Henry Merritt Wriston (1889-1978)

At Brown (1937-1955)

President of Brown University

Education Activist

Foreign Policy Expert



Family Man


President of Brown University

In October 1936, the Brown Corporation elected Wriston to succeed the late President Clarence Augustus Barbour as the eleventh president of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Hundreds of graduates and members of the faculty attending an alumni dinner unanimously expressed their confidence in Wriston upon hearing the announcement. He began his tenure there on February 1, 1937.

Wriston's election represented a sharp break from previous Brown presidents. He was the first non-Baptist in the history of Brown (Wriston was Methodist), the first non-clergyman in a long time, the first strictly professional educator, and the first non-graduate in over a century. These groundbreaking differences signaled the Corporation's commitment to fostering significant changes in the University, and Wriston eagerly accepted the challenge.

The state of American society and the world during Wriston's presidency had a great impact upon his leadership. He began his tenure during the Depression, continued during World War II, and ended amidst post-war recoveries. Wriston's eighteen years at the university marked a time of great transformation at Brown. He focused on changes to the curriculum, student life, and architectural improvements on campus. In addition, Wriston eliminated all denominational requirements from the university's Charter and restructured student housing by integrating fraternities and dormitories. As he did at Lawrence, Wriston instilled new life into the institution and dedicated his efforts to strengthening liberal education. He continually sought to bring more distinguished professors, attract more qualified students, and create a more appropriate individualized curriculum at Brown. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. proclaimed Wriston a "wise, able and fearless leader."

At one opening convocation, Wriston proclaimed the liberal ideal he carried with him since his days at Wesleyan: "Let me summarize my wish, my annual, my perpetual wish. Do not now fix your eyes on graduation. Fix your eyes on today and get the most out of today. Do not believe that life will ever be more exciting than it is now, or more important, or more rewarding or more anything else."

Brown University transformed from a small Baptist school to one of America's most prestigious under the leadership of Wriston. Although Wriston was neither Baptist nor a clergyman, he had grown up in a Methodist minister's household and maintained a steadfast faith throughout his life and his career. In a speech at Brown he said: "College is a place to grow up; to learn from books; to improve the mind; to acquire a modicum of social grace. But it is all wasted if you do not grow up morally; if you do not acquire, among other things, the moral courage to take some position and stand on it."

In 1942, Wriston seriously began his efforts to overthrow the denominational restrictions in the university's Charter. He believed the requirements did not accurately reflect the alumni and the future of the institution in the twentieth century. Wriston summarized his desire for qualities in trustees as: "work, wealth, and wisdom, preferably all three, but at least two of the three." [Academic Procession, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.]

Wriston continually made changes to the curriculum at Brown during his tenure. Just one month after his inauguration, Wriston introduced a revised liberal arts curriculum that had been proposed by the administration and faculty before his term began. Two years later, the new president proposed an original program that required students to take at least one course in four of five groups of studies: the physical sciences, biological sciences, literature and other arts, mathematics, philosophy. The following year, Wriston introduced his controversial "Four Course Plan" designed to further increase student initiative and develop individual ability, while providing greater flexibility in selecting courses in accordance with individual students' needs and interests. It embodied Wriston's desire for individualized education. Wriston amended the liberal arts curriculum again in 1946 with an overall purpose to enable students to gain a clear view of the modern world and develop the individual student to his fullest capacities.

Wriston not only transformed the curriculum at Brown to focus on liberal arts, but he also aimed to improve the quality of students and relinquish the university's growing reputation as a haven for rejects from Yale and Harvard. Wriston made a bold move that improved both the university's image and the student body—he told the Admissions Office to reject any student who did not list Brown as his first choice or who had been denied admission elsewhere. In addition, he began to require the College Entrance Examination Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in 1937, while most schools were recruiting rather than selecting students.

To Wriston, the quality of an institution can be best measured in the strength of the faculty, and just as he did at Lawrence, Wriston sought to improve the professors at Brown during his tenure. His devotion to college libraries, which began while at Wesleyan, also inspired many changes in Brown's collection. For example, Wriston replaced the small cage that was used to distribute books to students and installed an open circulation counter in the library. Students soon called it: "Hank's bar, the longest in town." [Academic Procession, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.]

Wriston's time at Brown brought many buildings and renovations to campus and he took great pride in the architecture of the campus. New constructions included: a chemical research laboratory, an infirmary and complete student health center, a faculty club and faculty house, and the Brown Boat Club. In addition, the following buildings were renovated and restored: Rogers Hall, Maxcy Hall, University Hall, and a new wing for the John Hay Library. A new refectory and quadrangle units, designed by Thomas Mott Shaw, were dedicated as the Wriston Quadrangle on June 1, 1952 and allowed the president to impart his architectural imprint on Brown.

