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

Miller, Russell


The engineering school, which had undertaken on the eve of the First World War a thorough review of curricula, aims, and philosophy, introduced some changes after a measure of normalcy had been reestablished. The "new type of education," as Dean Anthony described the regime that went into operation in 1919-20, centered around the basic principle that "early training in shop, field, and laboratory for experience and observation" should


precede detailed study of theory.[53]  Experience with the intensive war courses that were opened to promising high school seniors during the war period demonstrated that many could do work which had formerly been reserved for college juniors. These findings, to which were added the recommendations of a Carnegie-financed report of a Committee on Engineering Education on which the Tufts Engineering School was represented, resulted in a simplification of the school's course structure, the organization of an introductory course required of all students, and a general raising of academic standards. The survey course given in the freshman year introduced the student to the nature of the special field of his choice within engineering and was conducted by the project method, which involved design and layout work. Departmental courses, those involving theory, and electives comprised the upperclass years. The requirement of a modern foreign language for an engineering degree was voted out in 1919.

Sufficient time had elapsed by 1924 to evaluate the results of the new engineering curriculum. Dean Anthony found them much to his liking. The giving of the introductory course combining theory with laboratory practice directly related to the field of engineering had maintained the initial interest of students that had led them to choose the profession. "Sophomore slump" had not been eliminated but had been significantly reduced, and the general level of performance had risen noticeably in all classes.[54]  The academic level of progression from year to year had been raised to the equivalent of at least one semester. The concentration on the essentials of the sciences during the first three years also gave students greater freedom in choosing electives from among the social sciences and humanities during their senior year. The greatest cause for concern was the chronically high academic mortality rate in the engineering school, which between 1922 and 1924 ran to one-third of the freshman class and to 50 per cent over the four- year curriculum.



A perceptible slowing down in the increase of engineering enrollment in the 1920's and a chronic deficit in the school's operations evoked an explanation from Dean Anthony. At the top of the list was the "antiquated and inefficient method of admission" (particularly the foreign language requirement), which might be well adapted to liberal arts but which was quite unsuitable for technical students.[55]  Too much stress was being laid on the "misleading paper records of the certificating and examination boards" and not enough on the real abilities and character of the students. A second factor making for lagging enrollment was the failure to advertise. The third limitation of the school, as Dean Anthony saw it, was the need of a head of the Electrical Engineering Department who had the professional reputation outside the College enjoyed by the late Professor Hooper. A new man to head the Civil Engineering Department was also needed, but not as critically. The dean hinted that the appointees should have "administrative ability and a personality such as would be suitable to serve as dean of the Engineering School." Anthony resigned in September 1927, after an association of thirty-three years with the College. Professor Edwin B. Rollins of the Electrical Engineering Department became acting dean of the engineering school and of Bromfield-Pearson until George Preston Bacon assumed his duties in the fall of 1929.[56] 

The professional field receiving the greatest attention in the 1930's fell within the province of the Electrical Engineering Department, where much valuable research was conducted in the so- called Electro-Technical Laboratory located in what became known as North Hall. The bulk of the research was financed by commercial firms and was made virtually a self-supporting unit. It might be said that in this field Tufts really began the practice of conducting sponsored research which became so important after the Second World War. The larger educational problem facing the engineering school in the 1930's was how to strike a balance between general


education and technical training for the prospective engineer. This engaged the attention of both Dean Bacon and President Cousens. They concurred in desiring to deemphasize the technical aspects of the curriculum, particularly in the first year or so, and to place greater stress on broad preparation than on narrow specialization. The introductory course established immediately after the First World War had been abandoned in 1930, and electives of any kind almost completely disappeared.[57] 

