The Changing Face of Tufts’ Presidency

by Munir Atalla


There is a lot we Jumbos can learn from the careers of those distinguished individuals who have held the title of Tufts president. Talented, creative, and accomplished in their own right, Tufts’ thirteen presidents shaped campus in a unique and substantial way, each adding a layer of history and richness to the Tufts we know and love. Tufts has a history that has been called “miraculous,” and its remarkable trajectory has been forged by these past leaders—the contributions they spearheaded, the issues they tackled, and the values they reinforced. Hailing from different time periods, these presidents oversaw Tufts during compelling historical moments and social climates, and their tenures significantly impacted the burgeoning campus discourse. Likewise, their combined efforts and contributions set the groundwork for the academic and social atmosphere that defines campus today. This article offers a spotlight of some past heads of the hill and explores the legacies of our shared alma mater.

Fun Fact:

During the 1938-1952 term of President Carmichael, Van L. Johnson, the Registrar at the School of War Service, was the de facto president for one day when everyone else from the faculty had temporarily left campus. In a speech he gave called “My Day as President of Tufts and Other Nonsense,” he remarked: “I never asked Leonard Carmichael or George Miller or John Tilton or Nils Wessell what they were doing that quiet afternoon; but the numbers involved certainly suggest a poker game.”

Hosea Ballou II (1853-1861)

The first four presidents of Tufts were Universalist ministers. Among them was Hosea Ballou II, Tufts’ first president, whose presidency coincided with the tense years leading up to the Civil War. Originally, Ballou had argued that Tufts should be built in a different location, such as New York or Springfield, because Medford was “too close to Harvard and Boston.”  Ballou was elected as Tufts’ first president after its trustees attempted to recruit Thomas Jefferson Sawyer to the presidency, only to find that his salary demands were too high.  Ballou was also the Head Librarian of Eaton Library (now Eaton Hall), which at the time housed his private collection of texts and manuscripts—he was doubtless a riveting conversationalist.

It is rumored that, in the years leading up to the Civil War, the Tufts founding fathers were abolitionists. Some suspect this to be the reason that Tufts has no record of an institutionalized segregation policy, which was enforced at other comparable colleges and universities of the era. In fact, the northernmost point of the Underground Railroad was in Medford, and its traces can still be seen right near Tufts’ own Cousens Gymnasium.


Elmer Hewett Capen (1875-1905) & Caroline Davies (1910-1926)

President Capen saw the transformation of Tufts from a male-only school to a coeducational facility—which is not to say that he supported the decision. In 1892, Tufts began accepting females against Capen’s wishes. Within 10 years, women had surpassed men in undergraduate enrollment and academic success. In line with the general attitude of the time, the trustee parents of male undergraduates were not pleased that women were getting all of the awards and scholarship money.

In response to growing tension toward female attendees, Tufts was split into two in 1910, with male undergraduates remaining at Tufts and their female counterparts moving to Jackson College. The formation of Jackson College was largely superfluous, however, as classes were still coeducational; neither college could afford complete segregation. Caroline Davies, a well-known advocate of women’s suffrage, was named the first dean of Jackson College. She resided at 72 Professors Row, which today overlooks Zeta Psi. It’s probably safe to say, though, that if Davies knew what would come to take place on Friday nights so close to where she once lived, she just might vouch for the re-segregation of this campus.


Nils Yngve Wessell (1953-1966)

Nils Yngve Wessell is praised as the president who transformed Tufts from a college into an official university. Wessel believed that the ascent of Tufts from a small liberal arts school to an internationally esteemed research facility and university would immediately follow its name-change, but this transition took a bit more time. Wessell oversaw the addition of many of the buildings on campus today, including Bush, Lane, Tilton, and Hodgdon. More importantly, Wessel helped bring the Tufts cannon to campus (though the tradition of painting the cannon didn’t start until 1977, under Mayer’s presidency).

