Project Home List of Names Rollins Archives Olin Library Rollins College

Hamilton Holt (1872-1951):

Eighth President of Rollins College

Journalist, social activist, politician, pacifist, and college president, Hamilton Holt shaped the image and mission of Rollins College during his twenty-four years of service as college president.   A respected magazine editor prior to his tenure at Rollins College, Holt was a candidate for the United States Senate and respected proponent of international peace.  Holt innovative theories on classroom learning transformed collegiate education and garnered Rollins College a national and international reputation.

Hamilton Holt was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 19, 1872 to George Chandler Holt and Mary Louisa Bowen.  He grew up in Spuyten Duyvil section of Manhattan. Holt received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University in 1894. At Yale he studied economics and sociology, fields he pursued during postgraduate study at Columbia University between 1894 and 1897. In 1897 Holt joined the staff of the Independent as managing editor.[1] His career well in hand, Holt married Alexandria Crawford Smith in 1899 and his family grew to include four children: Beatrice (later, Beatrice Chadbourne), Leila (later Leila Rosenthal), John Eliot and George Chandler.  Not much is written about Holt’s family life. It is clear he was able to balance domestic and career responsibilities as he made rapid strides at the Independent.  Founded in 1848 by several Congregational Church laymen, including Holt’s grandfather Henry C. Bowen, the Independent was a weekly religious magazine created to promote antebellum abolitionism. After the Civil War, the magazine remained a progressive voice that expanded it focus to address political, social, and economic issues. In 1913 Holt became editor and owner. Under his ownership, the Independent absorbed the notable progressive weekly the Chautauquan and in 1916 merged with Harper’s Weekly.  Contributor as well as editor, Holt wrote articles on a variety of subjects.  Pursuing a vision of equality in the pages of the Independent, Holt printed a series of “lifelets” or personal stories that explored the lives ordinary Americans between 1902 and 1906.  The series stressed a “bottom up” approach that addressed both the promise and challenges associated with life in the United States.  The profiles published included a young Polish sweatshop woman, a Greek peddler, an Irish cook, a Swedish farmer, a German nurse, and a southern black woman.  For subjects lacking formal education, Holt had their stories transcribed and read back for their approval prior to publication.  More than seventy-five “lifelets” were published in the pages of the Independent.  Holt collected sixteen of the short profiles in The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans (1906).[2]  Continuing his advocacy for diversity and acceptance, Holt along with other notable progressives such as W.E.B. Dubois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, John Dewey, Charles Darrow, and Mary McLeod Bethune founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. 


Promoting racial equality was not the only goal Holt supported in print and action. Holt also championed international peace in the pages of the Independent.  In 1907 Holt attended the Hague Peace Conference. Holt’s perspective on peace stressed engagement and dialogue.  In 1907 he stated, “Disarmament cannot logically precede political organization, for until the world is politically organized there is no way, except by force of arms, by which a nation can assure its rights.[3]  He further clarified the need for a centralized body to promote peace in 1911, when he wrote in an issue of World’s Work, “Let us add to the Declaration of Independence, a Declaration of Interdependence…Let the United Nation succeed the United States.”[4]   Holt engagement on the international stage was varied, he was founding member of the Italy-America Society, the Netherlands American Foundation, American-Scandinavian Foundation, the Greek-American Club and the Friends of Poland. In the aftermath of the First World War, he became a strong supporter of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nation proposal.  He attended the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and later toured the United States promoting U.S. participation in the league. One article in the Independent warned, “If the covenant…is defeated, the nations cannot go forward on an orderly basis of international cooperation, but must sink back to the old era of nationalistic competition, with its mutual hates, suspicions, and intrigues, its colossal armaments and inevitable wars.”[5]  Holt helped found the League of Nations Non-Partisan Association and would later serve as director of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.  In 1921, Holt stepped down as editor of the Independent, becoming a consultant. He maintained his peace activism as he lectured for the American branch of the International Conciliation and World Peace Foundation and was one of the honorary directors of World Federalist USA.  Holt’s efforts to promote peace garnered accolades and commendations from governments around the world.  He was member of the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure, an officer of the Greek Order of George I, a member of the French Order of Public Instruction, a knight in the French Legion of Honor, a member of the Order of the Crown of Italy, a knight in Polonia Restituta, and a knight of the Swedish North Star.

In 1924, Holt was the Democratic Party’s pick for special election to fill the United State Senate seat for Connecticut. He was soundly defeated by Republican Hiram Bingham despite strong support from liberal voters in the state.[6]  After this defeat, Holt was approached to become president of Rollins College by Irving Bacheller.  A frequent contributor to the Independent and noted author, Bacheller served as a college trustee and offered Holt the position. Holt accepted the challenge later recalling, “I had no special qualification for the position. But from observation in many colleges and from my own experiences I had acquired definite idea about teaching which I longed to put into practice.”[7]  Holt tenure at Rollins emphasized breaking down the tradition of aloof professor providing a canned lecture. He explained, “I objected to the lecture system. I agreed with the young man who described it as a process whereby the content of the professor’s notebook are transferred by means of a fountain pen to the student’s notebook without having passed the mind of either.”[8] Holt approach to education stressed a new system called the “conference plan.”  This plan emphasized one-on-one interaction between professor and student.  The goal was to allow students to work to better their minds with the guidance of the professor.  This new approach required the college limit enrollment and recruit professors that would function in this new cooperative model.  Holt’s view on professors was clear, he explained, “There are two kinds of professors, one the research man, draws his inspiration from learning; the other, the teacher, draws his from life. The first is a great scholar, the second a beloved teacher….To my way of thinking it is more important for the college to have good teachers than good research men who may turn out to be teachers.”[9]   Holt unorthodox approach to professorship was reflected in an equally strong sense of what kind of student he believed Rollins should come to Rollins.  He dismissed the student that regurgitates on command. Instead, he emphasized that faithfulness and the ability to improve through effort the best qualifications for a Rollins student.[10]  Under Holt, the college advocated that students have an eight-hour work day broken into four two-hour periods.  Three periods were dedicated to “work of the mind under a professor in a classroom,” the fourth to activities which may range from working to pay tuition to rehearsing for the arts.[11]

