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

Miller, Russell


A physical plant, a faculty and administration, a student body, a curriculum, library, and laboratory equipment, and academic exercises and traditions are all recognized parts of an institution of higher learning. Not always so obvious but equally important is a corporate existence and a governing and directing body, however designated. Even though at times a shadowy part of the institution in the minds of students, faculty, and even the public at large, boards of trustees help shape and determine the character and reputation, not to mention the very existence, of an academic institution. Tufts was fortunate from the day it was born in having a competent, interested, and, above all, sympathetic governing body that kept its records scrupulously, exercised its delegated authority with wisdom, and maintained generally harmonious relationships with its faculty and administration that some other institutions might have envied. This in no sense implies the absence of problems, clashes over or between personalities or policies, frustrations, or failures.

One of the matters early confronting the Trustees of Tufts had to do with their own organization. After a delay of four years, a set of by-laws authorized by the charter was adopted in 1856 which proved workable in spite of occasional changes.[14]  At first the annual meeting of the Trustees was held in October, with regular meetings in December, March, and June. Special meetings were convened frequently, especially when the problem of finance was involved. Meetings were held for many years on Cornhill in Boston, at the offices of Whittemore's Trumpet or in the vestry of the Second Universalist Society. On occasion, the Trustees convened on the Hill, usually before or immediately after Commencement exercises, but no regular pattern was followed. An Executive Committee was provided in the original by-laws to oversee the "housekeeping" operations of the College, and its membership was sufficiently representative and it met frequently enough to conduct a large proportion of the business.[15]  No person other than the president of the College was to be at the same time a Trustee and a member of the instructional staff; acceptance of either position was deemed an automatic resignation from the other.

The first problem faced by the Trustees within their own group was staffing. When the Board was formally constituted in 1852, only sixteen members were selected of the twenty-three authorized. The average total was only eighteen until 1878. In that year, when the charter was amended to provide a maximum of thirty Trustees, there were only twenty-one on the Board. Not until 1891-92 did the Trustees reach their authorized number. The basic reason for the manpower difficulty was reluctance of individuals to serve rather than wholesale resignations. A. A. Miner reported his failure to obtain the services of one individual who "peremptorily refused to allow himself to be considered a candidate." In fact, the membership of the Trustees remained surprisingly stable during the first fifty years.

A second problem, faced even before the by-laws were adopted,


was absenteeism. In more than one instance meetings had to be adjourned for lack of a quorum. The by-laws provided that "the place of any Trustee, who shall neglect to attend the meetings of the Corporation for the period of one year, may be declared vacant." The principal culprit which made necessary this provision was geography rather than apathy; as might be expected, some of the Trustees found their duties on the Board too demanding and resigned because they felt they could not do justice to the interests of the College.[16]  After two Trustees had resigned in 1856 because they lived too far away to attend meetings, that body considered "the expediency of removing those Trustees who reside so far from the College, as to prevent their attendance at the meetings of the Board."[17]  The 1856 edition of the by-laws provided, instead, that in case any member of the Board moved from the state in which he resided when originally elected his place would be declared vacant.[18]  Although they were eligible for immediate reelection, such Trustees frequently moved too far out of range.[19]  The case of P. T. Barnum, of circus fame, posed a particular problem. Although one of the Trustees under both the provisional organization of 1851 and the 1852 charter, Barnum was unable to attend a single Trustee meeting. In 1853 the Trustees received a letter of resignation from the showman, prompted by his inability to attend meetings "in consequence of his numerous engagements." The Trustees unanimously declined to accept the resignation, "feeling very unwilling to lose his services." It was not until 1857 that this oft-repeated attempt to resign was reluctantly


honored, when he informed them that he was then "absent from the country." He was in England exhibiting General Tom Thumb and "little Cordelia Howard," who had gained a national reputation as Little Eva in an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The internal organization of the Trustees remained quite simple and informal for almost thirty years, with the Executive Committee continuing to take care of routine matters while special committees handled unusual problems. By 1880, however, the College had expanded sufficiently to require increased attention, and the complexity of Trustee operations grew correspondingly. The first standing committee was created, on Finance, to assist the Treasurer.[20]  The Executive Committee first set up its own standing subcommittees when, in 1881, it provided for one on Schools, on Land and Buildings, and on Finance; a committee on the Library was added in 1886. The Library committee functioned so quietly that the Executive Committee apparently forgot it existed, for a Library committee was again constituted in 1891.[21] 

