Wright: A Scholar as President
Benjamin Fletcher Wright, a redheaded Texan with an easy smile and casual manner, had spent more than half of his life at Harvard when he agreed, in 1949, to make the move to Northampton to become the fifth president (all of them have been males) of Smith College.
Wright left behind him a brilliant record at Harvard as a professor of Government for 23 years and chairman of the Department from 1942 to 1946. Wright was also one of the framers of the report, General Education in a Free Society, and first chairman of the Committee on General Education established in 1946 to translate the recommendations of the report into an effective curriculum.
At the end of this academic year, Wright will step down from the presidency of Smith. The identity of his successor--it will probably be a man--is a jealously guarded secret.
Asked why he is resigning, Wright gives a forthright reply. Smith plans to open a large-scale fund raising campaign soon and at 58, Wright considers, "I have about seven or eight productive years ahead of me.... I don't want to devote my next seven or eight years to money-raising."
Rather than press Smith's more than 30,000 alumnae for funds, Wright looks forward to resuming the work of scholarship. He points, however, to the success of his administration in wiping out Smith's deficit and tripling the endowment, and maintains that "I've done my share in money-raising."
But just as plain as this success is Wright's eagerness to return to creative research. "I've been involved in administrative work since 1942," he notes. "Now I want to get back to the business of writing books." Wright will have this opportunity next year as the recipient of a grant to study at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, California.
What is he going to write about? His previous works, American Interpretations of Natural Law and The Growth of American Constitutional Law, are a clue to the tenor of Wright's thinking. And he was one of the first to explode the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis on the impact of the frontier on American history.
But the next book will be more ambitious in scope: an interpretative study of American thought considered within an historical framework, and relying on literary, economic, social, and political history as well as constitutional thought.
In looking back over his ten-year administration at Smith, Wright reveals his bias in favor of scholarship, noting with the greatest satisfaction his extremely active role in attempting to bolster the College faculty. In the quest for the "ablest young people... we could find," Wright personally interviewed all prospective faculty members, always "trying to size people up--trying to determine whether they would make good teachers or not."
The upshot of these efforts is that today, Wright insists, the Smith faculty is, excluding Radcliffe, "either first or right among the top group of all the women's colleges. In the four major departments [English, Art, History, and Government] it stands right at the top."
Wright's emphasis on the academic is also reflected in the doubling of the numbers of honors candidates since 1950. And not least important, he has brought a little of Harvard to Northampton by instituting "interdepartmental" courses, the content and approach of which cut across traditional departmental lines. The interdepartmental courses have their analogy here in the upper-level General Education courses.
Two careers in education behind him, Benjamin Wright prepares to begin his third. In so doing, he will be completing his own personal westward government that began with the migration from Cambridge to Northampton almost ten years ago. From scholarship to administration and back to scholarship again. Westward the course of empire.
Students of American civilization and friends of Professor Wright will be looking forward to that big book.