September 2010: Prosser Gifford '47
Posted September 1, 2010
Prosser Gifford ’47 is a versatile scholar who has had a diverse academic career not only at the secondary and university level, but also at institutions for advanced study. Among other appointments, he was the first dean of faculty at Amherst College, and director of scholarly programs and first director of the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.
After amassing enough credit in three years to graduate from Hotchkiss in 1946, upon the urging of Headmaster George van Santvoord, Gifford spent the 1946-47 year at Sherborne School in Dorset, England, as an English-Speaking Union exchange school-boy. After his return, he graduated from Yale College in 1951 (magna cum laude), where he received the Andrew D. White Prize in history, the Hart Lyman Prize as an outstanding member of the junior class, and the Alpheus Henry Snow Prize for high achievement in scholarship. Then, appointed a Rhodes Scholar, he matriculated at Merton College, Oxford, where he earned a second B.A. degree in English language and literature.
Following Oxford, Gifford earned a law degree at Harvard and then accepted a two-year appointment at Swarthmore College as assistant to the president, who was also American secretary of the Rhodes Trust. Opting for a teaching career, Gifford returned to Yale in 1958 to begin a Ph.D. in African history. In 1963-64 the Gifford family spent a research year in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia, just as it was becoming Zambia. He received his Ph.D. in 1964, taught African history at Yale for three years, and then was appointed dean of the faculty at Amherst College. He has been credited with selecting and retaining a top-notch faculty during the turbulent years of the early 1970s, leading up to the transition to co-education. While at Amherst, he strengthened Amherst’s ties with Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, and enhanced five-college academic cooperation among Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts.
During his years at Yale and Amherst, Gifford also co-edited four volumes on African history published by the Yale University Press. In 1980 he resigned from Amherst to accept a position as deputy director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, then located in the Smithsonian. There, he worked with scholars from all over the world to facilitate their research, ran seminars and colloquia, and pushed the publication program. With a distinguished Sudanese scholar, Francis Deng, he co-edited The Search for Peace and Unity in the Sudan (1987), detailing a search which unfortunately continues to this day.
Gifford spent the first half of 1989 as a visiting scholar at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and then returned to assume a new position as director of scholarly programs at the Library of Congress. Serving in that position for fifteen years, he established and managed a variety of special programs and projects, including the Japanese Documentation Center, the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library competition for archives to be digitized, the establishment of research fellowships, such as the Mellon Foreign Area fellowships, and eventually the organization of the Kluge Center. He was the Library’s organizer for a major exhibition in 1995: Creating French Culture: Treasures from the Bibliotheque national de France (Yale U.P. 1995), which brought 207 books and manuscripts to the United States, many for the first time. In addition, he organized two, week-long symposia for the bicentennial year: “Frontiers of the Mind in the Twenty-first Century” and “The Rule of Law in a Changing World Order.” The second was published by the New York University Press.
Gifford has served on the boards of trustees of various academic and research institutions, including those of Concord Academy and Hotchkiss. He was chairman of the board of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole for twelve years, and more recently was the founding president of a 501(c)(3) (nonprofit organization) for Merton College, Oxford.
Reflecting on education, Gifford says, “The essential ingredient is an exciting teacher in the classroom. Everything else--equipment, beautiful setting, handsome buildings--is context. A teacher who exemplifies inquiry and curiosity, who demonstrates and discusses the mind in action and why it matters, will inspire and ignite others to follow. This is education--for the moment and for a lifetime. The teachers at Hotchkiss meet this exacting standard.”