There was another aspect besides educational theory involved in a reconsideration of the engineering curriculum. The enrollment in the engineering school continued to decrease in the 1930's, and the chronic annual deficit in its operations continued to average between $25,000 and $30,000. A general course in engineering might appeal to a category of potential students not otherwise interested in specialized training. Dean Bacon recognized two practical problems under the existing system of providing more opportunity for "cultural studies." One was schedule conflicts, arising from the fact that programs were arranged in the arts and sciences and engineering divisions quite independently, without any attempt to coordinate or cooperate. The other was the discouraging barricade of prerequisites the engineering student had to hurdle before he could take most liberal arts courses of his first choice. President Cousens also insisted that liberal arts courses should not be offered both in the school of liberal arts and in the engineering school, for this produced wasteful duplication. Consequently, if a general course were organized, much of the work would have to be conducted by teachers with primary appointments in the school of liberal arts.

The engineering school in the mid-1930's embarked on the most thorough self-assessment it had yet undertaken. The prompting came from two directions. One was the creation in the 1930's of a nation-wide Engineering Council for Professional Development, which undertook to set up standards for licensing engineers


and arrange for the accrediting of schools of engineering. The other moving force, coming from within the school itself, was the appointment of a new dean in the fall of 1936 to replace Bacon, who retired at the age of seventy. Professor Harry Poole Burden announced at the outset that he had "some rather definite ideas concerning the future of the school" and proceeded to outline some of them before he had held the deanship two months.[58]  The first requirement was to formulate a set of aims and objectives for the school. A comprehensive study was naturally in order.

Both the new dean and President Cousens looked with mixed feelings on the new Engineering Council's efforts. Cousens was particularly agitated because he was positive that his goal of liberalizing the engineering curriculum by including a higher proportion of non-technical courses would be doomed. He feared, judging from the College's experiences with the accrediting agencies in medicine and dentistry, that the engineering school curriculum might be forced by an outside agency into a straitjacket quite contrary to the philosophy of permissiveness which he favored. The engineering school was visited in the fall of 1935 by representatives of the Council. They found the staff generally adequate but too prone to carry professional autonomy to an extreme. There was insufficient attention to such subjects as English, mathematics, and economics and too great an emphasis on applied subjects, such as drawing, too early in the program of study. The buildings and equipment drew the most criticism. They were "said to be the worst with but one exception of any engineering school in New England." Dean Burden not only considered the adverse comments of the visiting committee "justifiable to a marked degree" but proceeded to lengthen the list of weaknesses. He would have no difficulty in putting to good use some $350,000 if that amount could be found.

Three of the four branches of engineering (civil, mechanical, and electrical) received certification for a probationary period of two years. Chemical engineering, the most popular course in the engineering school at the time, did not pass muster. The satisfaction of engineering needs involved an amount of money so far beyond the capacity of the current budget for the school that the only


recourse was a campaign, endorsed by the Trustees in 1937, to secure a special endowment. The engineering school was given two years to put its house in order if it wished to receive unconditional certification. The new dean had a challenging situation on his hands.


[53] Dean Anthony made a report of the new program to the alumni in the Tufts College Graduate, Vol. 18 (September-November 1919), pp. 24-29.

[54] Four years of experience led to the raising of the degree requirement to 140 credits and the transfer of chemistry from the sophomore to the freshman year. Mathematics, graphics, and English remained as requirements in the first year.

[55] When Dean Anthony submitted his last annual report before his retirement in 1926, he reiterated the need for continuing the Bromfield-Pearson School so that deserving young men who were not allowed to pursue a college course because they could not meet "the arbitrary standards for admission to college" could still receive an engineering education.

[56] At the same time, Start House, a faculty home which had later served as a dormitory, was set aside as the residence of the dean of the engineering school.

[57] The standard freshman program became physics, chemistry, mathematics, graphics, and English for all engineering students, who then chose their specific field of concentration at the beginning of the sophomore year. One hour of surveying was also added for all programs in the engineering school, and the modern foreign language requirement (French or German) was temporarily restored in 1930 for the chemical engineering program only.

[58] Professor Burden had joined the staff of the school in 1913 and since 1930 had held professorial rank in the Department of Civil Engineering.

  • 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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