The Wriston Quadrangle came after what is considered the bitterest fight of his entire career and marked his presidency in the memories of many Brown alumni decades later. Wriston fought to bring the fraternity system under closer supervision by fully integrating them into the dormitory system. Wriston believed, "Either abolish the fraternities or take steps so that they may be free of the burden of debt and so that their physical condition will make them suitable residences for students in an old and distinguished institution. If there are social, moral, and intellectual benefits from this type of organization, we should put ourselves in a position to explicit them, if there are no such benefits, we should rid ourselves of what must, under those circumstances, be regarded as an incubus." ["President's Report"] In 1943, many chapters were in dire financial condition and to help the brothers maintain their status, the university administration offered aid. Later that year, Wriston proposed the following to the fraternity chapters: the administration would pledge to raise funds for the construction of dormitories to house the brothers in return for the deeds to their properties, debt free, to the University. Opposition to this proposal ensued quickly from the fraternities, especially those chapters that were financially sound. After an intense, year-long battle, Wriston put an ultimatum into effect and stated: "It is the established policy of Brown University that no fraternity may occupy property not owned and managed by the University in accordance with the Proposal on Fraternity Property adopted by this Corporation on June 19, 1944." ["President's Report"]

Wriston was an orator-president. Beginning with his time on the debate team as an undergraduate at Wesleyan and continuing as a professor, Wriston became known as a powerful and influential speaker. He gave frequent speeches both at Lawrence and Brown to help maintain contact with students. His training in forensics enabled him to adapt his style to fit the occasion from tactful to aggressive to persuasive. His speeches had direct impact and influence on the students. During his time at Brown alone (1937-1955), Wriston had 1,083 speaking engagements. Wriston stated: "Of the endless number of speeches a college president must make, those to students are of greatest importance – or can be. This group is interesting because it is of high intelligence, and difficult for precisely the same reason." Following his term at Brown, the University published Wriston speaking: A selection of addresses [Providence: Brown University Press, 1957.] and also produced a recording featuring excerpts of his speeches, Wriston and Brown. [RCA Victor Recording, 1956.]

Wriston retired from his post as president of Brown University after eighteen years on August 16, 1955. He was succeeded by Barnaby Conrad Keeney, at whose inauguration Wriston spoke. Wriston has been called "the greatest president Brown ever had" and one alumnus described that he "took Brown by the scruff of the neck and shook it into greatness." Upon his retirement, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. presented Brown with a $4 million donation in honor of Wriston's accomplishments.

Beyond his own term as president, one of Wriston's most far-reaching and noteworthy contributions on academia was his selection and training of other men to help them succeed as college presidents. This began at Lawrence and continued at Brown. In 1943, Wriston spoke at the inauguration of President Victor L. Butterfield at Wesleyan University (1943-1966) whom he had hired while at Lawrence. At Lawrence he also trained: John Millis, president of University of Vermont (1941-1949) and president of Western Reserve University (1945-1967) and Nathan M. Pusey, president of Lawrence College (1943-53) and president of Harvard University (1953-1971). While at Brown he trained his successor at Brown, Barnaby C. Keeney (1955-1966), as well as James S. Coles, president of Bowdoin College (1948-1979), Vernon R. Alden, president of Ohio University (1962-1969), and John Lederle, president of University of Massachusetts (1960-1970).


Education Activist

Wriston maintained an active role in organizations related to education during his post at Brown. He was elected president of the Association of American Universities (1948-1949), a prestigious organization aimed in developing national policy positions related to academic research and education. He also served as vice president (1937-1943) and vice president of the Executive Council (1943-1945) of the American Association for Adult Education, and chairman of the Commission on Colleges and Post-War Problems for the Association of American Colleges (1941). Wriston served as a member of the Executive Committees of the American Council on Education (1941-1944), the Council for Financial Aid to Education (1953-1956), and the Rhode Island Colleges (1939-), as well as a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1938-1942), the Educational Records Bureau (1939-1946), and the Foundation on Economic Education (1947-1950).

Wriston's concern for academic freedom and individualism compelled him to publicly express his dissent with national proposals set forth in 1946 by United States President Harry S. Truman with his Commission on Higher Education. He feared the threat of government interference on educational freedom and opposed all proposals for federal aid to education.


Foreign Policy Expert

Wriston's steady pulse on national and international affairs, as well as his writings, speeches, and organizational memberships, earned him recognition and press both regionally and nationally beyond that of most college and university presidents. His thoughts on issues related to education, politics, and economics were often reported regionally and sometimes nationally. Many suspected Wriston harbored ambitions for a career in public office through his interest in foreign and domestic affairs, but he never held such an elected position.

