John DiBiaggio, Former Tufts President, Dies

The son of immigrants, he served from 1992 to 2001, emphasizing civic engagement and strengthening the university’s financial foundation

John DiBiaggio, whose presidency from 1992 until 2001 is credited with elevating the stature of Tufts University and strengthening its financial foundation, died on February 1. He was 87.

The eleventh president of Tufts, DiBiaggio was the son of Italian immigrants and the first in his family to go to college. Over his long career in higher education, he led three different universities and received numerous honorary degrees.

President Anthony Monaco said that “John DiBiaggio’s service as president of Tufts capped a remarkable career as a leader in American higher education and has had an enduring impact on the university. He enhanced the physical fabric of our campuses, secured the financial resources needed to support innovative academic programs, and gave new institutional form to Tufts’ longstanding commitment to public service and civic life. Active outside Tufts in an array of important national organizations and initiatives, he was at the same time deeply committed to the campus community, and when he retired was remembered for his openness and generosity of spirit. We are grateful for his many contributions, and our thoughts are with his wife Nancy DiBiaggio and their family.”

DiBiaggio is credited with having raised Tufts “to new levels of excellence,” as noted on the occasion of his retirement by the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences and Engineering (AS&E).

During his presidency, the university’s endowment tripled, and—to the benefit of students, faculty, and researchers—new facilities were established on all three of the university’s Massachusetts campuses, including the Jaharis Family Center for Biomedical Nutrition Research in Boston, the Bernice Barbour Wildlife Medicine Building in Grafton, and, on the Medford/Somerville campus, Tisch Library, Dowling Hall, and the Gantcher Family Sports and Convocation Center.

John DiBiaggio wearing academic regalia

The DiBiaggio Legacy

The eleventh president of Tufts, serving from 1992 to 2001, DiBiaggio emphasized civic engagement and strengthened the university’s financial foundation

DiBiaggio’s “vision for community learning, active citizenship, and global responsibility,” as characterized by the executive committee of the AS&E Faculty, is perhaps his most enduring legacy.

In 2000, DiBiaggio founded the University College of Citizenship and Public Service (UCCPS), a cornerstone of his presidency that Pierre Omidyar, A88, and Pam Omidyar, J89, helped bring to life with a $10 million gift.

“John was, at heart, a community builder,” said Pam Omidyar, “and he understood that this initiative would establish a community—a critical mass—of active citizens at Tufts.” Pierre Omidyar said, “Pam and I were pleased to partner with John to help turn a spirit of service that had long been a Tufts hallmark into what is now a critical, university-wide academic experience for thousands of students and alumni.” (University College of Citizenship and Public Service subsequently became the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, and is now the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.)

Rob Hollister, professor emeritus in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning and founding dean of Tisch College, called DiBiaggio “an ardent champion of student volunteer service who was determined to make civic education a strategic priority for the university. He challenged us to elevate the civic lives of all Tufts students by embedding education for active citizenship in the curriculum and extra-curriculum of all Tufts schools.” As a result, Hollister said, Tufts developed “a uniquely comprehensive approach that has powerfully influenced the rest of higher education.”

DiBiaggio was also an advocate of inter-university exchange and collaboration around public service. In the early 1990s, he and Senator Ted Kennedy invited twenty-five presidents of Massachusetts colleges and universities to breakfast at Gifford House, the residence of the university president, to discuss how to advance their service work, Hollister recalled. “By the end of the meal, the group had created a statewide association, Massachusetts Campus Compact, that grew to over sixty members and continues to be a powerful advocate of service learning,” said Hollister.

Jonathan M. Tisch, A76, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels & Co, who created a permanent endowment for UCCPS when it became the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, agreed that DiBiaggio’s leadership left an indelible imprint on the life of the university—and well beyond.

“John was a passionate and inclusive leader who inspired common goals across Tufts. He understood that we could accomplish more by working together and recognized the importance of educating and training our future leaders to be engaged, active citizens,” said Tisch. “The University College was a visionary model on how to maximize impact and I am honored to have my name associated with one of John’s lasting legacies.”

Alan D. Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College, said of DiBiaggio’s decision to place civic engagement at the center of a Tufts education that he “ensured that thousands of students would benefit from service-learning programs, civic engagement opportunities, internships, community partnerships and courses, and that civic learning would be embedded in the full academic experience of our university.” DiBiaggio’s is a “legacy of civic leadership,” said Solomont, for which Tufts will be forever grateful.

Trustee emeritus Nathan Gantcher, A62, H04, worked closely with DiBiaggio as chair of the university board of trustees, partnering with him in supporting his vision for the university. During the course of their work together, Tufts embarked on Tufts Tomorrow, a $400 million fundraising campaign. As that goal appeared within reach, the campaign goal was increased to $600 million, reflecting confidence in the loyalty, pride, and generosity of Tufts’ supporters worldwide.

