While at Salem High School, Bartlett was the Junior Class President, ASB President, and State Debate Champion. He received his B.A. from Stanford, and then attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, earning his M.A. there before returning to Stanford for his Ph.D., which he received in 1959. While still in graduate school, Bartlett was recruited to join the United States Permanent Mission to the United Nations to work on Arab-Israeli relations. From there, he became president of the American University in Cairo. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, he assumed the presidency of Colgate University, and the chancelorships of the University of Alabama System and the Oregon State System of Higher Education. He has also served as president of the Association of American Universities. The Thomas A. Bartlett Chair of English at Colgate University is named for him.