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

Miller, Russell


President Cousens was so busy and so immersed in the affairs of the College that it was difficult for him to realize in 1929, as he completed his tenth year as the head of Tufts, that he had come as acting president expecting to stay three months and had agreed to assume the presidency for only five years until "a better man could be found." No one in that decade had made any attempt to seek "a better man." Instead, the president of the Alumni Association circulated a brochure among the graduates reminding them that Cousens had served for ten years and that a word of appreciation might be in order. The alumni responded by flooding the president's desk with congratulatory messages. Samuel P. Capen, son of the former president of Tufts and Cousens' classmate and lifelong friend, put the administration of the College in historical perspective when he sent Cousens a note. Capen could see three well-defined periods for Tufts.

It was created and its status established under the leadershipof Ballou, Miner, and my father. Then followed something verymuch resembling a Babylonian captivity. Certainly the pridewhich some of us felt in it had declined although our affection remained. Under you it has been recreated and made better and finerand more beautiful than ever before. You may be disposed to passthe credit around as liberally as you will - and there is plenty togo around. But yours has been the master hand and the personalinspiration. If ever I have seen an authentic exhibit of leadershipyou have shown it to me.

The Trustees recognized Cousens' "Ten Years of Good Stewardship" by conferring on him at Commencement in 1930 the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Many of those who sent a note to the president expressed the hope that another recognition could be arranged on his twentieth anniversary as president. But that was not to be.

Cousens attended a special meeting of the Trustees at the Exchange Club in Boston at :oo P.M. on July 2, 1937, to act upon an accumulation of routine business. Less than two hours after returning to his Chestnut Hill home in Brookline, he succumbed to a heart attack, at the age of sixty-two. A year and a half before, this man with seemingly boundless energy had been forced


temporarily to slow down because of a faltering heart. He had taken a leave of absence abroad, on medical advice, and returned apparently rested and refreshed. But his determination to continue his work as if nothing had happened became a factor in his eventual undoing. The College lost, with virtually no warning to those outside an intimate circle, one of the strongest leaders in its history.

Cousens had not escaped criticism during his administration. Strong personalities seldom do. He had certainly not solved all the problems of the College, and the status of both engineering school and medical school were still in doubt in 1937. Many individuals felt that he paid too much attention to detail that could better have been left in other hands, and that on some occasions he interfered unduly with departmental operations. Others believed that he placed excessive emphasis on the outward and physical side of the College and that some of the money expended on grounds and buildings could more profitably have been used to thaw the almost completely frozen salaries of the faculty, or to provide greatly needed teaching equipment. Still others complained that he undertook to do too much, too rapidly. Yet in the long view the College owed an incalculable debt to its sixth president. Of tributes to Cousens there was almost no end. Deans and faculty, both individually and collectively, joined the alumni and other friends of the College from near and far to express with all degrees of eloquence their appreciation of his character and services.[96] 

Perhaps the most impressive tributes of all came from the Trustees, with whom the late president had worked with unusual harmony for just over a quarter of a century - and during over half of that period while he was head of the institution. The resolutions they adopted caught his spirit admirably.[97]  Cousens was an exceptionally able administrator and organizer, with an unusual ability to analyze problems and to deal tactfully and sympathetically even with those with whom he disagreed. He combined the difficult roles of leadership and partnership with enviable ease and earned the respect of all by sharing his ideas and feelings. But there


was another side to his character. He was a sentimentalist, in the best sense of the word. He had not only the dignity that befitted his office; he had warmth, and above all he loved his Alma Mater and everything connected with it. He literally devoted his life to the College. The Trustees who prepared the resolutions quoted Daniel Webster, who is said once to have spoken of Dartmouth College as "a small college, but there are those who love it." The resolutions were concluded with these words: "Tufts has been a small college, but it will be a great college in its ultimate achievement because John Cousens loved it, and because the inspiration of his life has caused both students and alumni also to love it."

President Cousens' contributions lay in several realms. He possessed, as one alumnus expressed it, a rare combination of business acumen and scholarly inclination. He had guided the College successfully through periods of financial stress and strain while continuously improving its plant and appearance. He tried, and with a large measure of success, to raise both the morale and the academic standards of the student body, from athletics to admissions. He was loyal to his faculties and frequently expressed the obligation of the College to those who served unstintingly in classroom and laboratory, often with inadequate tangible reward. He tried -with signal success - to maintain a judicious balance in the development of the numerous divisions of what was in effect a small university. He was in large part responsible for the creation of two new instruments of education, widely separated in their areas of operation - the New England Medical Center and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The latter, an outstanding experiment in inter-institutional cooperation, "more than justified the efforts needed for its accomplishment," in the opinion of the Trustees. Cousens did live to see "a new era dawning" for the College.


[96] Many of these tributes are to be found in special Memorial Issues of the Tufts Weekly, Vol. 31 (September 30, 1937), and the Tufts College Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 11 (December 1937).

[97] The resolutions on the death of Cousens were prepared by Robert W. Hill (chairman), Ira Rich Kent, and Cora P. Dewick.

  • 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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