Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell



THE UNIVERSALIST GENERAL CONVENTION met in Baltimore in October 1919. Tufts alumni who were present gathered informally to discuss the desirability of closer ties between the denomination and the College. The upshot of their conversations was a request to the Trustees that in the deliberations preceding the choice of a permanent president to replace Bumpus they "try to find a man who knows the history and traditions of Tufts, preferably an alumnus who is proud of the former and will cherish the latter, who is a strong Universalist and who will endeavor to keep the College and the denomination side by side." John Albert Cousens was just such a man, and his service as acting president in the busy months bridging 1919 and 1920 soon convinced the Trustees that they need look no farther for a head of the institution.[1]  Austin Fletcher was strongly opposed to the choice at first, arguing that Cousens was not sufficiently well known in the educational field, but even he became reconciled after he had seen Cousens in operation for a few months. This does not mean that no other candidates were considered. The qualifications of several men were reviewed, and one person actually approached was Payson Smith, state Commissioner of Education.[2]  He declined to be considered, on the ground that he had been in office only three years and felt responsible for carrying through several programs that he had initiated.

Cousens seemed in every respect to be admirably suited for the presidency. He had been born in Brookline, Massachusetts,


and had received his college education at Tufts. After a period of indecision characteristic of many a freshman, he had selected English as his major and then had switched to chemistry when he decided to train for a medical career. He had entered with the Class of 1898 but his father died during his senior year and he had had to withdraw from school in order to enter business. He received his A.B. extra ordinem in 1903. The John E. Cousens Coal Company, which had been operated by his father, prospered under the son's direction. After it was merged with the Metropolitan Coal Company he became vice-president of the larger concern. His interest and competency in business, banking, and finance were reflected in his selection as vice-president and chairman of the Investment Committee of the Brookline Savings Bank, whose board he later headed until his death. He was also a director of the Brookline Trust Company and organized the Brookline Board of Trade, of which he was the first president.



Always an active alumnus, he was president of the permanent alumni organization of the Class of 1898. It was through his initiative that the 1898 Scholarship had been established, the first such effort made by an alumni class. The Class of 1898 also had the enviable distinction of having produced five graduates who became Trustees. As president of the class with which he had not been able to graduate, Cousens commemorated its tenth anniversary in 1908 by presenting the large bell hung in the tower of Goddard Chapel.[3]  He was the leading spirit in raising a fund from his class on its twentieth anniversary to renovate Dean Hall. He was elected a Trustee in 1911 and served at various times on the Finance Committee, the Executive Committee, and the Board of Visitors to the medical school. Whether he needed it or not, he was given a good glimpse into collegiate financial affairs when he served on the committee to handle the intricate problems of "salvage, changes, reconstruction, restorations and in settling with the Government" after the liquidation of the Student Army Training Corps.

Those associated with the College who might have had qualms because Bumpus had not been a Universalist by formal church membership had their minds set at rest by the religious affiliation of his successor. Cousens was a staunch member of the denomination that had founded the College. The Board of Trustees had long since lost most of the clerical tinge it had once had, but when vacancies occurred on the Board in 1922, Cousens not only wanted a Universalist as one of the replacements but would have welcomed a Universalist clergyman. The Board received a judge instead.[4]  However, President Cousens had his way when Rev. Vincent Tomlinson, a graduate of the divinity school in 1884, became the only clergyman on the Board in 1923; he served until his death in 1938. Rev. Mr. Tomlinson was joined on the Board in 1928 by Dr. Louis C. Cornish, president of the American Unitarian Association. When Cornish was elected, Cousens called attention to the financial contributions of "certain important Unitarians" to the funds


used for improvements in Miner and Paige Halls.[5] In 1923 the Executive Committee recognized the historic ties that still bound the College, however loosely, to the Universalist denomination by establishing tuition scholarships for students from the three leading Universalist preparatory schools: three for Dean Academy and one each for Westbrook Seminary and Goddard Seminary.

The Trustees and the College constituency in general were spared the long period of search, indecision, and debate that had preceded the election of Hamilton and, to a lesser degree, of Bumpus. The faculty had taken seriously their invitation to participate in the selection of a candidate and had elected Professor Fay to serve as their representative on the nominating committee. A faculty resolution was also prepared in the winter of 1918 expressing their views as to the qualifications of whoever was to succeed Bumpus, but it was never acted on or sent to the Trustees. The proposal was made that, because it seemed "improbable that all the qualities hitherto sought in a Head of the College should be found in one man," the Trustees should consider dividing the duties of the office. A business manager could be appointed, to operate through the treasurer's office and be responsible to the president. The professional schools in Boston could be administered by a chancellor, likewise responsible to the president, while the latter could concentrate his efforts on the Hill schools.

