Ernest Hatch Wilkins, 1927
Ernest Hatch Wilkins (1880-1966), the seventh President of Oberlin College, was the school’s first non-theological President. Formerly a Professor of Romance Languages at Amherst College, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago, his academic publications include Dante – Poet and the Apostle, The Prose Letters of Petrarch, The Making of the Canzione and other Petrarchan Studies, and A History of Italian Literature.
He is also known, however, for his work towards solving “the problem of war and peace.” War was a pertinent issue during his time as Oberlin’s president from 1927 until 1946 as he served before, during, and after World War II. In an effort to make Oberlin’s campus more peace-minded he founded two student-faculty groups: the Oberlin Public Affairs Society and the Oberlin Peace Society, whose members comprised over half of the student body. After the U.S. entered the war, he took it upon himself to maintain private correspondence with every single G.I. affiliated with the college.
An advocate for educational reform, in 1927, the same year he assumed his office as Oberlin’s president, he published a book titled A Changing College: A Platform for Life. According to The Chronicle Telegram, “…he believes that the college exists to educate its students, not as a mass, but as individuals. The more individualized its teaching and relations with the student become, the more nearly it succeeds in its greater function.”
Though his proposal for restructuring Oberlin’s program of study was not approved, he still directed Oberlin from its theologically based focus on ethos to its current devotion to the pursuit of learning and intellectual excellence. By raising the standards for new appointments and establishing an Admissions Office during his second year, Wilkins transfigured Oberlin College. Andrew Bongiorno ’23 (d.1998), a former Professor of English wrote “He initiated the transformation of a national college with a Middle Western core into a college truly national and filled the classrooms with students capable of bringing forth the best efforts of the most brilliant teachers.”
The Chronicle Telegram (Elyria, OH), 9/17/30 and 4/10/31
Oberlin College Press Release, 1935
Oberlin Alumni Magazine, November 1966
Ernest Hatch Wilkins Papers, Oberlin College Archives