Holt’s commitment to teaching innovation was given national prominence in 1931 when he invited numerous educators to campus to participate in curricular conference. Not without controversy, the Rollins Educational Conference brought together national experts on educations. Indeed, the conference’s emphasis on student desire challenged commonly held assumptions by conference attendees. Dr. J.K. Hart of Vanderbilt warned against framing curricula to reflect the “adolescent interests” of students.[12]  Discussion between scholars from across the country, including schools such as Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, Vanderbilt, and Cornell touched on subject as diverse as the meaning of liberal arts and what effort should be taken to bridge the gap between practical concerns and traditional subject matter.  Hosted by John Dewey, the recommendations from the conference were integrated into the college’s conference plan, cementing the school’s reputation as innovative teaching institution.[13]

Holt’s vision for Rollins community shaped not only curriculum, students and faculty, but the cultural experience of the region. Holt promoted the arts and humanities in numerous ways. In 1926, he created the Animated Magazine at Rollins College, a live program modeled on a magazine that brought contributors (speakers) on a variety of subjects to the College every February. Drawing on his contacts, Holt was able to draw notable figures to the College to participate in the magazine, among them actress Mary Pickford, novelist Faith Baldwin, and RCA chairman David Sarnoff.  Holt served as editor and chief for the Animated Magazine program, often sitting on stage with giant pencil and eraser to edit verbose speakers.[14]  Programs such as the Animated Magazine, WPRK, and the Theatre Department’s production made Rollins a prime cultural attraction in Central Florida.  Holt support for traditional school activities were also well known. He attended student activities, invited students to his home on regular basis and advocated for student-faculty collaboration.  Holt’s legacy on campus extends to the physical plant. Rollins’ architectural style shifted from it original New England inspired structures to the Spanish Mediterranean style when Holt hired architect to design Rollins Hall in 1930.   Holt’s aesthetic transformation continued with the construction of Mayflower and Pugsley Halls and the chapel theatre complex. In addition, Holt acquired a home for Dean of Chapel, and several other off-campus houses, including a beach house called “The Pelican” at New Smyrna Beach.[15]

Holt’s accomplishments as college president did not come without controversy.  In 1933 Holt fired John Rice, a former Rhodes Scholar hired in 1930 to teach Greek. Rice’s short tenure at Rollins was highlighted by his unorthodoxy classroom technique and his discussion non-Greek subject such as sex and politics. Rice’s behavior alienated a large segment of the Rollins community prompting his dismal. Yet, Holt’s decision sparked concerns about academic freedom and led to an American Association of University Professor investigation. Moreover, when several faculty members objected to his decision, he terminated those professors and the dismissed faculty banned together to create Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina.  Holt faced other challenges as well.  Holt’s longstanding support for diversity was challenged at Rollins as he was forced to suspend the 1947 homecoming football game with Ohio Wesleyan over the participation of African-American player and was initially blocked from awarding Mary McLeod Bethune an honorary degree. 

Hamilton Holt’s vision remains a powerful touchstone for the college today.  His ability to take the struggling liberal art institution in 1925 and transform it into a nationally and international known educational leader remains the standard by which the college measure its efforts today.

 - Julian Chambliss

[1]S. J. Woolf, “Dr. Holt Looks at Education and Youth,” New York Times, August 17, 1947.

[2] Lawrence J. Oliver, “Deconstruction or Affirmative Action: The Literary-Political Debate over the Ethnic Question,” American Literary History 3 (Winter 1991): 799-800.

[3] Current Biography, 1947, The H.W. Wilson Company.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Dr. Hamilton Holt, Educator, 78, Dies,” New York Times, April 27, 1951

[7] S.J. Woolf, “Dr. Holt Looks at Education and Youth,” New York Times, August 17, 1947.

[8] S.J. Woolf, “Dr. Holt Looks at Education and Youth,” New York Times, August 17, 1947.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Opposes Curricula On Pre-Student Ideas,” New York Times, January 21, 1931. pg 23.

[13] Gayle and Steve Rajtar, “A Different Breed of College President: Hamilton Holt’s Nonconformist Belief Set Rollins on a Path to Excellence,” Winter Park Magazine (June 2009): 86.

[14] Maurice O’ Sullivan and Jack C. Lane, “My dear Mrs. Baskin”: Majorie Kinnan Rawlings and Hamilton Holt,”  The Majorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature Vol. 17  (2009): 3.

[15] Jack Lane, Rollins College: A Pictorial History (Rollins College, 1980): 54.

Project Home List of Names Rollins Archives Olin Library Rollins College