William Boyd, former UO president, dies at home at age 97

William Beaty Boyd

Former University of Oregon President William Beaty Boyd died Dec. 16 at home in Racine, Wisconsin, after a short illness. He was 97.

“Former President Boyd served the University of Oregon with distinction,” said Michael H. Schill, UO president and professor of law. “He leaves a lasting legacy as an advocate for higher education and its benefit to students and society.”

Boyd arrived at the UO for his inauguration in 1975 just as the university began celebrating its centennial. Throughout his five-year tenure, he strongly advocated for the value of a liberal education, saying it prepares students to “prevail in any economy” and “live richer and more contributive lives on the job and elsewhere.”

Boyd improved the UO by creating a stronger provost position to deal with day-by-day business — a post held by his successor, Paul Olum — allowing the president to focus on broader issues such as diversity and budget concerns. He is also remembered for giving permission to film “Animal House” on campus with the proviso that the movie not identify the UO by name.

Gracious, charismatic and intensely private, he ended his final commencement speech in 1979 with the Kurt Vonnegut quote, “Damn it, baby, you’ve got to be kind.”

Boyd was born in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, on Feb. 2, 1923. After serving in the U.S. Navy from 1943-46, he earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, in 1946. He received his master’s degree, also in history, at Emory University the following year.

By the time he finished his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954, Boyd was already a year into a five-year tenure as a member of the history faculty at Michigan State University. He then served seven years as dean of faculty and professor of history at Alma College before taking the post of vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of California, Berkeley, during the tumultuous period from 1966-68.

Boyd’s talents as a leader and administrator immediately catapulted him into the presidency of Central Michigan University in 1968, where his tenure was described as relatively peaceful during a time of widespread campus unrest in the United States. In 1975, he became the University of Oregon’s 12th president.

Boyd left the UO in 1980 to lead the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin. Soon after, he discovered his soulmate in Karen Johnson, a great-granddaughter of Samuel C. Johnson, the founder of Johnson Wax. They married in 1982 and Boyd retired from the Johnson Foundation as president emeritus in 1988. Karen Johnson Boyd died in January 2016 following a short illness.

A celebration of Boyd’s life will be held at a future date. Donations in Boyd’s memory can be made to the Kids First Fund at the Racine Community Foundation.