Former Wheaton president dies at 97
William C.H. Prentice led college from 1962 to 1975
William C.H. Prentice, Wheaton College president from 1962 to 1975 and distinguished psychology professor, died Sunday, July 28, in Schenectady, N.Y., at age 97.
In 1962, the Wheaton Board of Trustees chose him as successor to Alexander Howard Meneely to lead the college.
During Prentice’s administration Wheaton transitioned from being a small, regional college to one that was beginning to gain national recognition, said Professor of History Emeritus and College Historian Paul Helmreich. “An expansion program that was begun in 1957 continued under his administration, with enrollment growing from approximately 800 to 1,200 students.”
Prentice oversaw the creation of the Meadows dorm complex, the Clark Recreation Center and a new science center, which replaced the old science center (Knapton Hall). Knapton Hall also was renovated for use by the social sciences and history departments.
Additionally, in 1966, the college constructed the Elisabeth Amen Nursery School to replace the school built in 1931, which was one of the first laboratory nursery schools in the country.
College Archivist Zephorene Stickney points out that at the announcement of his selection as Wheaton’s president, Prentice quipped, “It takes time to educate a college president.”
He had to learn fast. Prentice led Wheaton through a turbulent period of national unrest and change. A moratorium and strike in protest against the Vietnam War in 1969 and 1970; student-organized efforts to install a gynecologist in the health center; the demise of many long-standing traditions and parietal rules; a 1971 faculty vote in favor of moving to coeducation; the growth of both the college’s administration and faculty empowerment; and the beginnings of college computing, all had to be addressed by Prentice, said Stickney.
In his 1962 inaugural address, Prentice addressed the future of liberal arts education in this age of specialization. He described liberal education as “not only the best, but perhaps the sole means” of achieving the survival of civilization, “For liberal education, properly conceived, is preparation for change.”
He continued, “Students must be taught to question and to doubt, but they must also be taught the value of answers. …Minds are made more receptive to truth…by being subjected to a searching re-evaluation of things that are commonly or currently accepted.”
In recognition of his many contributions, the William C.H. and Elsie D. Prentice Chair was established in 1975, with gifts from trustees, alumnae, faculty, staff and friends. He and his wife, Elsie (much beloved by the Wheaton community) received honorary degrees from Wheaton that year. He also was awarded honorary degrees from Swarthmore, Stonehill and Hartwick colleges, and Southeastern Massachusetts University.
A Rhodes Scholar, Prentice graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore College in 1937. He studied at Oxford University before earning his master’s degree and doctorate in psychology from Harvard University in 1942.
Following wartime service for the clandestine National Defense Research Committee as a research psychologist for both the Navy and Air Force, he taught at University of Vermont and The Johns Hopkins University. He returned to Swarthmore College in 1947, serving as psychology professor, department chair and dean, prior to coming to Wheaton.
Prentice was president and co-chair of Bryant and Stratton Business Institute, served on several boards and was involved in many organizations. He was on the College Entrance Examination Board from 1970 to 1974, and was chairman from 1972 to 1974; the board of managers of Swarthmore College from 1978 to 1982; was a trustee at Hartwick College from 1980 to 1989; and was involved with the Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation of America from 1979 to 1983.
He also was a science advisor to Research to Prevent Blindness, a Guggenheim Fellow in 1952; a Fellow of the American Psychological Association; contributing editor to the American Journal of Psychology; the author of numerous academic and scientific papers; and was a member of the Psychonomic Society, Eastern Psychological Association, United World Federalists, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi and Phi Kappa Psi.