Colby-Sawyer was founded in 1837 when a legislative charter was granted to eleven New London citizens for the purpose of establishing a school in the town and a building was erected with the support of the town to house said school. This building remains today and serves as the New London town offices, having been gifted to the town by the college in 1999.
In May of 1838, the Academy welcomed its first students led by Susan Colby, the Academy's first teacher and lady principal as well as the daughter of one of the Academy's founders. Colby later married James B. Colgate of New York, but remained actively involved with the school's progress. Each generation of Susan Colby Colgate's family has remained connected to the college and Colgate Hall, the central classroom and office building on campus, was the gift of Susan's daughter, Mary Colgate. This special relationship with the Colby family was formally recognized in 1878 when the New London Academy was renamed Colby Academy.
In 1928, after ninety years as a coeducational academy, Colby Academy became a junior college for women. Under the strong leadership of President H. Leslie Sawyer, Colby Junior College became widely recognized and acquired a national reputation. Enrollment grew and new buildings were constructed to meet the growing number of applicants to the college's programs. In 1943 the College Charter was amended to allow for the introduction of baccalaureate programs. As these programs were gradually expanded, more and more students enrolled and the character of the college shifted as women began to move in increasing numbers into the baccalaureate programs. Dr. Sawyer served as headmaster of Colby Academy from 1922-1928 and remained president of Colby Junior College until his retirement in 1955. For the next 30 years his successors contributed to further growth and expansion, each one leaving an individual stamp on the college as a scholar and educator. Presidents Eugene M. Austin (1955-1962) and Everett M. Woodman (1962-1972) shaped the development and diversity of the student body and had a vision for the future during a period of unusual prosperity.
In 1975 the college was renamed Colby-Sawyer in honor of its first president and in recognition of its enlarged mission. The college began its transition to a senior institution during the administration of Louis C. Vaccaro (1972-1978) and completed this change under the presidency of H. Nicholas Muller, III, (1978-1986). Dr. Muller was instrumental in the establishment of the new Library/Learning Center which won awards for its innovative design and today provides an environment which is extraordinarily conducive to study and learning.
Peggy A. Stock (1986-1995), sixth president of the college, increased enrollment, completed a successful capital campaign, and constructed or renovated several buildings, including Rooke Hall. In 1989, the Board of Trustees voted to admit both men and women, returning the college to its coeducational roots.
Anne Ponder served as the seventh president of Colby-Sawyer College from 1996 to 2005. She led the largest capital campaign in college history, raising more than $40 million for endowment, capital projects, and academic support. Earlier in her tenure, President Ponder led a drive to return a historic building, now named Lethbridge Lodge, to campus for student use, extended the college's contiguous landholdings to 200 acres. She also built two new residence halls, Danforth and Lawson Halls.
In August 2006, Thomas C. Galligan Jr., the former dean and professor of law at the University of Tennessee College of Law, took office as the college's eighth president. Following a nationwide search, President Galligan was selected unanimously by the Board of Trustees. In his ten years of leadership, Colby-Sawyer doubled its number of academic majors, introduced distance education, diversified its student body, committed to sustainability, improved and expanded facilities, and rededicated itself to making a private education accessible to all students.
On July 1, 2016, Susan D. Stuebner, Ed.D., former executive vice president and chief operating officer at Allegheny College in Meadville, Penn., took office as the college's ninth president. She was selected unanimously by the Board of Trustees after a nationwide search in part for her strategic, financial and planning acumen as well as her experience and willingness to drive greater philanthropic support.