A '60s Child Turns 50: Tufts’ ExCollege Thrives After All These Years

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass.– In the 1960s, amid strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations, campuses across the United States saw the rise of another movement: experimental colleges envisioned as incubators for new ideas about teaching and learning.  While many of these colleges have long since vanished, the ExCollege at Tufts University is still thriving after 50 years and will celebrate its half-century mark this April.  

"We believe we are the oldest experimental college in the country," said Robyn Gittleman, director of the ExCollege. "We have always envisioned the ExCollege as a bridge to what's going on in the world, providing courses that make our students think in new and different ways.”

Real World Teachers and Rigorous Course Selection
Over the years, the ExCollege has welcomed CEOs, filmmakers, lawyers, journalists, and students themselves as teachers.

"What I really loved about the ExCollege is that it was, and continues to be, truly ‘student centric,’ " says Tufts alumna and trustee Deborah Jospin. Jospin is a partner and cofounder of  sagawa/jospin, a consulting firm to non-profits, and the former director of AmeriCorps. "As a junior and senior teaching at the ExCollege I was treated like a responsible adult who had something to teach, something to give back."

Each semester the ExCollege receives proposals for approximately 120 courses; only about 20 will be chosen.  Those select few are the result of a rigorous evaluation process by faculty and students,  who work side by side to set policy, select new courses, interview prospective instructors, plan campus events, and develop new initiatives. During the course selection process, department and program chairs review each proposed course syllabus for merit. Students and faculty interview prospective instructors about their proposals. The ExCollege board, which consists of five faculty members and five students, then makes the final decision. All ExCollege courses count as electives toward graduation.

"For a course to be chosen by the ExCollege the instructor’s application is reviewed start to finish by approximately eight Tufts faculty members," noted Gittleman.

Many of the instructors who are chosen to lecture are accomplished professionals,  teaching courses on topics as varied as forensic science, the business of sports, the democratic transition in Libya, "Obamacare" and experimenting with philanthropy.

"When establishing the ExCollege we felt it was important to connect with those in the larger Boston community who could bring new areas of expertise with them," said James Glaser, dean of Academic Affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts.  "The ExCollege courses are designed to be discussion-based and participatory in nature. They typically focus on current affairs and issues of importance in the lives of Tufts students. "

Building Entrepreneurism
Peer teaching has been an integral part of the ExCollege since 1966. Students with expertise in a particular area plan and teach their own courses, providing a supportive learning community that helps new students acclimate to the academic and social aspects of Tufts.

James Stern, chairman emeritus of the Tufts board of trustees, earned a degree in engineering at Tufts before going on to Harvard Business School.  He is now chair of the private equity firm Cypress Group LLC. As a Tufts junior and senior, Stern taught an ExCollege course on the "Legal Aspects of Environmental Quality."

"I did a long independent study from which I wrote a thesis, and my research was the basis for my course," he said. "What did I learn?  That teaching --if done well-- is serious work in terms of preparation and thought.  And I worked really hard. Did it get me into Harvard Business School?  I doubt it.  But the entire process, from planning the independent study to preparing the course outline, selling the concept to the ExCollege, cajoling interesting people to be guest speakers, and then teaching, certainly helped me as a future entrepreneur and self-starter."

More than 60 percent of undergraduates take ExCollege courses while at Tufts, with close to 1,500 registered each year, says ExCollege Associate Director Howard Woolf. 

Areas of study at Tufts that grew out of the ExCollege are as diverse as the university itself. Communications and media studies, computer science, Japanese, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies are just a few examples.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary, there will be a weekend filled with festivities kicking off on Friday, April 11.  Anniversary events, which are focused on "Into the Future: Challenges to Higher Education in the 21st Century," include a series of panels and roundtable discussions, a keynote address by Andrew Delbanco, American Studies professor at Columbia University, as well as a gala on Saturday, April 12 at the Museum of Science for ExCollege alumni and faculty. Festivities also include an exhibit at the Tisch Library showcasing the important moments in the history of the ExCollege, as well as an exhibit at the Slater Concourse Gallery in the Aidekman Arts Center which will include a wall-sized timeline displaying the history of the ExCollege and how it coincided with important events in United States history over the past 50 years.


Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.



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