Olin Robison, 1936-2018

Tributes paid to pastor, foreign policy expert and college president

November 29, 2018
Olin Robison

A pastor, foreign policy expert and college president has died.

Olin Robison, who was born in Anacoco, Louisiana, in 1936, grew up in Texas and studied history, religion and philosophy at Baylor University (1958). He worked as a pastor in a Texan church while doing graduate work in theology and ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (1958-60) before moving to Regent’s Park College, Oxford for a DPhil in church history (1963). He also served as a civilian auxiliary chaplain in the US air force.

Returning to Texas, Dr Robison moved into academic administration as dean of students at San Marcos Academy, but in 1966, after a short period with the Peace Corps, he was appointed special assistant to the deputy undersecretary of state. He travelled widely, acted as a spokesman for the department and even represented it at the Rusk Commission on domestic intelligence.

In 1968 Dr Robison re-entered the academy as associate provost for social sciences at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, although he remained linked to the State Department and contributed to a detailed analysis of US foreign policy. He moved again in 1970 to become provost, dean of faculty and senior lecturer in public affairs at Bowdoin College in Maine and then president of Middlebury College in Vermont (1975-90).

At Middlebury, Dr Robison soon became known for his decisive leadership. He oversaw an $80 million (£62 million) capital campaign, increased the size of the faculty and developed a far more global focus, notably by creating the American Collegiate Consortium for East-West Cultural and Academic Exchange, which – most unusually for the time – brought in many students from the Soviet Union. He also used his strong media presence as a foreign policy expert to keep the college in the public eye.

“Olin brought an international perspective to an institution ready to broaden its reach and raise its profile,” said John McCardell Jr, Middlebury president from 1992 to 2004. “He also brought a distinctive eloquence in articulating the story of Middlebury, which he once described, with perspicacity, as ‘an international university masquerading as a liberal arts college’.”

After a year’s sabbatical, Dr Robison briefly returned to Middlebury to teach but was then appointed president of the Salzburg Global Seminar, a non-profit organisation designed to “challenge current and future leaders to shape a better world” (1991-2005). In retirement, he became closely involved in the US fundraising efforts of his old Oxford college and its Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture.

Dr Robison died on 22 October and is survived by three sons, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.


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