William R. Cotter, Colby’s Longest-Tenured President, Has Died

Announcements5 min. read

He served for 21 years, leading the College through a period of dramatic growth and change

Bill Cotter
William R. Cotter served as Colby's 18th president from 1979 to 2000.
By Bob Keyes
Contact: George Sopko ([email protected]) 207-859-4346
March 10, 2023

The Colby community is deeply saddened by the loss of William R. Cotter, the College’s 18th and longest-serving president who guided the College through a period of brisk growth and lasting institutional change from his appointment in 1979 until he retired in 2000. A Life Trustee, Cotter died March 9, 2023, his 87th birthday. 

“President Cotter will forever be remembered for his remarkable accomplishments. He was undoubtedly one of Colby’s all-time great leaders, having transformed the College into a national model of excellence. He was fearless in his work, driven by a steady moral compass and an unshakeable belief in the power of education to improve lives and the world,” President David A. Greene said. “He was a humanitarian at heart and in his work, a trait that guided him throughout his life. And he was a teacher in both words and actions, whether it was about the U.S. judicial system, the fight for civil rights and progress, or what it means to live a good and purposeful life. As notable as all these things are, he was most proud of his family—his extraordinary partnership with his wife, Linda, and their wonderful children. While my heart breaks today, I could not be more grateful for my friendship with the Cotters, who taught me more than I could ever express.”

Colby Board of Trustees Chair Jane Powers ’86 offered condolences, on a personal level and on behalf of the board. “I feel a tremendous sense of sadness but am so grateful for the legacy that he leaves,” said Powers, who was a student at Colby while Cotter was president. “He made a major impact on Colby and on so many of us as individuals. He was a leader of integrity and principle, and a man of extraordinary intelligence. We all have enormous respect and affection for Bill, as a past president of Colby and a truly valuable life trustee.”

During his 21-year tenure, Cotter led Colby to new levels of excellence. He raised academic standards, diversified the student body and makeup of the faculty, dramatically increased the endowment, constructed new buildings, and added more than a dozen academic disciplines and two dozen endowed faculty chairs. Through his leadership, he raised Colby’s stature as a leading liberal arts college, and his work at Colby earned him a reputation as an innovator in the field of higher education.

Former President Bill Cotter hugs former museum director Sharon Corwin during the Summer Luncheon at the Colby College Museum of Art July 9, 2022. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

His Colby presidency was full of consequential decisions that reverberate today. He oversaw the effort to remove fraternities and sororities from campus in 1983, a courageous decision that he later described as among his greatest achievements. An advocate for global education and international exposure, Cotter encouraged Colby students to study abroad, he secured the largest individual gift to the College at the time to provide resources for international students, and he helped create numerous international programs, including the Oak Institute for Human Rights. 

He invested in academic excellence across the College. Among the fields of study added during the Cotter administration were African-American studies, East Asian studies, and Jewish studies, as well as subdivisions of chemistry such as biochemistry. Colby introduced new and emerging fields that became a centerpiece of a Colby education, including women’s studies and science and technology.

During his time as president, the value of the endowment grew from $23 million to more than $300 million, allowing the College to invest in new areas of research, including in the sciences, international studies, and the humanities. He expanded Miller Library and directed the construction of the F. W. Olin Science Center, Collins Observatory, Lunder House, two residence halls, and other buildings. As a way to create community space, he was instrumental in the planning of a new student center, which was built in 1985 and now bears his name, Cotter Union.

In 1997 the student center, Cotter Union, was named in honor of Bill and Linda Cotter, seen here in front of the union.

On his recommendation, the Board of Trustees established a group of visitors who serve as an advisory council and provide supplementary advice and support about academic programs. 

Under his leadership, the Colby College Museum of Art increased the size and depth of its art collection and deepened its relationship with artists, collectors, and donors, including the painter Alex Katz, D.F.A. ’84 and the late philanthropist and Trustee Emeritus Paul J. Schupf, LL.D. ’06. Cotter was president when Colby acquired the monumental Katz painting Pas de Deux and oversaw the construction of the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz, which opened in 1996. 

Cotter led efforts to diversify the student body and faculty. Students who identified as people of color increased from 4 percent of the student body when Cotter arrived to 14 percent when he departed; the number of  tenure-track faculty who identified as people of color went from 3 percent to 16 percent; and the number of women tenure-track faculty members grew from 17 percent to 39 percent.

Cotter had a commanding presence. He was known as firm and friendly, with an ever-present smile, kind greeting, and genuine laugh. He considered education a collaborative process between students and faculty, a give-and-take of ideas fueled by debate.

“Valid answers come from wise, dedicated, and fair-minded people freely seeking truth together,” he told the Colby community soon after he took the job. “We have these people here in abundance, and I feel privileged to be with them.”

Cotter worked in tandem with his wife of 61 years, the late Linda K. Cotter, to achieve his goals. Linda Cotter devoted herself to creating and nurturing student internships, resulting in the Linda K. Cotter Internship Fund. The year before Cotter retired, the couple established the William R. and Linda K. Cotter Debate Fund.

Linda Cotter died Jan. 8, 2021. The couple raised their three children, David, Elizabeth, and Deborah, in Waterville. After retiring from Colby, the couple lived in Concord, Mass.

Bill and Linda Cotter and children
Bill and Linda Cotter in 1979 with their children, David, Elizabeth, and Deborah.

Cotter was deeply active in civic and cultural life in Waterville and across Maine. Throughout his time at Colby, he helped raise money for a variety of community organizations and causes. “Basically, my philosophy is that it’s the people of Waterville who gave this campus to Colby,” he told the Morning Sentinel in 1997, explaining his devotion to the city.

He was a founding member of the Mid State Economic Development Corp. and established a loan fund to recruit businesses downtown. In another venture, he helped turn a vacant downtown building into an arts and community center. He served on an economic task force for the state and as a member of the advisory council of the Portland Museum of Art.

In recognition of his community work, the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce established the William R. Cotter Award to recognize his contributions to the community.

After leaving Mayflower Hill, he became involved with organizations that reflected his personal interests. He served as president of the Oak Foundation, an international organization that addresses issues of global, social, and environmental concerns; he was treasurer of the Massachusetts Historical Society; and an instructor on the Supreme Court for the Pierian Springs Academy in Florida.

Colby presidents and their spouses in 2014: William D. “Bro” Adams and Lauren Sterling, Carolyn and David Greene, and Linda and William Cotter. Cotter was president from 1979 to 2000, followed by Adams (2000 to 2014) and Greene (2014 to present).

Cotter was born March 9, 1936, in Detroit, Mich., and moved to Tarrytown, N.Y., when he was 11. Neither of his parents attended college, but Cotter set his sights high, earning admission to Harvard College and graduating magna cum laude in political science in 1958, and cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1961.

After earning his law degree, he was an MIT Fellow in Africa, serving as assistant attorney general in northern Nigeria. He worked for a New York law firm and as a White House Fellow as a special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. He spent three years as a Ford Foundation representative in Colombia and Venezuela.

Immediately prior to coming to Colby, he was president of the African-American Institute, a New York-based private organization that was concerned with development in Africa and relations between African countries and the United States.

“President Cotter lived a full and meaningful life and leaves a profound legacy through his accomplishments and the many lives he touched,” Greene said.

Associate Director of Communications Laura Meader contributed research for this story.

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