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Thirteen Visionaries

The presidents 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 twenty acres spreading down from Walnut Hill in Medford, a gift he later expanded to a hundred acres. Tufts College enrolled its first class by 1854: seven students taught by four professors, all clergymen. And in charge of the proceedings was one of the most prominent Universalist ministers in the country, Hosea Ballou II (who served 1853–1861). He was the first of thirteen Tufts presidents (not including two short-term interim heads), each of whom would play a part in the college’s transformation.

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 singular path we discovered for ourselves came with the help of thirteen visionaries.

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 elephant, Jumbo, to Tufts. 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.

Capen and Hamilton were Tufts alumni. William Leslie Hooper, acting president from 1912 to 1914, was the first Tufts president drawn from the faculty. He built a residence at 124 Professors Row that’s now Hooper Infirmary.

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. And philanthropist-industrialists named Hopkins, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Stanford, Mellon, Duke, and Cornell wanted to import the German university model, with its Ph.D. research degree, thereby reducing the distraction posed by immature undergraduates. Harvard, Columbia, Pennsylvania, Yale, and finally Princeton embraced basic research and postgraduate study, even while holding on to their tuition-paying undergraduates. The great Harvard psychologist William James called the Ph.D. an “octopus” that would “strangle teaching.”

In this changing milieu, small church-affiliated colleges like Tufts were closing all over the country, and the survivors looked for any port in this 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.

The sixth Tufts president was an alumnus, John Albert Cousens (1919–1937), who took over at a time of growing consternation over European ethnic groups on college campuses. Dean Frank G. Wren (Wren Hall) lamented in 1918 that “the foreign element is creeping in.” 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 eighteen-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 twentieth 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. Leonard Carmichael (1938–1952) and his hand-picked successor, Nils Wessell (1953–1966), inspired the students to commit to community service, and the Leonard Carmichael Society, Tufts’ large student-run volunteer organization, is an enduring tribute to its namesake. Tufts undergraduates were out in the street helping others when their counterparts in Cambridge were still swallowing goldfish.

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 departed in 1965 and saw to the hiring of the first non-Protestants in History (remember George Marcopoulos? Greek Orthodox) and English. (The latter might have been an accident. Who would have guessed, from a name like Sylvan Barnet, that the department had just hired its first Jew? He had a Harvard Ph.D. like everyone else and even wore a bow tie!) But without financial resources, Tufts could go nowhere. The Board of Trustees believed it was bad manners to ask alumni for money, and Tufts floundered.

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. His tenure was marred by building occupations and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, parietals, and anything else that angry students could blame on the university, until he threw in the towel in 1975. He left Tufts with a precariously balanced budget, little hope for fundraising, and a self-study report that described the next five years as dangerous, and the five after that as potentially fatal. One local historian of higher education wrote that Tufts “might no longer be viable” as an academic institution.

Then, at the darkest moment, the gods smiled on Walnut Hill.

Nothing in our history had prepared Tufts for the arrival of Jean Mayer (1976–1992) as the tenth 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.

Professor Mayer had no hope at Harvard, so he tried Boston University: no sale. They selected John Silber in 1971 instead. He had already tried Tufts, but they picked Burt Hallowell in 1967. Always the optimist, Mayer was a candidate once again at Tufts after Hallowell in 1976, and again he was rejected; the presidency of Tufts was offered to Harry Woolf, provost of Johns Hopkins. 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 ten 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 sixteen 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 three hundred 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. 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 fifteen years earlier.

The trustees found the orderly eleventh president they wanted, someone who, for the first time in Tufts history, had already led a university. In fact, John DiBiaggio (1992–2001) had been president twice, first at the University of Connecticut and then at Michigan State. He was a dentist and career administrator, a manager, an executive accustomed to organization, delegation of authority, and consensus: all the things Jean Mayer happily ignored.

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 twenty-five years, a figure that would have left all previous Tufts presidents, trustees, and alumni in total disbelief.

When Larry Bacow (2001–2011) became the twelfth Tufts president, the university was for the first time in its history prepared for an explosion of academic achievement. Bacow, who hailed from MIT, possessed the best qualities of his two predecessors: Mayer’s vision, energy, brains, and charm, and DiBiaggio’s emotional intelligence and ability to deal with people of all classes. Jean Mayer had transformed a pleasant New England college into a dynamic research university that still cherished undergraduates; it was Larry Bacow who took that university on a supercharged elevator ride toward universal excellence. Bacow was also aware that fundraising never stops. He took on one enormous campaign for $1.2 billion, then handed the university over to Anthony P. Monaco, the thirteenth president, in 2011.

Monaco is another first for Tufts: the first M.D., the first neuroscientist, the first president who, when he assumed office, instantly became one of the most respected research scientists on the faculty. He knows how to build interdisciplinary bridges across the university—in this day, an absolute necessity. He has also discovered for himself the basic DNA of Tufts: an intimate teaching university where everyone does research. From the start, his heart beat to the pulse of the undergraduates. At first, the humanities faculty in Arts and Sciences was nervous: everyone knows how important scientific research is to the reputation of the modern American university, and the construction plans seemed to emphasize science. Would this Ph.D.-physician tilt Tufts awkwardly toward biomedical science and funded research to the detriment of the college, disturbing the balance between teaching and research?

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.

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.

  © 2015 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155