Robert E. L. Strider II, who as Colby’s president from 1960 to 1979 moved the College into national prominence, died Nov. 28, in Boston.
Strider, 93, a Harvard-educated scholar, came to Colby in 1957 as dean of faculty. As president he pushed for innovative curricular changes he said were needed to supplement Colby’s strengths and address its deficiencies.
Most changes were aimed at providing students with more flexibility in their studies—including the January Program of Independent Study, implemented in 1962, and interdisciplinary majors including East Asian studies, human development, and environmental studies. “There was no need to adhere to the orthodox patterns in some areas,” Strider wrote in 1979, “particularly those that lent themselves to combination with others.”
He was the force behind securing in 1962 a $1.8-million Ford Foundation grant that vaulted Colby into the top echelon of liberal arts colleges in the country. “Bob’s most important contribution was an incredibly powerful focus on increasing and enhancing the academic stature of Colby,” said President William D. Adams at Strider’s memorial service in Boston.
Strider also insisted on academic rigor, pushing faculty toward scholarship and insisting that the College retain requirements including proficiency in a foreign language. Trustee James Crawford ’64 recalled listening as a freshman to Strider’s address to the class. “He said, ‘I want you to look to your right and look to your left and just know that at the end of four years only two of you will probably be graduating,’” Crawford said. “The message was pretty clear—that academics was really important.”
Strider was a popular if imposing figure on campus in the early years of his presidency. But as the country swept into the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, Colby, like other colleges and universities, was the scene of angry protests against the Vietnam War and for more equitable treatment of African Americans. The relationship with college presidents soured as students took over college buildings (including Lorimer Chapel at Colby) and went on strike. “There was a sea change in the attitudes,” said College Historian Earl Smith, who was dean of students during Strider’s tenure.
Strider was not one to engage in heated debate with students or to negotiate with them. In his baccalaureate address in 1971 he said he hoped Colby students who had protested and marched would someday “see that, for all the suffering, it was during these years that real progress was made … .” To illustrate his point he quoted Shakespeare and Virgil. “The tonality of the times and Bob’s personality were not well matched,” Adams said.
Late in his presidency, Strider was more reserved on campus, Smith said. But in recent years he renewed his relationship with the College, attending trustees’ meetings and visiting Adams at the president’s house.
Adams said Strider spoke of his memories of Mayflower Hill, and he once asked if he could sit alone in the backyard of the home where he and his wife raised four children and where Helen Bell Strider oversaw the planting of trees and flower beds that remain today. “It was in his company that I learned … about how to deeply appreciate the time that I have before me,” Adams said.
After Colby, the Striders relocated to Brookline, Mass., where Helen Strider died in 1995. Robert Strider then moved to a retirement home where he ran popular discussion groups on current events and literature, Smith said.
Up to the end Strider insisted on academic rigor. “The last time we had lunch with him he was getting ready to give a seminar on Hamlet,” Smith said. “He was so frustrated because some of them hadn’t read the book.”