The vast majority of officers and alumni seemed immediately to react to Cousens' election as did Samuel P. Capen, a classmate and in 1919 director of the American Council on Education. "I believe that the man, the time and the job have come together now. What Tufts needed above everything else was genuine and enthusiastic leadership." They were not disappointed. In fact, the Trustees were so pleased with Cousens' administration of the College that they doubled his salary after he had been in office little more than five years.5 When President Hamilton resigned in 1912, the practice of opening Trustee meetings with a prayer was abandoned. In spite of the fact that there were clergymen on the Board after that date, the custom was never resumed and Trustee Fletcher was still lamenting the fact in 1922. It was Cousens who finally abandoned the first part of the traditional salutation, "The Honorable and Reverend, the Trustees of Tufts College," in 1932, when his annual reports had become so bulky that they were duplicated and distributed to the Trustees rather than being read at the annual meeting.



The new president kept an eagle eye on every detail of the administration of the College from enrollment and endowment to the contents of broom closets. He gave advice to the treasurer on how to keep his accounts. He personally reviewed every requisition for materials and supplies, however small. He went on the road time after time to stir up and maintain alumni interest and contributed a communication of some sort to almost every issue of both the alumni magazine and the undergraduate weekly newspaper. He felt so strongly the need of close relationship between the alumni and the Trustees that at one time he proposed that the president of the Alumni Association be made a member of the Board of Trustees ex officio. He tracked down every lead that might result in funds for the College. He had an opinion on everything concerning the institution, although he always welcomed suggestions and ideas from every source. In his loquacious (and often repetitious) annual reports to the Trustees he reminded them unfailingly of projects that needed attention. It is doubtful if any collegiate administrative body was ever kept better informed than the Tufts Trustees or that there was a more tireless college president than John Albert Cousens.[6]  Cousens was always sensitive to the financial needs of students and had all cases involving suspension of the rules for payment of student charges transferred from the bursar to his own office. Many an undergraduate received private assistance in the form of a small loan from the president's capacious pocket. John Holmes, "poet laureate" of Tufts until his death in 1962, was among those who received indispensable aid and encouragement from the president. Cousens cherished "the tradition that Tufts College offers exceptional opportunities for poor boys and girls."

As to the size of the Hill divisions of the College, he wanted them kept relatively small. In his annual report for 1920 he suggested an optimum enrollment of 200 for Jackson and a total of


800 men in the schools of liberal arts and engineering.[7]  Five years later he still considered 1,000 the desirable maximum on the Medford campus. The Trustees in 1925 set the limits of undergraduate enrollment at 900.[8]  "Under no circumstances" did he want to see the proportion of young women increased. He changed his mind on this from time to time. In 1923-24, when Jackson enrollment had increased from 213 and corresponding male Hill enrollment was 675, he told the Trustees that he would "not be disturbed if the number of girls in Jackson increases to 250."

The immediate effects of the Trustee decision to limit enrollment were not very noticeable, for the registration in most divisions of the College had not yet quite reached the ceilings set. In 1927-28 the policy was directly operative only in the school of liberal arts and the medical school. In the long run, the policy of limiting numbers and announcing that fact publicly tended to bring earlier applications and some improvement in academic quality. The time had not yet been reached, in the 1920's and 1930's, when multiple applications (and multiple acceptances) by prospective students created a serious problem for those responsible for admissions, although even as early as 1928-29 the ratio of students applying to those admitted in the school of liberal arts had risen to five-to-one.[9]  The tendency for large numbers of students from relatively few schools to apply led Cousens to make a plea to the alumni to encourage promising students in their communities to apply to Tufts.[10] 



The effects of the Great Depression of the 1930's on enrollment were not nearly as great as some had feared. The full quota of students was registered in almost every undergraduate division of the College in the early and middle thirties.[11]  Sustained enrollment was made possible in part by overdrawing the student scholarship and loan accounts. The most noticeable trend was the higher proportion of students who lived at home rather than on the Hill. While this meant some loss of revenue, it made possible the presence of students who might otherwise have been financially unable to attend at all. In order to encourage qualified students to enter the College, seven regional prize scholarships were established by the Trustees in 1933 at the suggestion of President Cousens. This action meant a modification of the traditional policy of the College not to offer financial assistance to any freshman until his second semester. The scholarships, covering tuition for the entire college course, were designed "to attract students of high grade, thus raising the level of the student body." [12]  Six additional competitive scholarships, covering tuition, were created by the Trustees in 1935 and were known as "New England Scholarships." They supplanted the so-called Regional Scholarships after 1936-37.