Wriston became even more involved in international relations organizations during and after his tenure at Brown. He took a six-month leave from the university in 1954 when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles appointed Wriston as chairman of his Public Committee on Personnel following the recommendation of former United States President Herbert Hoover. Designed to reorganize the U.S. Department of State and make diplomatic corporations more efficient, Wriston tapped into his administrative talents and his knowledge of the State Department and diplomacy to aid the committee in making recommendations to help boost the stature of U.S. Ambassadors abroad as well as to increase salaries and remove "dead wood" from the system.

Wriston served as director (1943-1950), vice president (1950-1951) and president (1951-1964) of the Council on Foreign Relations during his tenure at Brown. The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization centered on foreign policy issues that Wriston had been a member of since 1924. He also served on the Editorial Advisory Board for Foreign Affairs, a bi-monthly journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.
In 1941, Wriston became chairman of the Citizens Emergency Committee on Nondefense Expenditures. In 1943, Wriston became vice president of the National War Fund (1943-1945), an appointment that Wriston credits to his early years in government after serving on the Connecticut State Council of Defense in 1918. In 1947, Wriston received warrant of appointment to be Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire in appreciation of his services on the organizing committee and executive committee for the National War Fund.

Locally, Wriston served as president of both the Rhode Island United Campaign of Community Chests (1941-1946) and the Rhode Island United War Fund (1942-1946). Abroad, Wriston served as a delegate to the International Studies Conference in Bergen, Norway (1939). Wriston served as the director of the Diplomatic Affairs Foundation (1939-1944) and as a trustee of the American Peace Foundation (1941-), the World Peace Foundation (1939-1952), and the Board of Counselors at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, MA (1939-1944).
In one of his many articles written during wartimes, Wriston said: "The central task for Americans is an objective definition of our interests and our responsibilities, of a shape of things to come which would enlist our energies and our resources. Then, if war comes, we would fight not to 'defend' something but to achieve something." ["The Worth of the Initiative," 1941.]

In addition to publishing numerous articles and speeches, Wriston completed three books during his time at Brown: Prepare For Peace! [New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1941.], Challenge to Freedom [New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1943.], and Strategy for Peace [Boston: World Peace Foundation, 1944.]. Prepare for Peace! is a perceptive guide for the post-WWII era that aimed to inform the American public of essential diplomacy and peacemaking responsibilities in the world. It was translated into Spanish as Bases para la Paz in 1942 by Editorial Claridad in Buenos Aires and had a much larger circulation in this edition than in the English version. Challenge to Freedom, a sequel to Prepare for Peace, promotes the importance of freedom while arguing against socialism and the evils of big government. In 1944, Wriston published Strategy for Peace, a guide to support responsible internationalism, advocating intelligent planning for the attainment of an enduring peace.



In addition to his involvement in numerous organizations related to education and foreign policy, Wriston continued to serve on the boards of additional organizations. He served as a public governor of the New York Stock Exchange (1950-1952) as well as a trustee of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (1942-), the Tax Foundation (1947-1950), and T.I.A.A. Stock (1943-1951) where he also served as president of the Board (1945-).



Wriston received a Commendation from the President's War Relief Control Board in 1946, elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1948, and given the Freedoms Foundation Medal in 1950. In addition, Wriston continued to receive honorary degrees including those from Columbia University, New York, NY (1937), Tufts University, Medford, MA (1938), Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (1940), Rhode Island State College (1942), Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT (1943), Lawrence College, Appleton, WI (1944), Princeton University, Princeton, NJ (1946), Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (1949), Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio (1950), New York University, New York, NY (1950), Providence College, Providence, RI (1950), Colgate University, Hamilton, NY (1950), Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT (1950), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA (1952), University of Southhampton, England (1953), Union College, Schenectady, NY (1954), Rhode Island College of Education, Providence, RI (1954), Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH (1955), Adelphi College, Garden City, NY (1955).


Family Man

Wriston's wife of thirty-two years, Ruth Bigelow Wriston, died of cancer on May 12, 1946. On June 28, 1947, Wriston remarried Marguerite (Peg) Woodworth in Hingham, MA. Wriston first met Peg during his time at Lawrence when he hired her as Dean of Women and Assistant Professor of English Literature at Lawrence College (1927-1937). Born December 8, 1895 in Knowlesville, New York, she received her B.A. (1918) and M.A. (1928) from Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. Following her time at Lawrence, Mrs. Wriston became Dean of Women at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio (1937-1947) before moving to Providence.

In 1939, Wriston's daughter Barbara graduated with an B.A. from Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio. She continued graduate studies at Brown University, obtaining her M.A. in Art History (1942), before studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and accepting a position at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In 1941, Wriston's son Walter earned a B.A. from his father's alma mater, Wesleyan University. He continued graduate work at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, MA. In 1942, Walter married Barbara (Bobby) Swift Brengle, a graduate of Connecticut College in New London, CT. Their fathers were friends at Wesleyan. In 1947, Walter and Bobby Wriston gave birth to Wriston's only grandchild, Catherine (Cassy) Bigelow Wriston.