Courtesy of Davenport College

Professor John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00 — known as J-Witt to many Davenport College students — announced over winter recess that he would step down as Davenport Head of College after the spring 2022 semester. 

Witt announced the departure in an email to the Davenport community on Jan. 13, explaining that he would not seek reappointment after finishing his five-year term as Head of College at the end of the semester. A professor of law and history, Witt told the News that he would devote his future attention to teaching and research. 

“[This decision] means stepping away from a community full of amazing students and generous fellows and lots of intellectual and cultural excitement that has really been a wonderful part of my life for the last five years, so those are all really difficult things to step away from,” Witt said. “But right now, my teaching, my law students, my grad students and my research — I’ve had them on hold for a little bit too long and I need to get back to them.” 

Witt explained that the five-year mark of his term presented a “natural decision point” for deciding whether or not to seek reappointment, but emphasized the difficulty of his choice, explaining that the role of head was “so full of pleasures” that it could crowd out other commitments. 

Witt, who received his bachelor’s degree, law degree and doctorate in history from Yale, was appointed Head in 2017, filling the role of longtime Davenport Head Richard Schottenfeld.

“Because of COVID, that five years doesn’t really have a good arc,” Witt said. “What stands out to me, having been a student at Yale in the 1990s is how vibrant the residential college scene remains in the face of all sorts of centrifugal forces.”

Izak Epstein ’19, who was a sophomore when Witt took on the role of Head, recalled the concerted effort that Witt made to integrate himself within the Davenport community, eating lunch in the Davenport dining hall every Tuesday. At first, Epstein said, students worried about bothering Witt and were reluctant to sit with him, until Witt put a sign up at his table urging them to join him. 

In the years since then, Witt told the News, he has been especially proud of the events he has organized in Davenport.

These have included Residential College Teas with Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize winning authors, the first base coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers and an opera singer, as well as other events co-hosted with cultural centers and academic departments. 

“There’s a convening power that the head of college has to create events that are hopefully world opening to students, and secretly, or maybe not so secretly, also really engaging for the head of college,” Witt said. “So those were just really wonderful.”

In the remainder of his term as Head, Witt said that he looked forward to resuming hosting “buzzy, engaging” events once public health conditions allow. In addition, Witt said, he was hopeful that a decrease in COVID-19 cases would permit for the celebration of two more Davenport traditions — serving students cheesesteaks at his annual “John’s Steaks” dinner and ending the spring semester with “J.D. Day,” a celebration that features “mechanical sharks and lots and lots of fun out in the courtyard.” 

The News spoke to 19 current and former Davenport students, who described Witt’s commitment to inclusivity and his attention to detail in his five-year term as their head of college. 

In Justin James ’22’s first year, Witt, who was his advisor, invited him out to play tennis, James recalled.

“That was actually pretty great, to be honest,” James said. “It was my first time at a lawn club. He beat me, too — that part was not as great, but it’s okay, because I played really well. It was definitely a big bright spot.” 

Gillian Monsky ’19, who transferred to Davenport as a junior in the same year that Witt became Head of College, said she was comforted by having a Head who was also beginning in a new role.

When Monsky approached Witt in the Davenport courtyard to ask if she could do research for him, “he immediately said yes.”

“Head Witt was so unbelievably kind, friendly, and approachable,” Monsky wrote in an email. “He was also conducting some really interesting research, which I would help out with over the course of the year. Head Witt always had a project for me to work on, and was both relaxed and dedicated to his work. He was always willing to have lunch with me in the dining hall or talk about courses in his office.”

Stuart Baker ’25 told the News that he was “a little shocked” when he first came to Yale and realized that Witt already knew his name.

Witt’s capacity for remembering names made an impression on many students — Aidan Martin ’23 said he “couldn’t fathom” Witt’s memory and Huahao Zhou ’22 was surprised on his first day at Yale by Witt’s perfect pronunciation of his name and recollection of his hometown. 

Several students recalled Witt’s finals week tradition of coming through the Davenport library around midnight with his golden retriever, Pixie, to distribute candy bars to students. 

“He didn’t have to be doing these things,” Epstein said. “He’s a very smart, methodical guy. He was doing things on purpose to put himself near to students. He made himself available and he made himself visible.” 

Epstein emphasized Witt’s commitment to inclusivity of all Davenport students, whether through the events that he hosted or the holidays he commemorated in Davenport celebrations. 

Wren Wolterbeek ’24 also pointed out Witt’s ability to support students through their individual challenges. When Wolterbeek’s computer broke two days into her first semester at Yale, she was in arrival quarantine and unable to access library computers or repair services, but Witt was able to help. 

“After a stressful time trying to find a solution, I emailed J-Witt for help and he was able to get me a loaner computer for the semester within the day,” Wolterbeek said. “His prompt reply and support allowed me to find my feet and my Zoom links during my first weeks at Yale and I am grateful for his help after a rocky start to my time at Yale.”

After Julie Tran ’22 lost her parents just before the start of the pandemic, Witt advocated for her to be housed on campus, and helped her find a job and resources for the uninsured. 

“This really helped me during the time I felt most alone and I believe all students need this type of support from staff because mental health is so crucial at Yale,” Tran said. “Head Witt did so much to help me and I don’t think I’d be here without his support.”

As the University searches for a new Davenport Head of College, Tran hopes they will find someone equally willing to advocate for Davenport students as a collective and on an individual level.

Yousra Omer ’22, a Davenport college aide, is on the committee to select the next Head. She too has appreciated Witt’s commitment to solving student problems, no matter how big or small, and hopes to see similar characteristics in the next Head of College.

“Even though I will be graduating in May, I think future generations of Davenport students would benefit from having [a] HoC who is as invested in our community as previous HoCs have been,” Omer wrote in an email. “For many in Davenport, Davenport is not just a stop along the way, but a place to find friends and family. That often begins with the students but can only thrive if there is support from people like the Dean and HoC.”

The dean of Davenport College, Ryan Brasseaux, will continue in his current role. 

Correction, Jan. 30: A previous version of this article said that Monsky transferred to Yale in her junior year. In fact, Monsky transferred to Davenport from another of Yale’s residential colleges. The article has been updated to reflect this. 

Lucy Hodgman is the editor-in-chief and president of the News. She previously covered student life and the Yale College Council. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in English.