Tufts and its students shared in the benefits provided in the 1930's under federal emergency relief legislation, and specifically through the National Youth Administration. Under the program, 12 per cent of the total enrollment of each undergraduate and professional school were entitled to assistance, with individual


stipends of $15 a month.[13]  The quota of federal funds for Tufts students exceeded $20,000 in 1934-35, although the work which was required had to be supervised by College personnel and a considerable amount of material for some of the projects had to be furnished at the College's expense. In 1935-36 there were over 200 students receiving assistance, and the payroll amounted to well over $3,000 a month for that academic year. The wages, small though they might have been, often meant for the students the difference between continuing in college or dropping out, and Tufts was able to start or complete numerous projects ranging from inventorying library materials to constructing stage scenery and tennis courts. President Cousens was able to report officially that the program worked satisfactorily in all respects, although he had to struggle at times to keep students equitably distributed among divisions of the College competing for their services.

The Trustees made a further upward adjustment of enrollment in 1937, when the undergraduate maxima were established at 600 for the school of liberal arts, 350 for the engineering school, and 300 for Jackson College. It was a source of great satisfaction to the officers of the College to be required to limit enrollment. This not only signified a growing appeal and reputation for the institution but also gave it an opportunity to be increasingly selective. During his administration President Cousens sent many a member of the faculty on the road to explain "The Values of Education" to secondary school students. He was himself engaged constantly in a voluminous correspondence with headmasters, school principals, and superintendents and accepted every request to speak to secondary schools that he could cram into a well-filled schedule.


[1] It was Trustees Harold E. Sweet and Guy Winslow who had suggested Cousens.

[2] Smith had attended Tufts as a member of the Class of 1897 but did not graduate; he received an honorary M.A. from Tufts in 1903 and served as a Trustee from 1922 until his resignation in 1943.

[3] This was supplemented in 1926 by a chime of ten bells given by Trustee Eugene B. Bowen of the Class of 1876. Ten years later Bowen expressed the wish to have a clock placed in the chapel tower but the Executive Committee considered such an installation "undesirable."

[4] The judge was W. W. McClench, who had already served two five-year terms as an alumni Trustee.


[6] In 1923 Cousens reinstituted the practice that had been abandoned in 1917 of including reports of the deans of the Associated Schools in his annual report to the Trustees. Until 1927, when the complete reports became too complicated and covered too many subjects to allow it, Cousens read the entire report to the patient Trustees. After 1927 he contented himself with reading only "certain selected paragraphs" from reports that were by then totaling over fifty typed pages. They were to become even longer.

[7] The actual Hill enrollment in 1920-21 was: liberal arts, engineering, and Crane, 686; Jackson, 173. Whenever he mentioned possible limitations on enrollment (which was frequently), he was referring to the undergraduate schools. Neither Crane nor the graduate school had sufficient students during his administration to justify any curbing of their size.

[8] It was distributed as follows: liberal arts, 350; Jackson, 250; engineering, 300. Enrollment in only the engineering school was then below the figure set.

[9] Typical was the case in 1929-30 when, out of 108 applicants considered "fully qualified" from three Boston high schools (English High School, Boston Latin School, and Dorchester High School), only 19 could be granted admission.

[10] One result was the establishment in 1920, under the supervision of the Alumni Association, of up to fifteen tuition scholarships for students in as many secondary schools. The recipients were to be nominated by local alumni groups.

[11] In 1933-34, which was in many ways the lowest point in the trough of the depression years, the entering classes on the Hill were the largest in the history of the College. There were 199 first-year students in the school of liberal arts, 99 in Jackson, and 102 in the engineering school; there was a decline (less than ten) over the preceding year in the engineering school only.

[12] To encourage a wider geographical distribution than had traditionally prevailed, seven eligible students were to be selected annually, on a four-year rotation, from one of four districts in New England, Canada, and the Middle Atlantic states: Massachusetts and Pennsylvania; Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia; Vermont and New York; and Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. Scholarships were to be awarded the first year (1933-34) to students from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Applicants were limited to those in the upper half of their class in secondary school. Winners were selected after candidates had taken a three-hour examination in English, mathematics, and history, and after interview.

[13] Graduate students could receive from $10 to $30 a month, depending on their classification. The bulk of the recipients of federal aid at Tufts were undergraduates, and medical and dental students.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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