Light on the Hill, Volume II

Miller, Russell


PRESIDENT WESSELL made his last annual report to the trustees in October 1965. His letter of resignation had been dated 17 June, and the trustees had called a special meeting in an attempt to make him reconsider. But Wessell stood firm, and the Tufts community was officially notified in September of his decision to resign. He also resigned as a Life Trustee. The trustees had no option but to accept his decision, effective 1 September 1966. He had repeated what he had told them in July: he sincerely believed "in the wisdom of change in the office of president in a university every ten or fifteen years." (He told the Faculty of Arts and Sciences the same thing at its first meeting in the fall of 1965.) He emphasized that his relations with the trustees - always "cordial and effective" - had nothing whatever to do with his decision. He was convinced that Tufts needed new leadership which would bring "new vision and a new set of priorities." Although he made "no claim to being a philosopher of education," he reiterated what he had said and written so many times before: "The University is the embodiment of a ... commitment to intellect. Intellectual activity is its main business." It was at Wessell's suggestion than an undergraduate organization known as the Society of Scholars had been created in 1958 to recognize academic excellence. Thirty-three students were selected at the end of each academic year, comprising the three highest ranking students in each of the sophomore, junior, and senior classes in Liberal Arts, Jackson, and Engineering. Members ex officiis were the president, who also served as president of the society, and the deans of each of the three colleges. Faculty members could also be elected on an annual basis. From two to four meetings were to be held each year "for the sociable exchange of ideas by lectures and discussions." Visibility was provided by the wearing of an emblem; marching in the academic procession at


matriculation exercises each fall, each with a faculty escort; and the reading at the annual Academic Awards ceremony of the names of students elected that year. The society was recognized, together with Phi Beta Kappa, as one of the two most distinguished honorary societies on the campus, and was active for more than a decade.

In 1964, as his career at Tufts was drawing to a close, Wessell delivered an address at President's Day that spring which set out clearly the criteria for faculty excellence. (President's Day had first been held in 1962 as a means of attracting alumni support and as a public relations device. It came to an end with the close of Wessell's tenure.) His theme was the close affinity between effective teaching and productive scholarship. "Teaching and research are not mutually exclusive, not competitive, not antithetical. They are close and natural allies and the one improves the other. We should not choose between them. We choose them both." The ideal was to build a faculty of excellent teachers who were also productive scholars. Both realms of activity should be measured by the yardstick of quality.

In confirming his determination to resign, Wessell resisted the temptation "to project the future course the University should take," but he made crystal clear his stance about the role of the university and its relation to students and faculty. The outgoing president was spared most of the agony of student upheavals faced by his successor in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but in his parting words he offered his own views in rather somber language. He rejected the idea of a university as a place or a platform or an organized society from which efforts are made to change the world as we understand it .... Students who are sure they can administer the university better than the administrative officers and provide overnight a resolution to the conflict in Viet Nam ask for a counseling service consisting of an expert for every problem, an expert who can provide ready-made packaged solutions to their personal problems as students.

He was also disturbed that too many of the faculty were beginning to subscribe "to the activist's creed." Again it was a problem of balance - intellect versus activity, promoting independence versus dependence in students, teaching versus learning. He had no ready answers to such dilemmas, which by their very nature were not susceptible of easy solutions. Nonetheless, these questions were, in his opinion, ultimately more important than public versus private support of education, equal educational opportunity, or even education for survival. The university had an awesome responsibility to prepare future generations to bring about


constructive change while at the same time maintaining and transmitting "what is worthwhile and necessary for civilization to survive and prosper." The atmosphere on campus was to change markedly in less than five years. Wessell would probably have been extremely unhappy to have presided over a faculty which in March 1970 adopted a Statement of Principles which included the following: It is essential to the very meaning of a university that, among its many concerns, involvement with and concern for significant controversial contemporary issues should be given a high order of priority. We must constantly ask, of what relevance to the crucial, life-and-death issues confronting modern society is our work and effort. The modern university must include in its search for knowledge a search for solutions to the contemporary problems of population, war, inner city decay, pollution, poverty, employment of minority workers, equal educational opportunities, adequate housing, and opportunities for advancement for all in economic, educational and social endeavors.

It is worthy of note that the statement was adopted with less than half of the faculty present.