Of all the responsibilities which devolved upon the Trustees, the most recurrent one and the one most likely to spell survival or extinction for the young institution was finance. The item most often found on the agenda of Trustees meetings was the devising of "measures to raise money for the use of the College." The Trustees were warned by the ever-vigilant editor of the Trumpet before the College had been in operation for a year not to allow their fledgling educational offspring to fall into the financial toils that had engulfed such schools as Antioch College because of unrealistically low tuition and too-generous scholarship aid. Hosea 2d insisted from beginning to end that expenses should not exceed income; one of his greatest fears was that the College would not be self-supporting. His fear was justified immediately. Before the College had graduated its first class in 1857, indebtedness incurred in constructing the first two buildings and settling with Otis A. Skinner, the agent hired to raise the initial subscriptions, was over $10,000. The balance for operating expenses of slightly over $400 in


1857 was more than wiped out by an operating deficit of over $3,000 a year later, partly because estimated receipts had been based on an expected enrollment of sixty-five which turned out to be barely fifty. The budget was balanced only by drawing on notes and installments on subscriptions due which were to have been set aside as a sinking fund, and by contributions quietly made by Treasurer Thomas A. Goddard out of his own pocket.[1] 

The Universalists were just not a wealthy denomination to begin with. As T. J. Sawyer expressed it in 1852, "we are composed not of the wealthiest nor the poorest, but of the thrifty middle class who earn their bread by the sweat of the brow." When the Universalist Society in Taunton, Massachusetts, sent in a donation of $35 in 1855, the money was accompanied by a note which included these comments: "As you know, perhaps, we have not a rich man among us - not in money, I mean. . . . Men, women, and children contributed . . . and to the extent of our limited means we shall hold ourselves ever ready to help when help is needed." The timing of the opening of the College added a complicating factor to the financial situation, for the nation-wide Panic of 1857 had its effect. Yet the Trustees insisted on expressing an optimism that was associated with so many mid-nineteenth-century efforts. They thought they had "great cause for congratulation that we stand as well as we do, when we consider through what a pecuniary crisis the whole business world has passed, and how adversely almost every educational interest has been affected by it."

Throughout the 1850's the College depended on loans, sometimes made on the personal notes of such benefactors as Sylvanus Packard, and on denominational aid. Bequests began to be made to the College as early as 1858, but they were usually not collectible until several years after they were announced, or consisted of unimproved land or other property that required additional expenditure to make salable. Col. John Wade left approximately $45,000 worth of property in Woburn to the College in 1858, but it was years before it could be improved and sold at what the Trustees considered a fair price. Among the "doubtful assets" was a gift of


a bond of the Penobscot and Kennebec Rail Road in Maine; it turned out to be security for a third mortgage on which no interest was paid. The Trustees looked constantly to the denomination for support, and Universalist papers circularized appeals for funds time and time again. Typical was an appeal for $2,500 to pay the expenses for instruction the year the College opened. A group did come forward in 1855 to offer assistance. They organized themselves as the Tufts College Educational Association with A. A. Miner as president, and set out to accomplish a double purpose: to secure the funds for current expenses and to establish resources with which to aid needy students. Universalist Societies were urged not only to contribute what they could individually but to organize special auxiliary money-raising associations. The first $35 raised by each auxiliary association entitled the donors to select one student who would receive free tuition; a $50 contribution would entitle the student to all expenses for one year; and each $50 collected thereafter would be used in the same way.

This device for raising funds was successful, at least as a temporary expedient, for by the spring of 1856 over $1,600 had been collected and turned over to the College. In the next two or three years several hundred dollars were collected by "Committees of Young Men" who volunteered on behalf of the Educational Association to solicit aid from the "larger and stronger societies." But these donations and many like them, generously made as they were, fell far short of the continuing needs of the institution. During 1857-58 the treasurer "hired" almost $8,000, and the estimated deficit for the next year was in excess of $2,600. Such a state of affairs could not continue. The next step was to renew an appeal for state aid made in 1856, which the Trustees confidently expected to receive and in fact did obtain after a certain amount of delay.