Wessell resigned at a relatively young age in 1966, citing his noble belief that the office should change every 10 to 15 years.  Although the alumni from the Wessel-Carmichael years were happy and remain nostalgic about his presidency, it is clear from records that the period was burdened by “unanswered financial problems.”

“No one wanted Wessell to leave,” noted Professor Sol Gittleman, who knew Wessell personally. “He was enormously popular with the faculty and student body. [But he] somehow managed not to notice how impoverished Tufts was.”

Jean Mayer (1976-1992)

Enter the 10th president of Tufts, Jean Mayer. On the brink of economic meltdown, the board of trustees was looking for a suitable replacement for President Hallowell. After being declined by Johns Hopkins Provost Harry Woolf and losing their second choice, the trustees decided to ask Frenchman Jean Mayer, who had previously been rejected from the job—twice. It must have been a sufficiently awkward meeting, seeing as a student publication had already announced Woolf to be the university’s first choice. Regardless, when asked if he would take the job, Mayer apparently jumped to his feet and exclaimed, “I’ll do it!” in a distinctly French accent.

 “Nothing in the previous 124 years of Tufts history could have prepared the university for the coming of Jean Mayer,” said Gittleman. The five years following Mayer’s inauguration were the “most tempestuous, chaotic, adventurous, and exciting… in the history of Tufts University.”

This exhilarating campus climate was in large part due to Mayer’s lofty goals. Little did the trustees know, Mayer had a hidden agenda, a sort of ulterior motive for the presidency.  A renowned nutritionist at a time when nutrition was “in,” his goal was to become the president of a university with a medical school. From there he would create the first graduate school of nutrition in the United States—Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Following the success of the Nutrition School and the newly formed School of Veterinary Medicine (New England’s first), Mayer injected academic strength, financial support, and credibility into its undergraduate programs, which gave Tufts a necessary financial boost and assured its continued growth.

Mayer’s other achievements include establishing a scholarship fund to help non-white South Africans pay for education, orchestrating an interactive video conference that connected Tufts faculty to medical professionals in China, and launching a project called “global classroom,” through which students discussed the nuclear age via satellite with students from Moscow.

Said Gittleman, “For Jean Mayer, Tufts University was an instrument placed in his hands, at the right time and in the right place, and he knew he would triumph.”

Lawrence “Larry” Seldon Bacow (2001-2011)

Since Mayer, Tufts’ reputation has been on an upward elevator ride with no intention of slowing down. Larry Bacow is the widely respected man who, with the help of his accomplished wife Adele, kept up the momentum during his entire stay at Gifford House.  A former lawyer, Bacow understood what he could achieve with the tools that were given to him. Staying true to the nature and atmosphere of Tufts, Bacow helped the reputation of our school blossom, along with its endowment. Beyond this, Bacow was a warm social figure with a strong on-campus presence, always dedicated to fostering connections with students.

Throughout his presidency, Bacow steadfastly advocated for financial equality and equal opportunity. He had Tufts at the cusp of being a need-blind institution right before the economic downturn; were it not for that economic misfortune, he would have achieved this goal.

Bacow’s presidency saw a lot of political turmoil, from the 9/11 attacks to the US invasion of Iraq. His composure, leadership, and guidance during tense financial and international times define the nature of his former presidency. Recognizing these strengths, President Obama appointed Bacow in 2010 to his Board of Advisors for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Anthony “Tony” P. Monaco (2011-Present)

Anthony Monaco has made a commendable effort to immerse himself in Tufts’ culture, both digitally and in-person. Through attending group meetings, tweeting, and frequenting sports games, events, and on-campus dialogues, President Monaco has already framed himself as a president of the people. But in the words of his predecessor, “It takes every new president a while to find their voice.” We at the Observer look forward to the exciting years ahead of us, during which we can watch President Monaco continue to impact this campus during the veritable golden age of our institution.

Special thanks to Sol Gittleman and Susanne Belovari.

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