John Selwyn Morris

The 16th president of Union College

 John Selwyn Morris

 John Selwyn Morris (1925 - 2019)
(Union College Permanent Collection)

Term: 1979-1990
Academic credentials: B.A., University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (Cardiff University); M.A., Westminster College, Cambridge; M.A., Colgate University; Ph.D., Columbia University

John Selwyn Morris, the 16th president of Union College, was a strong proponent of liberal arts education who emphasized faculty development and undergraduate research. 

Morris once said in a speech that education rests upon the understanding that it has the task of training minds; that we are “rational beings, who live in a particular society, and that we use reason to come to see and understand the world.” He also was a strong advocate for independent colleges and universities, at one time serving as chairman of the board of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities of New York State.

During the decade he served as president (1979-1990), Morris oversaw the renovation and expansion of Carnegie Hall, now known as Reamer Campus Center, a project he saw as a symbol for the integrity of the College. In 1987, his decision to make Union SAT optional drew national attention. Morris cited the tests for alleged bias and their failure to predict success in college.

During the Morris era, the College’s endowment increased from $30 million to $90 million. The Campaign for Union, the major fundraising effort, reached $50 million, $12 million more than its goal.

John Selwyn Morris was born in July 2, 1925 in Tonypandy, Wales, at the time a coal mining area. After serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he earned a B.A. from the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, master’s degrees from Cambridge University and Colgate University, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. He also studied at Union Theological Seminary.

Ordained as a Presbyterian minister, he served with the Vernon and Vernon Center, N.Y, churches before beginning his academic career at Colgate. He became professor of philosophy and religion in 1970 and was appointed Colgate Professor of the Humanities in 1971. While serving as president at Union, he taught introductory classes in philosophy and religion and an interdisciplinary course, “Images of the Sea,” which considered marine life, the sociology of island communities and literature about the sea.

During Morris’ presidency, the College launched the General Education curriculum. In 1988, Union began Educational Studies, part of the College’s graduate offerings. A year later, it re-established the Geology department (dormant for two decades) and started programs in East Asian Studies, Women’s Studies and Religious Studies. The College added Terms Abroad programs to Japan and China. A Dana Foundation grant supported undergraduate research and faculty scholarship.

With Morris’ encouragement, Union was a founding member of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, and hosted the fourth annual conference in spring of 1990, just before Morris retired.

In 1981, the College obtained a MacArthur Foundation grant to endow assistant professorships that rotated among departments. In 1989, new funding supported three new faculty chairs: the Roger Thayer Stone Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, the Thomas J. Watson and Emma Watson Day Professorship of Engineering; and the John and Jane Wold Professorship of Geology.

Among other building projects during the Morris presidency, the College renovated Stanley Becker Hall as the home of Admissions and Financial Aid, installed a lighted artificial turf field (now Frank Bailey Field) and renovated Alumni Gymnasium, adding a new pool and racquet courts.

Recognizing the need to connect Union to its local community, Morris chaired the Citizens Special Committee on Local Government in Schenectady County and, with his wife, Enid, the Schenectady County Historical Society’s fundraising drive to construct a new library. He served on the boards of the Schenectady Trust Company, the Parsons Child and Family Center, the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce and Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital.

His memberships included the American Association of University Professors, American Philosophy Association, American Academy of Religion, Royal Institute of Philosophy, Society for the Study of Theology and the National Welsh American Foundation Board of Advisors.

He served as a trustee of Skidmore College from 1986 to 2017.

Morris received the Founders Medal, Union’s highest honor at Commencement on June 17, 1990. He also received Colgate’s distinguished service award, Schenectady’s Patroon Award and was named a fellow of Cardiff University. He held honorary degrees from Hartwick College, Elmira College and Skidmore College.

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