Former provost Sol Gittleman reflects on the undergraduate program’s journey to its current position of strength
When the U.S. State Department announced its Fulbright scholars for 2021–2022, Tufts was well represented. With 11 current and former Jumbos earning awards to study in eight countries, the university was closing in on a total of 400 Fulbright scholarships to date, underscoring its place among the country’s strongest international relations programs.
Funny to think it happened by accident.
Coming Home to Go Abroad
The Fulbright program began at the very end of World War II. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), the junior U.S. senator of a segregationist state, had studied in England and knew his country needed changing. Seeing huge piles of surplus war materiel left in ravaged countries across the globe, he proposed that proceeds from the sale of these much-needed goods be used for “the promotion of international goodwill through the exchange of students.”
There was a hitch. To get a federally recognized Fulbright award, you needed an undergraduate degree. And if you were headed to a non-English-speaking country, having some acquaintance with the host country’s language would be a distinct advantage.
No better place to make that acquaintance than college.
Enter Tufts. Congenitally short of funds, the school was kept alive by a flood of returning WWII service members who made up more than half of the incoming class right after the war. Funded by the G.I. Bill, this wave of worldly students at Tufts and other campuses changed American higher education forever. They were older than typical matriculants. Many had seen combat overseas and married people from other countries. And a handful had been trained by the military as translators, interpreters, and counterintelligence specialists.
Some were destined to be the faculty of the future. One, Seymour Simches, earned a Ph.D. in romance languages from Harvard. He arrived as an assistant professor at Tufts in 1954, with a fresh passport and an urgent desire to return to Paris, this time with his students. Within 10 years, Professor Simches was chair of the Department of Romance Languages and seeking supporters to jumpstart an idea buzzing in his mind: a junior year abroad.
I landed at Tufts in 1964, having had a Fulbright to Germany at the University of Tübingen in 1956. When the faculty of arts and sciences approved two study abroad programs, in Paris and Tübingen, in 1965, Simches’ dream became a reality. Tufts wasn’t an international relations juggernaut yet, but the college was on the map.
A French Connection
The next decade was a turbulent one, with the Vietnam draft, the civil rights and women’s rights movements, Woodstock, Stonewall, the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State rocking the Tufts campus.
Then came a surprise, in the form of a French-born leader.
Nothing in the previous 124 years of Tufts history could have prepared the university for Jean Mayer, who assumed the presidency on July 1, 1976. Passionate about world hunger and nutrition, Mayer in his first year talked the arts and sciences faculty into creating an interdisciplinary program of international relations, with John Gibson of political science as its director.
Mayer saw The Fletcher School, the graduate school in international relations launched in 1933, as a springboard to a university-wide internationalism. In 1979, Fletcher welcomed a new dean in Theodore Lyman Eliot Jr.—Ted Eliot for short—who signed on to Mayer’s vision. One of the partnership’s first acts was to hustle a federal appropriation for the expansion of Fletcher, including a new auditorium for undergraduate classes and office space for the undergraduate director of international relations.
Tufts international relations also had a home in Europe, thanks to Mayer’s seemingly inexplicable decision to accept the gift of a falling-down, 11th-century priory on Lake Annecy in the village of Talloires, France. Donald MacJannet, a 1916 Tufts graduate, had been running private camps for international students at the priory, but at age 90, he knew his time had come. Three earlier Tufts presidents had refused the deed to the property, but MacJannet had found his man in Mayer. The camp director and the new president sealed the deal for Tufts in Talloires soon after Mayer took office. Simches became its first director.
From there, international relations as an academic enterprise took off like a rocket. Tufts added foreign language offerings in Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese, Italian, and Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language. Language enrollments multiplied, with nearly half of the junior class by the end of the 1980s electing to study abroad.
The decade culminated with a grant from the F.W. Olin Foundation for a new building on the quad of the Medford-Somerville campus dedicated to foreign language instruction, the first award of its kind in the foundation’s history. In the late ’80s, Rand McNally singled out entering Tufts undergraduates to each receive a copy of the company’s world atlas and World Facts in Brief. The company’s president, Andrew McNally, called it a good investment for the future, and the practice continued for 10 years.
Much of the success of the junior semester and year abroad in that period was due to remarkable program directors whose continuity was extremely rare in academia. Sheila Bayne in Medford, Jaki Leversen in London, Virginia Remmers in Paris, Angel and Joan Berenguer in Barcelona and later Madrid, Bob Asch in Tübingen, and Gabriella Goldstein in Talloires knew each other, shared their experiences, and left legions of Tufts students with unforgettable memories.
Their dedication was total, and the smaller cities, in particular, reciprocated. Asch became a Tübingen celebrity, described in the town newspaper as “der beste Amerikaner.” Goldstein and the villagers of Talloires shared annual Alpine fitness climbs led by Rocky Carzo, the longtime director of athletics and head football coach at Tufts.
Once discovered by the greater Tufts community, Talloires became a cherished destination. Site of choice for Fletcher programs in Europe, the former priory also hosted international conferences in health sciences and physics, as well as international conventions of university presidents. Tufts undergraduates arrived each summer for a semester at Talloires.
Still more was happening back home. In 1988, Tufts historian Martin Sherwin inaugurated a course on the nuclear age taught live via satellite from the health sciences campus in Boston, with faculty and students in attendance from Moscow State University. By 1992, 11 such courses had been taught simultaneously in both countries, a pedagogical accomplishment that stunned the academic world.
Citizens of the World
Things only heated up after the Cold War ended. In recent decades, Tufts has expanded its study abroad programs to include Beijing, Chile, Ghana, Hong Kong, Japan, London, and Oxford, England. The university just launched a summer program in data science in Italy, and there are studio art programs in London and, for School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts students, at the lauded École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Back at home, Tufts is one of few universities in the U.S. to require two full years of foreign-language classes for undergraduates. For some students, the international exploration begins even earlier.
The 1+4 Bridge Year, launched in 2015 (and currently on pandemic hiatus), is Tufts’ take on a gap year and is supported by university financial aid for all who qualify. While living abroad for nine months and volunteering full-time for a local community-service organization—tutoring teens in Nicaragua, working with developmentally disabled youth in Madrid—high school graduates get a taste of the wider world before coming to Tufts for a four-year degree.
And that’s not all. The Tufts Civic Semester, which welcomed its inaugural cohort in 2019, provides an option for incoming students to spend their first semester working at a nonprofit in Peru or in the southwestern U.S. Participants take full-credit classes related to their community work, deepening their experiential learning.
On Tufts’ Medford-Somerville campus, the Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship program (better known as EPIIC) has for three decades brought together academics, policymakers, and student delegations from many countries to discuss current international issues in a year-long course and a student-organized symposium. The program, first created by Sherman Teichman as part of the Institute for Global Leadership, is now led by Abi Williams, F86, F87.
The graduate schools also offer international experiences, such as the School of Medicine’s global health program and the School of Dental Medicine’s international service-learning program.
What started in Europe has now reached almost every corner of the globe, with Tufts students and alumni learning and working in most of the world’s nations. Through a series of fortuitous events—including the serendipitous arrival of faculty and staff with insatiable curiosity about the world and the appointment of a singular président de l’université—Tufts became and remains a place that prioritizes understanding the globe we live on. As a kid from New Jersey who learned a lot during my own Fulbright year in Germany, I hope that will never change.
Sol Gittleman, H10, is the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor Emeritus and a former Tufts provost.