Courtesy of Davenport College
Professor John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00 – known as J-Witt to many Davenport College students – announced during the winter break that he would be stepping down as principal of Davenport College after the spring semester 2022.
Witt announced the departure in an email to the Davenport community on Jan. 13, explaining that he would not seek reappointment after completing his five-year term as college principal 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 getting away from a community full of amazing students and generous scholarship recipients and a lot of intellectual and cultural excitement that has really been a wonderful part of my life for the past five years, so those are all things really hard to pull away,” Witt mentioned. “But right now, my teaching, my law students, my graduate students, and my research — I’ve put them on hold for a little too long and I have to get back to them.”
Witt said his five years in office presented a ‘natural decision point’ for deciding whether or not to seek re-election, but highlighted the difficulty of his choice, explaining that the role of leader was ‘so full of pleasures’. that he could crowd out other commitments.
Witt, who earned his bachelor’s degree, law degree and doctorate in history from Yale, was named principal in 2017, filling the role of longtime Davenport principal Richard Schottenfeld.
“Because of COVID, those five years don’t really have a good arc,” Witt said. “What strikes me, having been a student at Yale in the 1990s, is how vibrant the residential college scene remains in the face of all kinds of centrifugal forces.”
Izak Epstein ’19, who was a sophomore when Witt took on the role of chef, recalled the concerted effort Witt made to fit in with the Davenport community, having lunch in the Davenport Dining Hall every Tuesdays. At first, Epstein said, students were worried about disturbing Witt and were hesitant to sit with him, until Witt put up a sign at his table inviting them to join him.
In the years that followed, Witt told the News, he took particular pride in the events he organized in Davenport.
These include Residential College Teas with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and Man Booker, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first base coach and an opera singer, and other events co-hosted with cultural centers and university departments.
“There is a convening power that the headmaster of the university has to create events that hopefully open up the world to students, and secretly, or maybe not so secretly, also very engaging for the headmaster of university,” Witt said. “So that was really wonderful.”
In the remainder of his tenure as chief, Witt said he looks forward to resuming hosting “buzzing and engaging” events once public health conditions permit. Additionally, Witt said, he hoped a decrease in COVID-19 cases would allow Davenport to celebrate two other traditions — serving cheesesteaks to students at its annual “John’s Steaks” dinner and ending the spring semester with ” JD Day”. a celebration that features “mechanical sharks and lots and lots of backyard fun”.
The News spoke to 19 current and former Davenport students, who described Witt’s commitment to inclusivity and attention to detail during his five-year tenure as head of their university.
During Justin James’ 22 freshman year, Witt, who was his advisor, invited him to play tennis, James recalled.
“It was actually pretty awesome, to be honest,” James said. “It was my first time at a lawn club. He beat me too – that part wasn’t as good, but that’s okay, because I played really well. It was definitely a big bright spot.
Gillian Monsky ’19, who transferred to Yale as a junior the same year Witt became the college’s principal, said she was comforted to have a principal also starting in a new role.
When Monsky approached Witt in Davenport’s yard to ask if she could do some research for him, “he immediately said yes.”
“Chef Witt was incredibly kind, friendly and approachable,” Monsky wrote in an email. “He was also doing some really interesting research, which I would be helping with during the year. Head Witt always had a project I could work on and was both relaxed and dedicated to his work. He was always ready to have lunch with me in the dining room or talk about classes in his office.
Stuart Baker ’25 told The News he was “a bit shocked” when he first came to Yale and realized Witt already knew his name.
Witt’s ability to remember names impressed many students – Aidan Martin ’23 said he “couldn’t understand” Witt’s memory and Huahao Zhou ’22 was surprised on his first day at Yale by Witt’s perfect pronunciation of his name and the memory of his hometown.
Several students recalled Witt’s finals week tradition of dropping by Davenport Library around midnight with her golden retriever, Pixie, to hand out treats to students.
“He didn’t have to do these things,” Epstein said. “He’s a very smart and methodical guy. He purposely got closer to the students. He made himself available and he made himself visible.
Epstein highlighted Witt’s commitment to the inclusivity of all Davenport students, whether through the events he organized or the holidays he commemorated at Davenport Celebrations.
Wren Wolterbeek ’24 also highlighted Witt’s ability to support students through their individual challenges. When Wolterbeek’s computer crashed 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 l ‘to help.
“After a stressful time trying to find a solution, I emailed J-Witt for help and he was able to lend me a computer for the semester that day,” Wolterbeek said. “His quick response and support helped me find my bearings and Zoom connections during my first few weeks at Yale and I am grateful for his help after a difficult start at Yale.”
After Julie Tran ’22 lost her parents just before the pandemic hit, Witt advocated for her to be housed on campus and helped her find employment and resources for the uninsured.
“It really helped me during the time when I felt the most alone and I think all students need that kind of support from the staff because mental health is so crucial at Yale,” Tran said. . “Chief Witt has done so much to help me and I don’t think I would be here without his support.”
As the University searches for a new Principal of Davenport College, Tran hopes they find someone equally willing to champion Davenport students as a collective and on an individual level.
Yousra Omer ’22, an assistant at the University of Davenport, is part of the committee responsible for selecting the next director. She, too, appreciated Witt’s commitment to solving student problems, big and small, and hopes to see similar characteristics in the college’s next principal.
“Even though I will be graduating in May, I think future generations of Davenport students would benefit from having [a] HoC that 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 stopover along the way, but a place to reunite with friends and family. It often starts with students, but can only thrive if there is the support people like the dean and the CEO.”
Davenport College Dean Ryan Brasseaux will continue in his current role.