“John was always ready to go the extra distance because he believed in Tufts,” said Gantcher. “It was a privilege to be part of a truly transformative chapter in Tufts history—a chapter that was clearly led by John DiBiaggio and his wife Nancy. They were truly partners at Tufts as well as in their lives’ together.”

Other former members of the Board of Trustees who worked closely with DiBiaggio shared similar remembrances. Board member emerita Marilyn Ducksworth-Davis, J78, AG79, offered that he was “a president who opened his doors to all and boldly expressed his commitment to public service with emphatic passion. Known for his warmth, dedication, and love of university life, he enriched all our lives by embracing diversity, encouraging volunteerism, and leading with his whole heart.”

His Excellency Issam M. Fares, H00, A92P, A06P, also a former trustee, said that “John was a good friend to me and my family and was a great asset for the growth of Tufts. I have fond memories of the times we spent together both on the Tufts campus and during his visits to Europe. He will be greatly missed.”

Trustee emeritus Plácido Arango, A81P, A84P, a past member of the International Board of Advisors, worked closely with DiBiaggio to achieve critical priorities, including endowed scholarships and construction that vastly improved core facilities, such as Tisch Library and the Aidekman Arts Gallery. “John’s vision for the university was all-encompassing and inspiring,” said Arango, who also helped endow the DiBiaggio Professorship of Citizenship and Public Service, established in 2002 in the School of Arts and Science, and now held by Gilbert Metcalf, professor in the Department of Economics. “I was one of many who got behind John DiBiaggio because we knew it was the right and necessary thing to do to move Tufts forward.”

DiBiaggio was president when James Glaser, now dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, started at Tufts as an “inexperienced” assistant professor. “I recall his many kindnesses to me,” Glaser said, adding that the Medford/Somerville campus “certainly changed on his watch. Tisch Library, Tisch College, and centralizing student services in Dowling Hall all came to be while he was president. He also attracted some excellent people to the university. Both are important legacies.”

Trustee emeritus Peter Ackerman, F69, F71, FG76, A02P, F03P, offered that during his time working with DiBiaggio, he was impressed with his “his strategic acumen that focused on solidifying and growing the financial foundation of the university. At the same time, John was committed to enhancing the competitive position of all the schools of the university, including Fletcher. We all benefited from his astute administration and keen insights about what needed to be done for both the present and future of Tufts.”

Over their years in Gifford House, DiBiaggio and his wife, Nancy, warmly welcomed thousands of Tufts’ friends and family and international dignitaries to the president’s residence. Throngs of faculty, staff, and students crowded into their decorated home during the holidays, where the family’s two West Highland Terriers also made the rounds. On warmer, sunnier days, one might see DiBiaggio’s beloved antique Packards parked in the driveway along, appropriately, Packard Avenue.

Harvard University President Larry Bacow said he was “very fortunate” to succeed DiBiaggio as the twelfth president of Tufts. “He was extraordinarily generous with both his time and his wisdom, and he gave me great advice that I have passed onto many people over the years: Always do the right thing. That simple imperative shined through in John’s leadership of three of the country’s great universities. American higher education is stronger today for his many efforts, and I am proud to have known him and to have called him not only a mentor and a colleague, but also a friend.”

The son of Italian immigrants, DiBiaggio grew up in Detroit, where his father worked in a factory. As he recalled in an interview with the University of Michigan, his parents set high expectations for good grades and for his attending university. His academic career began with his position as an assistant dean at the University of Kentucky.

He would go on to serve as dean of the dental school at Virginia Commonwealth University; vice president for health affairs and executive director of the medical center at the University of Connecticut from 1976 to 1979; president of the University of Connecticut from 1979 to 1985; president of Michigan State University from 1985 to 1992; and then president of Tufts, retiring from Tufts in 2001. Following his retirement from Tufts, he served two terms as a trustee of the University of Massachusetts, as appointed by U.S. Senator John Kerry.

DiBiaggio held a lifelong commitment to volunteering and served on the boards of the American Council on Education, Campus Compact, Golden Key National Honor Society, the American Film Institute, and the NCAA Foundation, among others. He was also a member of the Commission on the International Exchange of Scholars and served as president of the board of the American Cancer Society Foundation.

Of all his accomplishments at Tufts, DiBiaggio reflected that he was “particularly proud” to see the growth of “real collaboration”—in the form of joint academic programs and research—and the sharing of ideas among scholars, researchers, and Tufts students on all campuses.

“Universities typically find themselves operating in ‘silos,’ with each school focused on doing what it does best—within its own discipline,” he said in 2000. “Tufts has very low walls from one school to the next and everyone—students, faculty, and staff—benefits. We now have fourteen joint-degree programs, up from one when I arrived. And each of our schools is participating in university-wide, internationally focused initiatives, on aging, children’s issues and the environment. As a result, Tufts is far greater than the sum of its parts.”

Gifts in memory of John DiBiaggio may be made to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

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