Program History

The History of Williams-Mystic

Jim Carlton and Ben Labaree hold a Williams-Mystic pennant
Jim Carlton and Ben Labaree hold a Williams-Mystic pennant

Professor Benjamin W. Labaree of Williams College—who was also on the faculty of the Frank C. Munson Institute, Mystic Seaport’s graduate program in maritime history—conceived the notion of a one-semester undergraduate program in maritime studies after several winters spent bringing a group of Williams students to Mystic Seaport Museum for the January academic term. Ben and his students sketched the original plan for a full semester on a napkin in a Dunkin’ Donuts, where they had paused for a snack on their ride back to Williamstown.

After several years of planning with Mystic Seaport Museum, Ben founded the Williams-Mystic Program in 1977. Many supporters at Mystic Seaport, including the great shipbuilding Mallory family, were instrumental in developing and supporting Williams-Mystic.

Over four decades later, the Williams-Mystic Program is thriving, with over 1,800 alumni in a variety of career fields and professions. Williams-Mystic is the premier undergraduate program offering interdisciplinary semester-long courses in maritime literature, history, policy, and science. The program is a member of the Twelve-College Exchange and welcomes students from all accredited colleges and universities across the United States.

Founding Educational Inspiration for Williams-Mystic

Ben Labaree and Jim Carlton row out in a boat to see Williams-Mystic students on the Corwith Cramer ship during their offshore sailing trip.
Ben Labaree and Jim Carlton row out in a boat to see Williams-Mystic students on the Corwith Cramer ship during their offshore sailing trip.

Let a group of able students come together to study a single subject, the sea, and humankind’s relationship to it. Have them all approach this subject through the same four disciplines: history, science, literature, and policy, taught by the same three or four faculty members. Let them live together at a museum that is itself dedicated to maritime study and is located at the edge of the sea, away from the distractions of their home campuses so that they can learn together.  Take them on field trips, near and far, to learn of other marine habitats.  Have them go to sea as the crew of a sailing vessel, offshore, out of sight of land, for ten days or so to experience life at sea. Then let them return to the classroom where these experiences will bring new meanings to their academic study. Do all this and you will have provided them with the best teachers possible: themselves.

- Benjamin W. Labaree, Founder

Thoughts from Williams College President, Maud S. Mandel

Williams President Maud S. Mandel posed with two Williams-Mystic students who are dressed in ocean-themed costumes.

"In its combination of hands-on learning, emphasis on applied research, and close faculty-student engagement, Williams-Mystic embodies the kind of liberal arts education that has defined the college since its founding. The Williams-Mystic program is engaged with some of the most urgent issues of our time, including climate change, environmental justice, and international trade. These are all topics that are central to the college’s strategic planning, and it’s exciting to imagine the ways in which the Mystic program can contribute to the vision of Williams College in the third decade of the 21st century."

- Maud S. Mandel, President of Williams College

Interested in becoming a part of Williams-Mystic in the future?

If you’re interested in learning more about the program, we invite you request information or jump right in and start an application today!