At first glance, the idea of public aid for an institution ostensibly private in character and endowment, and under the supervision of a religious denomination, might seem quite contrary both to logic and to the tradition of the distinction between private and public (tax-supported) education so widely recognized today. The Trustees' decision to appeal for public funds might seem even more unusual if one reads the final section of the College charter, which specified that its granting "shall never be considered as any pledge


on the part of the Government, that pecuniary aid shall hereafter be granted to the college." Yet a brief review of the historical facts shows that state aid had been both assumed and granted frequently, from the early days of America's colonial period.[23]  The establishment of Harvard College furnished the classic example in colonial times of the combined efforts of church and state to provide educational facilities. It had received almost $500,000 in public aid, either direct or indirect, by about 1830. Harvard had been founded in effect as a community enterprise, and its first endowment had been given by the Massachusetts Bay Colony rather than by private individuals. Land was a prevalent type of public gift to educational institutions. Harvard received from Massachusetts out-of-state holdings in Maine before that area was made into a separate state in 1820; the sale of the lands brought Harvard approximately $15,000. Public funds helped construct five of Harvard's original buildings. The same story can be told for other institutions about the country; so-called private schools and academies below the college level in Massachusetts and elsewhere also benefited extensively from this policy of state aid.[24]  Universalists were quite in accord with their contemporaries in the 1840's and 1850's in considering Harvard a public institution, whether under sectarian control or not. When Hosea 2d had been elected to the Board of Overseers in 1843, it was pointed out that the legislative members of the Board (the state Senate) believed "that the College is a State Institution; that it should not be under the exclusive jurisdiction of any particular sect; and that as the Board is constituted in part of clergy, they should be selected from the different sects among us." Harvard did not belong "exclusively to the Unitarians"; it was "the property of the State of Massachusetts," and all citizens had "an equal interest in that College." Any bona fide educational enterprise had the right to expect state assistance. So the matter of obtaining public aid for Tufts was a matter not of breaking a precedent but of profiting by one that had long existed. A scattering of staunch


individualists like Thomas Goddard preferred not "to lean upon the State. Tufts College ought to be supported by the Universalist public." But the realities of the situation dictated otherwise.

A Trustee committee was appointed in the winter of 1856 "to prepare a memorial to the Legislature and present the same." The intent was to use at least part of the money so obtained to construct a "large brick dormitory" to supplement the College Edifice and the Boarding House (Middle Hall). Miner presented the petition on behalf of the Trustees, with a detailed and fervent plea for assistance. The House Committee on Education was very complimentary of the College and its aims, and particularly impressed by the fact that "religious freedom is enjoyed by its pupils, and in this respect no college is more free from the objections that would lie against a merely denominational college." But "recognizing [Tufts'] claim and breathing a spirit of general good will" was no substitute for money. The legislative committee reported adversely on the petition, citing the unfavorable condition of the state treasury. It was for this reason that "Building B" on the campus turned out to be a wooden structure costing less than $4,000 and intended to serve only temporarily as a dormitory. A second try for state aid was reported favorably out of committee but came to grief on the floor of the House. The bill, if passed, would have given the College $30,000 in aid, payable in six annual installments of $5,000. The defeat of this bill was particularly painful to Tufts' supporters because in the same year St. Lawrence University received a $50,000 grant from the New York legislature.

The third attempt by the Trustees to gain assistance was successful, for a new source of revenue had been added to the state's resources. In 1857 the legislature authorized the sale of part of the low and swampy area in Boston known as the Back Bay. Up to half of the proceeds were to be used "to fill up said land belonging to the Commonwealth, with good and solid earth and clean gravel." This land in turn was to be sold after having been improved, and all proceeds from both sales were designated as the "Bay Lands Fund." It was announced in 1859 that, after certain state obligations were paid, the remainder of the proceeds (52 per cent of the total) was to be divided among five educational institutions. Tufts received the second largest grant (12 per cent), which amounted to $50,000. The other institutions that benefited were the Museum


of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, Williams College, Amherst College, and Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham. The success of Tufts in obtaining so generous an allotment was due to the persistent efforts of Miner and W. H. Ryder. The Trustees had reason to rejoice, but there were two conditions upon which the state grant was made. The first, the creation by the College of three annual free state scholarships, was accomplished in 1863. The second proviso constituted a real challenge to the College and its supporters, for no payment of state funds was to be made until private subscriptions had been secured equaling the $50,000 state grant. The Trustees admitted that matching this offer would be "a difficult task" but considered it a stimulus to renewed effort.

