At Lawrence (1925-1937)
Just one day before his 36th birthday, on July 3, 1925, Wriston became president of Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, making him one of the youngest college presidents in the country. Lawrence is the oldest educational institution in Wisconsin. At the time Wriston came to campus, Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) was a co-educational institution of 700 undergraduates with a $1.75 million endowment. (Today, the University has an enrollment of 1400 and an endowment of $200 million.)
The cornerstones of Wriston's success at Lawrence included three features he deemed essential to a liberal arts college: an appropriate curriculum, distinguished teaching, and a proper environment. While in office, Wriston overcame and solved many of the problems facing the college including the curriculum, student body, faculty, trustees, and finances. Wriston's highest priority through his tenure aimed at strengthening the faculty both through the hiring of esteemed scholars and by discharging faculty members deemed unsatisfactory. He also increased the size and quality of the student body by raising admission standards strived to integrate curricular and extra-curricular student life. He established an employment office, hired a college physician, and started a student government. He substantially increased the library's collection, which he believed was "the most important single instrument of instruction in the college" aside from the faculty. [The Nature of A Liberal Arts College, Appleton: Lawrence College Press, 1937.] Wriston strived to bring cultural performances to campus, encouraged intramural sports, sought to improve undergraduate housing, and placed the college on a sound financial footing. Wriston believed in the importance of fraternities. He saw them as better residencies than dormitories where students could build personal relationships, and places where intellectual stimulation could thrive outside the classroom. He established a chapter of his own Delta Tau Delta while at Lawrence.
In his inaugural address at Lawrence Wriston explained, "The student does not come to college primarily to learn things, to store an intellectual garret with an assortment of odds and ends. He comes to college to learn how to learn, what to learn, where to learn, and why to learn." He also stated, "It would be a bitter admission if we were to admit that education stopped with college..."
Wriston further verbalized his own thoughts on the subject as part of "Liberal Education," the first Commencement Address Wriston delivered at Lawrence in 1927: "Education is the process of discovering, and coming to appreciate, one's place in the universe - in space, in time, in matter, and in society... Education, therefore, is a life-long enterprise, an effort to become socially, aesthetically, spiritually, economically, and intellectually effective in all life's relationships using each moment of the brief allotted span for life's enrichment... The function of the college it not to complete a process, but fairly to launch it."
Wriston reorganized the curriculum, emphasizing the importance of a sound liberal education with courses in the arts, sciences, and humanities while simultaneously discouraging vocationally-oriented applicants. The university's commitment to undergraduate liberal education was first articulated during Wriston's time as president. Wriston's faith in the liberal ideal held steadfast throughout his entire career. During his presidency, the university charted a course that has been faithfully followed to the current administration. According to Lawrence catalog in 1934: "The ultimate purpose of liberal education at Lawrence is the establishment and improvement of standards--standards of thought and expression, of taste and interest, of character and ethics, of health and sane living."
According to Van Horn's Humanist as Educator: the public life of Henry Merritt Wriston, "The cornerstone of Wriston's personal and educational philosophy was his fervent dedication to the individual…This inculcation of such self-reliance had been a major objective of the New England college….He became a life-long, aggressive, and articulate advocate of a liberal education, carried on in the setting of a residential college." His strong dedication to individual education led to his emphasis of tutorials. He argued against large lectures and promoted learning through tutorials that would stimulate an active role in learning and foster responsible intellectual achievement in both students and faculty. Wriston instituted a tutorial system at Lawrence that has grown and offers independent learning options to students including programs designed specifically for freshman, studies abroad, and interdisciplinary offerings.
Lawrence College is located in the heart of a major paper-making and woodworking center in the Midwest. In 1929, Wriston established the Institute of Paper Chemistry at Lawrence College, a research center and graduate school supported through the cooperation of the paper industry, and served as the institute's first director from 1929 to 1937. Wriston considers it his "boldest move" at Lawrence. [Academic Procession, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.]
Wriston, the first Lawrence president who was not a Methodist minister, transformed the college by reducing the denominational influence on the school. In 1933, he succeeded in having a charter by the Wisconsin legislature amended such that the Lawrence College Board of Visitors, made up of members of the Methodist church, served solely as moral guidance to the fiscally responsible Board of Trustees of Lawrence College.
In 1927, Wriston appointed Marguerite Woodworth as Dean of Women. She went on to become Dean of Women at Oberlin College after Wriston left Lawrence and married Wriston in 1947 (after the death of his first wife, Ruth).
While at Lawrence, Wriston hired Victor Butterfield who became a sort of protégé and later came to Wesleyan and served as president in 1943. He also hired Nathan Pusey who went on to teach at Wesleyan before becoming president of Harvard University.
Over his lifetime, Wriston received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities. He received his first two honorary Doctor of Laws (L.L.D.) degrees while president of Lawrence College, from Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin (1926) and Wesleyan University (1931).
Wriston served as a Trustee on many boards beginning during his time at Lawrence and continuing throughout his career at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and into retirement. Although his involvement during this era was not as great as during his time at Brown, he served as a member of many organizations including: the American Federation of Arts, Washington, D.C. (1933-1938, 1940-1941), and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, New York, NY (1933-1955). He also served as president of some organizations including: the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (1933-1934), the Educational Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1933-1934), the Association of American Colleges (1935-1936).
As he did throughout his lifetime, Wriston frequently expressed his opinions on political, economic, and international matters. At the height of the Depression, Wriston emphasized the increased importance of the role of liberal education in preparing citizens. He offered free education to thirty-two unemployed students who could not pay or borrow tuition fees in 1932. In the 1930s, Wriston frequently publicly criticized the New Deal and articulated his own economic philosophy in 1936 in a speech, "Economics vs. Politics." He viewed government interference in economics negatively. He believed the United Sates had clear responsibilities to the world after World War I in international diplomacy and foreign relations.
Completed just before he left Lawrence, Wriston published one of his best-known books in the field of liberal education, The Nature of A Liberal Arts College, published by Lawrence College Press in 1937. Widely hailed by educators, the book emphasizes the broad and fundamental relationships of a liberal education to life beyond the college gates. The volume presents Wriston's firm belief that no kind of education can adequately supplant the liberal arts form. The publication was preceded by one of Wriston's best known published addresses, "The Integrity of the College," given before the Association of American Colleges when he was president in 1936. For a number of years following Wriston's presidency, The Nature of A Liberal Arts College was given to every graduating senior at Lawrence College.