Miracle on College Ave.

The story of Eliot-Pearson, the great department that almost wasn’t

olf photo of Eliot-Pearson building from early 1960s

It was my first Tufts faculty meeting, early September 1964. I figured it would be mostly ceremonial—a few greetings, a welcome back to campus, smiles all around. In the Coolidge Room, President Wessell called the meeting to order . . . and all hell broke loose.

A dozen hands shot up, demanding recognition to speak. There was a motion, seconded, to eliminate four programs from the College of Special Studies (an academic bucket used by the administration to dump dubious programs the liberal arts faculty was suspicious of): the Forsythe dental hygiene certificate, Bouvé-Boston School of Physical Education, the Boston School of Occupational Therapy (BSOT) and the Eliot-Pearson School in early childhood education. Although all four were made up mostly of female students, the most aggressive opponents were women faculty in the departments of psychology and biology. It was war.

The weapons were academic: neither the students nor the faculty were up to “Jackson standards,” and the programs lacked intellectual rigor. Three women psychologists rose, one after the other, to question the credentials of those in Eliot-Pearson who deemed “child study” a scholarly field. It looked as if all four programs were fated for the dustbin. Then another hand went up.

Bernie Harleston was the only black faculty member in Arts, Sciences and Engineering. He was also a tenured professor of psychology, a respected scholar and a terrific teacher who hosted a popular television course in the 1960s called Motivation. Bernie spoke, the faculty listened. He described President Lyndon Johnson’s new initiative called Head Start, which examined the impact of poverty on preschool children and the benefits of early educational intervention. Research was needed in early child development, he said, and Eliot-Pearson was uniquely qualified to undertake it.

The faculty mood swung. Someone got up to praise the Boston School of Occupational Therapy, saying it wasn’t such a bad idea to have some vocational training in a liberal arts setting. While the women professors in the psychology department frantically tried to regain momentum, a motion for adjournment—nondebatable—was made, and the faculty wandered away from Ballou Hall. Within weeks the dental hygiene and women’s physical education programs had been terminated.

Nils Wessel, himself a psychologist and in his final year as Tufts president, had made up his mind. He would give Dean of Arts and Sciences Charles Stearns two programs to build on—a gamble for the future of Tufts, which only a few years earlier had stopped calling itself a college and now wanted urgently to become a university. He ordered that the BSOT be moved down to the medical school, out of sight of the Medford faculty; then, in his final act as president, he made the Eliot-Pearson School a full-fledged department in the College of Liberal Arts. Some in psychology and biology grumbled, but it was too late.

Many thought Eliot-Pearson would fail. But they underestimated Evelyn Pitcher, the department’s godmother and only full-time faculty member. Pitcher sniffed out federal dollars in LBJ’s War on Poverty, which was creating institutes, workshops and centers for early education teachers who needed expertise in mainstreaming special needs children.

Piaget’s developmental psychology proved to be the wave of the future, and Evelyn Pitcher’s department was swimming with the tide. She did everything, including delivering eggs and sides of beef from her New Hampshire farm for her faculty. In the 1960s and early 1970s, when Tufts University wasn’t raising two nickels, she was a fundraising dynamo. She had a knack for cultivating alumnae whose first loyalty was to Eliot-Pearson, not Tufts. At the north end of the campus on College Avenue in Medford, new buildings, classrooms and observing rooms rose up.

Pitcher also built a rock-solid faculty. Starting out with an assemblage of female part-timers, she hired David Feldman—the first tenured male—and gave Sylvia Feinburg a full-time appointment. Pitcher created the departmental DNA for the next half-century: great teaching, great concern for students, serious scholarship.

Those who followed shared that academic culture: David Elkind, Kathleen Camara, Maryanne Wolf, Don Wertlieb, Fred Rothbaum, Martha Pott, Chip Gidney, Jayanthi Mistry, Ann Easterbrooks, Ellen Pinderhughes, George Scarlett, Marina Bers, Francine Jacobs, Rich Lerner and still others.

Now it is the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, with enormous undergraduate enrollments, large numbers of male and female majors, and a Ph.D. program ranked among the best in the nation. It almost got strangled in its crib. Instead, it became the miracle on College Avenue: lucky for Tufts.

Or was it more than luck? That first faculty meeting was on-the-job training. I saw Bernie Harleston ignore narrow departmental interests and think of what might benefit his university. That was as rare 50 years ago as it is now. There was Nils Wessel, with his vision of a department that would someday align with federal funding priorities. Then there was Evelyn Pitcher, who showed me for the first time what departmental leadership really meant.

It’s always more than luck; it takes people, too.

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 of the university.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tufts Magazine.

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