In Brief

John Gibson, Political Science Professor Emeritus, Dies

The “father of the international relations program” at Tufts, he taught from 1956 to 1995
January 16, 2018

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John S. Gibson, professor emeritus of political science who was regarded as the father of the international relations program at Tufts, died on September 17 at the age of ninety-one.

Serving Tufts for more than three decades, Gibson had “an insatiable passion for anything international—treaties, agreements, humanitarian law—he just loved it all,” said his son, Ross Gibson, A83. “Two days before he died, he was reading the New York Times cover to cover. He was always on top of what was going on.”

At Tufts, Gibson’s passion found fertile ground. He was the founding director of the international relations program, which grew rapidly from its start in 1977 to become the university’s largest undergraduate major by the 1990s.  

John Gibson “was a polished communicator who had great organizational skills, as well as a profound knowledge of international organizations,” said Sol Gittleman. “He was perfect for the role,” said Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor emeritus and former provost. “He was a polished communicator who had great organizational skills, as well as a profound knowledge of international organizations. And he was astonishingly well-dressed—he dressed like a diplomat. When he walked into an international agency in Geneva, you felt proud that he was representing Tufts.”

Born in Kokomo, Indiana in 1926 and raised in Mansfield, Ohio, Gibson joined the armed services at age 18; he served in World War II as a midshipman in the United States Maritime Service. After the war he attended Oberlin College, where he got involved in student politics. He earned a master’s degree in political science at Case-Western Reserve University and a Ph.D. in international law and comparative jurisprudence from Columbia University.

His directed the World Affairs Council of Rhode Island from 1952 to 1954 and the council in Boston from 1954 to 1957. At Babson Institute, now Babson College, he was the first chair of the Division of Liberal Arts and then first director of development, from 1957 to 1963.   

Gibson arrived at Tufts in 1956 as a lecturer in political science, and joined the faculty full time in 1963 as an associate professor. From 1966 to 1973 he was director of the Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Service, which focused on the intersection of education and citizenship, a precursor of today’s Tisch College of Civic Life. As director, Gibson led the center’s research and curriculum innovations, including developing instructional materials in racial and cultural diversity for elementary grades.

He was a sought-after consultant to school systems, foundations, and governmental agencies; from 1969 to 1972 he chaired the Mayor’s Committee on the Urban University in Boston.

Tufts, meanwhile, was eager to develop a full-fledged international relations program. President Jean Mayer, from France, was rallying support for such a program, which was gaining traction among students, said Gittleman. “It was a field that was of very strong interest to undergraduates; we recognized it had enough momentum to create a major,” he said. Increasing numbers of students were also opting to study abroad as options expanded, and the university was building a robust foreign language program, he said.

When the program launched in 1977, it marked an unprecedented collaboration, bringing together faculty from political science, economics, and history, the language departments and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Gibson, together with Pierre-Henry Laurent, professor of history emeritus, and then-dean of the Fletcher School Edmund Gullion, developed the curriculum.  He served two terms as director and taught Introduction to International Relations for a number of years. 

Gibson often consulted for foundations and governmental agencies, and during the 1960s was a three-time U.S. delegate to NATO conferences on secondary education. Such experiences earned the respect of faculty at the Fletcher School, where he was an adjunct professor, said Gittleman. His ability to bridge schools and disciplines, combined with his natural people skills, were critical assets in developing the new interdisciplinary program, said Gittleman.

“John could bring people together,” he said. “That’s how he made IR work.”

In 1995, Gibson’s contributions to Tufts were recognized with the Seymour Simches Award for Distinguished Teaching and Advising, which honored a lifetime of outstanding teaching and advising. That same year, upon his retirement, a faculty of Arts and Sciences citation underscored the significance of his achievements, saying he has “rightly been regarded as the ‘father of International Relations at Tufts.’” That same year, it noted, the international relations curriculum earned Tufts “the distinction of the single most respected undergraduate program in international relations in the United States.” Today, celebrating its fortieth anniversary, international relations consistently ranks among the three most popular majors on campus.  

Gibson’s legacy extends as well to the Tufts European Center of Talloires, France, inaugurated in 1979. He partnered with Laurent to shape the center’s first academic venture, a four-week program combined with weekly day-long visits to Geneva, headquarters for large international agencies. Gibson was able to open doors so that Tufts students could have a first-hand look at international organizations, said Gittleman.

A prolific writer, he authored books on international relations, human rights, and internationallaw, textbooks in inter-group relations, and federal and state government-sponsored studies. He also moderated a WGBH radio show, Massachusetts Viewpoint, and co-moderated a television series for teachers, Education and Race Relations.

True to his goal of bringing people together and building connections between countries, he also was involved with the State Department’s International Visitor Program for more than forty years and served from 1979 to 1980 as chair of the National Council for International Visitors, where many Tufts students secured internships.

He was married for 45 years to Edythe Rhorer of Kokomo, Indiana, who earned a master’s degree in French from Tufts and who passed away in 1996. Survivors include his wife, Nancy, and six children, three of whom are Tufts graduates.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.