knew Tyler very well because he was a great friend of the family-- he was suigeneris, there was no one really quite like him. He had started out, I think, to be a minister and he went down to Union Seminary-- do you know this story? He wrote back to his father, Henry Seymour Tyler, saying, “Here at Union Seminary they say Socrates is in Hell.” And his father wrote, “You take the next train home. Don’t stay down there!” And in effect I think it happened that he went to Germany and studied Biology. But he didn’t preach in class, especially, I think. I don’t really think one could describe his classes that way. I did badly in all the sciences, but I’m ashamed as I think back on it. I really could have done a better job. But I can remember Tip Tyler lecturing-- they were scientific lectures as I understood them-- talking about the details of these biological developments and so on. He was himself, as I say, and nobody else, and I can remember once his laying his head on his hands-- his hands on the table and head in his hands-- and groaning, we were all so dumb. He had very good assistants-- Mudpuppy Loomis and then Hal Plough (he was a senior when I was a freshman) was beginning to assist in the laboratory and what not. Hal, I guess, is a very outstanding biologist.
HWH: I think he is. He had a book published, you know, less than a year ago.
BIXLER: Did he? Think of it.
HWH: On a low form of life on the edge of the water-- marine life.
BIXLER: Well, I remember talking to Talcott Parsons-- you know who he was. Of course, he was eminent as a sociologist and he became president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I used to know him. He was buried right here in Jaffrey, last summer, as a matter of fact.
HWH: Is that so?
BIXLER: Because his father, Edward S. Parsons of the Class of ‘83, joined those men of ‘82 here in Jaffrey and had my aunt’s cottage for a while and then built his own house over here in Jaffrey.
HWH: I passed Parsons Road, off Jaffrey Road-- maybe it was Pierson.
BIXLER: I don’t think it’s the same family. I doubt if it is. But Talcott said that his undergraduate instruction at Amherst from Plough was out of the ordinary. I said, “Glaser, too?,” and he said, “Yes, but Plough especially.”
HWH: I raised that only because now the College has such extensive scientific equipment and facilities. Harold Plough seemed to feel that he got an adequate background for graduate study. It struck me that Professor Tyler particularly would tend to find explanations for certain biological facts in the good works of the Lord.
BIXLER: Yes, I think that’s probably true. Did I tell the story before about Julius Eggleston? Well, that illustrates just what you were saying but it does it in kind of a humorous way.
Julius Eggleston was the Class of ‘98, I think. We knew him as a friend in New London and he used to tell us this story of one of his classes-- one of Tip Tyler’s classes. Julius went to the board and drew this bug, and he put in a few extra flourishes. Tip came up and looked at it and he said, “Well now Brother Eggleston (they were both Psi Us) that’s a very fine bug, but supposing you draw it the way the Lord Almighty made it and not the way you think it ought to be.” [Laughter]
HWH: I did have one question here, Seelye, that you may wish to not answer. If you could try to put it succinctly, what would you say are Amherst’s strengths and what are its weaknesses?
BIXLER: Well, first of all, the strength is the small college. I’m a great believer in what the small college can do and I think that is the thing we must emphasize in this coming campaign. The small colleges are a very, very expensive luxury-- it’s going to be awfully hard to keep them going, but we must do it.
BIXLER: Well, because the small college can take a student in these days of confusion, and heaven knows we are confused, intellectually we’re confused. J.B.S. Haldane, the biologist, saying, “We know now that the world is queerer not only than we suppose but than we can suppose.” There are obstacles between our organs of knowledge and the world. We can’t any more observe as we thought we could, because we know that light interferes with our observation of the components of light and we can’t think as accurately as we thought. The mathematicians are telling us that certainty is an illegitimate conception in certain mathematical fields where we thought that we had certainty. And so our processes of observation and thought just aren’t adequate to meet this mystery. I think so often of that view that we got from the astronauts, the spaceship looking back at the earth-- amazing mystery. Pascal said, “The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” Well it terrifies us today. Even more, I think we just don’t know-- and all this talk about quarks and quasars and black holes and whatnot. Well now in a day like that, to say nothing of the atomic bomb and its threat to us, shouldn’t we provide the student with the kind of companionship and the kind of definite community of purpose that a small college can give? I see these students going to a big college and looking at the intellectual offerings they have. Of course they’re confused. They don’t know whether to take this or that or the other, but a small college, it seems to me, can say, “This is what we stand for.” That’s why I have no sympathy with the faculty saying, “Choose what you want.” We ought to present the student with this as representing the college’s point of view. It doesn’t mean that you’ve got to hold to this point of view either intellectually or emotionally all through life; it means you start here and you can go on and criticize it as you please, and we expect you to criticize it, but we aren’t just opening the whole field to you with no priorities, no distinctive marks at all. Now, the College seems to me to do that through its curriculum and also through its community. I think the small college can be aroused to a sense of its own mission as a large college can’t. And I think that we need that sense of mission in our educational work. I think that what we do as thinkers is tremendously affected by that, and to come back once more to Meiklejohn, that was his great contribution. He could make students feel this demanding purpose and, as I think I said before, it was especially important in his time because the College was losing the Calvinistic sense of mission and it needed something else and Meiklejohn was able to provide that. Now, it’s going to be hard, of course, in our day of pluralism and vagueness and lack of direction to provide it, but it must be done. And I am sure that can be done in a small college community as it can’t in a larger institution.
[END OF SIDE TWO
Final draft completed January 1980]
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Oral history interview with J. Seelye Bixler, 1979 November 9, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 5), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/seelye-bixler-1979>
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