Before Wessell left the campus the trustees voted to award him an honorary LLD at Commencement in 1966. It was difficult to keep any secret from the president, but on this occasion they appeared to have been successful. The vote had been taken at the spring meeting at a time when he was not present in the room. In order to keep the award a surprise they postponed the recording of their action in the minutes until 6 June 1966, after Commencement was over. In spite of many invitations to visit the campus immediately after his presidency was over, he deliberately refrained from putting in an appearance until after his successor was settled in. For many years after he departed from the campus he and his wife were invited to alumni reunions, a testament to his continued popularity. He was elected President Emeritus in February 1977.

Wessell had proposed the creation of the post of chancellor when he made his annual report in the fall of 1962. After he had submitted his resignation there was discussion about the possibility of appointing him to the position at the same time a new president was being sought. However, he had serious reservations about accepting such an appointment because candidates for the presidency might not wish to have a former president on the staff, and because it would reduce if not eliminate the new president's option to select his own chancellor. After further consultation the trustees concurred in Wessell's reservations and no chancellor was ever appointed.


In the fall of 1965 Wessell had informed the trustees that he had accepted the presidency of the newly formed non-profit Institute for Educational Development in New York City on a part-time basis during the remainder of his Tufts presidency. After remaining as president of the new organization for only a short time after his departure from Tufts, he became president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in May 1968 from which he retired in 1979. Among his many honors after leaving Tufts was election as the "Swedish American for 1979" by the VASA Order of America, a fraternal organization.

The announcement of Wessell's resignation had been greeted by expressions of regret from all quarters, mixed with plaudits for his accomplishments. When a trustee subcommittee had recommended in 1965 that the new library be named in his honor, a spokesman summarized it this way. Wessell was "the man who has given the foresight, and enthusiasm, including considerable downright hard work, to spark this university into the greatest growth in both education and physical plant in its history." The same spokesman listed Wessell as "a third great president," ranking with Cousens and Carmichael.

The outgoing president was immensely proud of the institution over which he had presided for some thirteen years. When he made his sixth annual report to the trustees in 1959 he had completed twenty years of association with Tufts. By then it was, in his estimation, "clearly one of the twenty-five or thirty leading institutions of higher education in this country by any standards of selection." Time and time again he had asserted that the institution was one of a small group of educational institutions on "the threshold of - on the edge of - greatness." It possessed "a potential for unusual distinction." The time, he told the trustees in 1960, had come "to respond to this challenge of greatness." And how was the claim to "greatness" to be measured? It was to be measured in terms of quality, not size. In this conviction he was echoing the words of John A. Cousens, who in 1926 wrote to Harold Sweet, chairman of the board of trustees, that "Tufts College is ambitious to be great because of quality and not because of quantity." Even earlier, Elmer H. Capen, the third president of Tufts, had written (in 1880) that "the power of a college in the community does not depend upon the number who receive its diplomas, but upon [those] whom it sends into the world thoroughly equipped for the duties of responsible citizenship and professional activity." Wessell had served in a period when pressures had steadily mounted to increase the size of the institution, and he had resisted


it as best he could, although not always successfully - a fact to which the statistics of enrollment bore testimony. There were 3,396 students enrolled in 1953, when he became president, and 4,919 when he resigned. The greatest increases had taken place in the undergraduate student body. He never claimed that Tufts had yet actually crossed the magic line into "greatness." But he would undoubtedly agree with Cousens that "our vision must reach far into the future, within the field of our endeavor there must be no limit to our ambitions."

  • Light on the Hill, the second volume of the history of Tufts University, was published in 1986, covering the years from 1952 to 1986. This doucument was created from the 1986 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume II.
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 Title Page
1. Setting the Stage for the Second Century
2. Long-Range Planning
3. Bricks and Mortar 1952-1967
4. The End of Theological Education at Tufts
5. Ever-Widening Curricula for Liberal Arts and Engineering
6. Jackson College: A Search for Identity
7. Defining the Role of the College of Special Studies
8. The Arts and Sciences Faculty I
9. The Arts and Sciences Faculty II
10. The Central Library
11. The Changing Character of the Student Body
12. Fraternities and Sororities at Tufts: A Cyclical History
13. A Beehive of Activity: From Trustees to Students
14. From Wessell to Hallowell
15. The Hallowell Administration: Years of Trial and Tribulation
16. The Hallowell Administration: Continued Trial and Tribulation
17. Educational Ventures, Successful and Otherwise
18. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
19. Medical and Dental Education I
20. Medical and Dental Education II
21. Taking Stock of the University in the 1960s and 1970s
22. The Mayer Administration: A Preliminary View
23. The Mayer Administration: Consolidation and Expansion