Former provost recalls the leaders who built the Tufts we know and love
By the time the Universalist Church got around to starting its first college, in 1852, most of the other Protestant denominations in the United States were way ahead. Hundreds of Calvinist, Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian colleges dotted the country, teaching the Creation story from Genesis, assured that when the Messiah returned, only members of their denomination would be saved; the rest would be sent to perdition.
The Universalists had a much cheerier proposition: don’t worry, everyone would be saved! Nice folks. With that all-embracing religious humanism, they set about the business of education—for which purpose a wealthy brick manufacturer, Charles Tufts, donated 20 acres spreading down from Walnut Hill in Medford, a gift he later expanded to 100 acres.
In the story of Tufts and its presidents we see the unique journey of American higher education: at the outset, the dominance of faith; then, after the Civil War, a need to support pragmatic learning as part of the Industrial Revolution, with professional schools of medicine, dental medicine and engineering; before World War I, the influence of the newly created German degree, the Ph.D.; and after World War II, a quest for balance between research and teaching, science and humanities. The
The first four presidents were Universalist ministers and appropriately had something named after them. President Ballou got the first big building with the pillars, Ballou Hall; Alonzo Ames Miner (1862-1875), a smaller building (Miner Hall). Elmer Hewitt Capen (1875-1905) gave his residence on Professors Row to the college, and they named it after him (Capen House). He deserved more, because he convinced the trustee Phineas T. Barnum to build a science hall and to donate his prized circus
Frederick W. Hamilton (1905-1912), the last clergyman-president, got only a swimming pool for his efforts to solve a campus gender problem: the female students who had been admitted during President Capen’s term were taking away too many prizes from the male students, so in 1911 Hamilton created Jackson College for Women. He also wanted a separate faculty, but there never was enough money for that. In fact, selling off land was the only way the little college could survive.
By 1915, when Hermon Carey Bumpus assumed the presidency, American higher education had undergone a sea change. The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 had created the public state system that emphasized agriculture, mining and manufacture—the “A&M” universities that eventually would teach the majority of American college students.
Moving on from Ministers
In this changing milieu, small church-affiliated colleges like Tufts were closing all over the country, and the survivors looked for any port in the storm. Tufts gave up on Universalist ministers and turned to its first Ph.D. president, Bumpus, who had done research at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole and the American Museum of Natural History.
It took him only three years to realize that the Tufts faculty, with a single-minded love of teaching, was not interested in the new research agenda, and he abruptly left for the University of Wisconsin in 1919.
In 1922, Harvard conceived the unwritten law of New England higher education that limited the admission of East European Jews and Italian Catholics. Properly mannered German Jews had no difficulty, nor did the Irish Catholics, who had Notre Dame, Holy Cross and Boston College. But the Russian Jews and Italians looked different! Quietly and without faculty input, President Cousens instituted ethnic quotas the same year Harvard did. His 18-year term ended when he died in office.
The seventh and eighth Tufts presidents were a tandem, ambitious and beloved, determined to haul the pleasant New England college with consistently very good students and an underachieving and contented faculty into the 20th century. Both came out of the University of Rochester with Ph.D.s in psychology; each served for more than a decade and left in his mid-fifties for another career, unable to shake up the tranquil Tufts community.
Carmichael and Wessell sought faculty with Ph.D.s, promoted research as part of the mission, even changed the name of Tufts College to Tufts University, got as far as they could, and left. The trustees begged both to stay. Wessell ended the student quotas before he
When Burton Hallowell (1967-1976), a Princeton-trained economist, took over as ninth president, he looked forward to the challenge; instead, he got the 1960s.
Then, at the darkest moment, the gods smiled on Walnut Hill.
The Whirlwind Presidency
Nothing in our history had prepared Tufts for the arrival of Jean Mayer (1976-1992) as the 10th president. A soldier and scholar—he fought the Nazis with the Free French and earned doctorates in chemistry and physiology from Yale and the Sorbonne—he settled in the United States and became a leader in nutrition science, a field that was of little interest to mainstream medical doctors. He landed at Harvard’s School of Public Health, worked the hallways of Washington, D.C., to make nutrition policy and wanted to be president of a university in Boston that had a medical school, so he could inoculate the disease-oriented medical profession with the magic of prevention.
Normally, when a candidate remains in a presidential process until the very end, he’s committed. So when the offer was made to Woolf, all expectations were that he would accept immediately. Instead he hesitated, and nearly two weeks later, to the shock of the search committee, he declined. Panicky trustees went quickly to the second choice, but he had already taken another job. In desperation, they turned to the distant third choice: the Frenchman from Harvard, whom no one really wanted.
An emergency meeting was called at the Boston Harvard Club, and three embarrassed trustees offered Mayer the Tufts presidency, not knowing what to expect and worried about either possible answer. After a tense 10 seconds, Mayer leaped from his chair and shouted, “I’ll do it!” Tufts University was about to begin the ride of a lifetime.
By the time he retired 16 years later, he had transformed the university. Mayer had led two fundraising campaigns that brought in $400 million, an unimaginable amount for this diffident school with a history of not asking alumni for money. He found another $100 million by going to the Massachusetts congressional delegation.
Mayer, the nutritionist with a vision, knew that the medical researchers who ran the National Institutes of Health award panels were not interested in wellness or prevention; they were interested only in disease. Mayer needed money for his nutrition agenda. He found two young Beltway lobbyists named Schlossberg and Cassidy, who had access to the powerful Massachusetts congressman Tip O’Neill. Mayer charmed him and told him that Massachusetts senior citizens desperately needed nutritional evaluations.
A convinced O’Neill told the Department of Agriculture to put aside $10 million for a nutrition center at Tufts. When Agriculture bureaucrats questioned these instructions, O’Neill said, “Do it and don’t ask why!” Thirty years later, two MIT economists, writing in The National Bureau of Economics Working Papers, declared this moment “the birth of academic earmarks.” Jean Mayer had invented the academic pork barrel. To the annoyance of Penn and Cornell, he secured another $10 million for a veterinary school for New England, and Tufts was on its way.
In Mayer’s second year, Admissions unexpectedly received 300 more acceptances than its model predicted, and the university hastily rented space in the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Harvard Square and arranged for shuttle transportation. The Mayer whirlwind was in full force. He made enemies, he made friends, he charmed many and infuriated others; but his presidency was never dull.
Having It All
In 1991 an exhausted Board of Trustees pushed him out because its members needed more order in their corporate lives. Jean Mayer was elevated to the honorific position of chancellor, and died a year later. He left a Tufts that would have been unrecognizable 15 years earlier.
John DiBiaggio enjoyed his presidency more than any other incumbent in Tufts history. He found a university with resources that it previously never knew. He was a charming, outgoing, enormously friendly man, perfect for another major fundraising campaign, and he went on the road immediately. He was Tufts’ first professional president. By the time he stepped down in 2001, Tufts had raised another $600 million, this time, significantly, from alumni now ready and willing to give. Between the Mayer and DiBiaggio presidencies, Tufts had raised $1 billion in 25 years, a figure that would have left all previous Tufts presidents, trustees and alumni in total disbelief.
It didn’t happen. Our commitment to undergraduate education was a strong pull for the Tufts president, as was our well-established drive to make the world a better place. We have reached an equilibrium between teaching and research, between the sciences, the humanities, social sciences and arts. Among the thousands of colleges and universities in this country, Tufts has found its own unique pulse.
Thirteen presidents, each with his own legacy: an extraordinary journey, with more to come.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Tufts Magazine.
Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies and biblical literature and is a former provost.