December 19, 2014



When then-Professor of American Studies John William Ward was named president of Amherst College in 1971, he inherited an institution alight with many of the controversies that the country was experiencing: Protests against the war in Vietnam and demands for racial and gender equality were roiling the student body and challenging core College practices.  

What set Ward apart from other college presidents at that time was “how much he understood and shared many of the views of those who wanted American society to change, especially the views of the younger generation, the students,” says Kim Townsend, Class of 1959 Professor of English Emeritus, who has served on the faculty for 52 years. “He wanted American society to be more inclusive, egalitarian—in a word, more democratic; he wanted an Amherst education to inspire students to work toward that goal and insofar as it was possible, to have Amherst itself be such a place.”

Townsend has written the first-ever biography of a president who led the College through this tumultuous time. John William Ward: An American Idealist, published by Amherst this fall, explores the roots of Ward’s profound idealism, his presidency and his later success in Massachusetts politics.

The book begins with Ward’s time as a student at the Boston Latin School, and features a detailed account of his scholarly work on Andrew Jackson.  But the heart of it is a comprehensive evaluation of his time at Amherst.

President from 1971 to 1979, Ward presided over the College’s transition to coeducation, worked to support African-American students in their fight for equality and justice, and was arrested for civil disobedience in protest against the Vietnam War. Then, after being defeated in ugly battles with the faculty, Ward resigned—only to go on to great success in the rougher world of Massachusetts politics. Townsend writes, “ “[I]dealist that he was, every time he fell back, every time the stone rolled back, he righted himself and tried to push it not just back up but to new heights.”


Kim Townsend, Class of 1959 Professor of English Emeritus

In state government, Ward made headlines for his leadership of a commission that spent more than two and a half years investigating corruption in the awarding of building contracts, resulting in the passage of laws that guaranteed reforms and saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

Townsend’s book is the first complete study of Ward, and sheds light on a critical period in Amherst College’s history, and, more broadly, on higher education and American culture.

 “He embodied, in word and deed, the hope that was so strong between the mid-’60s and the mid-’70s that America could be a truly democratic society,” Townsend concludes. “Considering what has happened to those hopes since—the enormous gap between rich and poor, the polarization of the citizenry and its political leaders that seems to wipe out the possibility or a common good—we must admire him the more.”

To order a copy of John William Ward: An American Idealist ($29.95 plus $3.75 shipping and handling), send a check—payable to the Trustees of Amherst College—to Katherine Duke '05 in the Amherst College Office of Communications, AC #2202, Amherst, MA 01002-5000.

Browse our complete list of books about Amherst College, all available for purchase.