Professor of law and history John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00 will serve as the next head of Davenport College, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway announced in the college’s dining hall Tuesday evening.
Witt will serve a five-year term effective July 1, replacing longtime head Richard Schottenfeld, who has led the college for 15 years and announced his departure in the fall. In a Tuesday email to the Davenport community, Holloway and University President Peter Salovey praised Witt as a gifted educator, a renowned scholar and a decorated author. Witt previously chaired the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, which released a report in December that guided the decision to rename Calhoun College earlier this spring.
Dozens of Davenport students gathered in the dining hall for the announcement and applauded loudly for Witt, who was accompanied by his family.
“I think we all feel that it’s going to be an adventure, and we’re looking forward to it,” Witt said. “What I remember from being in one of the other Yale residential colleges was a place where 500 people were pursuing their own projects in their own way and achieving extraordinary things, but doing them together in some way so that we could care for one another and grow with one another. And I’m so excited to do that with you.”
In their email, Salovey and Holloway commended Witt’s “talent for making history entertaining, approachable and connected to our daily lives.”
“Since 2009, professor Witt has been encouraging students in both the Yale Law School and Yale College to inquire about the world we live in today from historical perspectives,” Holloway said. “He is an expert at weaving together contemporary and controversial topics with examples from the past to illuminate critical questions about law, politics and society.”
Holloway said that he worked with Witt during the early work of the renaming committee, which he said Witt ran with “exquisite grace,” and joked that Witt was hard to pin down because he seemed to always be fishing with Supreme Court justices.
Holloway added that he met Witt’s wife, Annie Murphy Paul ’95 — a former consultant for the Center for Teaching and Learning who is currently co-teaching a residential college seminar on narrative journalism while working on a book of her own — at a Calhoun tea, whose guest was a celebrated newspaper columnist and close friend of Paul’s.
“I suspect the Davenport tradition of exquisite teas is going to go on with great success,” Holloway concluded.
Witt is an accomplished author in his own right. He has published three books on the history of American law, the most recent of which — “Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History” — has won several awards and been named a New York Times Notable Book. He has written for publications including the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Witt has been widely recognized for his scholarship, as both a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.
Students interviewed at the event praised Witt’s appointment, although several mentioned they had been hoping to see a woman or person of color take leadership of the college. Still, students expressed excitement about Witt and his family, and praised his work on the renaming committee in particular.
“It was very much a desire of the [search] committee and the college office and the college community in general to have a person of color or a woman, but it’s one of those things that just happens at Yale and everywhere else, where sometimes it doesn’t work out that way,” search committee member Sara Speller ’19 said. “It’s already a step in the right direction to have John Witt, who is somebody who clearly cares about the people of color here at Yale.”
Elena Vazquez ’18 said she was impressed by the in-depth work of the renaming committee and was excited to get to know Witt better in the college, especially because she is interested in law.
Katie Kuenzle ’19 and Jasper Tyan ’17, two other members of the eight-person search committee, said they were excited not just about Witt, but about his entire family. Tyan said he was excited to welcome Paul into the community, and Kuenzle added that having a family move into the college would contribute to the feeling of community there.
“What we were looking for was someone who was familiar with the [residential] college system and the undergraduate experience and who also was in touch with the things that had developed in the College the past year or two,” search committee member Ruben Vega ’17 said. “Obviously, being the chair of the renaming committee, I think [Witt] fit that profile pretty well.”
Witt, a member of Timothy Dwight College while at Yale, and Paul, an alumna of Berkeley College, will move into Davenport with their two sons, Gus and Teddy, ages 8 and 11, and their dog Pixie.