Slightly more than a year after the announcement was made by the state legislature (in 1860), the requisite sum had been raised by the College. Oliver Dean, president of the Trustees, was among the more generous donors; he pledged $10,000. Now the College had to wait, more or less impatiently, for sufficient Back Bay land to be sold to make possible the state payments. Meanwhile, the Trustees had spent the money many times over, on paper. Treasurer Goddard, reluctant as he was to receive public aid for what he thought should be a denominational responsibility, realized its necessity. He had recommended in 1858 that, whatever the amount of the grant might be, it be used first to pay off the indebtedness of the College; the remainder should be funded, while Universalists continued to help make up the annual operating deficits. The Executive Committee had even more grandiose plans when it became known that the state contribution would be $50,000. The erection of a new boarding house, which had become "a positive necessity," could be planned at once; then the Trustees would be "obliged to lay out some thousands of dollars in the construction of roads; and it is necessary that the Library should be added to, by expending some thousands of dollars." The Trustees proceeded at once to build the new dormitory (East Hall) before even a dollar had been received from the state. In September 1861 the first installment ($12,393.96) arrived, but then it appeared that further payments would be indefinitely postponed. The nation was about to go to war with itself. Fort Sumter, South Carolina, had been fired upon, the President of the United States had issued a call for the militia of the states loyal to the Union, and two months before the


first installment of state funds had arrived at Tufts, President Lincoln had ordered Congress to convene in special session. Tension and uncertainty prevailed everywhere. The Executive Committee in May had recognized "the present unfortunate state of our public affairs" and was sure that under the circumstances the sale of Back Bay lands would come to an abrupt halt. The opportunity the College had of using a combination of public and private funds to pay for the new boarding house and "all our debts," and even leave something toward paying the annual deficit, seemed to have gone glimmering.

As soon as the promise of state aid had been made in 1859, the Tufts College Educational Association had disbanded. In 1860 the treasurer had been authorized to borrow up to $12,000 on a combination of personal notes of the Executive Committee and certain bonds and mortgages held by the Corporation. By the end of 1860 the Corporation was paying out $1,200 a year in interest on various obligations. Even with the $12,000 from the state, the indebtedness by the end of the fiscal year 1861-62 was over $17,000, and the


estimated operating deficiency for 1862-63 was $4,000. Plans were made to sell off some of the valuable rental property in the greater Boston area in which part of the endowment had been invested, or which had been willed to the College. To make matters worse, Tufts lost its first president in this critical period. It was no wonder that the Trustees felt they could not employ Sawyer as Hosea 2d's successor, even at the modest salary of $1,200, and that they breathed a sigh of relief when Miner indicated his willingness to accept the post without compensation.

The chairman of the Executive Committee wryly remarked at the Trustees' regular meeting in May 1863 that it would be nice some day to "see the Treasurer's account denuded of its hitherto stereotyped finis: 'Balance due the Treasurer.' " The Trustees could tolerate at this point what might have seemed a rather flippant remark at the serious juncture in the College's financial affairs. Word had just come that "the sales of Back Bay Lands by the State have been so successful that we have reason to hope we shall receive the balance of the State grant to us of $50,000 very soon." The hopes were justified, although another year elapsed between the promise and the fulfillment. The hoped-for check for $37,606.04 arrived in May 1864, and the promise of the state had been vindicated, down to the very last cent. It seemed that the College might survive after all. As it turned out, Tufts not only survived but expanded its academic horizons in the 1860's by departing from its exclusively classical curriculum and venturing into other areas.


[14] The first printed copy of the by-laws was issued in pamphlet form in 1866, as an appendix to the charter. The charter did not appear in the College catalogue until 1891-92, which also carried for the first time a brief historical account of the institution.

[15] For years the Executive Committee met weekly; beginning in the 1890's it met monthly.

[16] Throughout the nineteenth century only two officers of the Trustees were compensated for their services: the treasurer, whose salary of $1,500 set in 1870 was reduced to $1,200 in 1876; and the chairman of the Finance Committee, who by 1898 had to devote two days a week to College affairs and was paid $500 a year. Newton Talbot made an unsuccessful attempt in 1898 to have the Trustees reimbursed for their rail fare to and from meetings if they lived more than ten miles from Boston. A mileage allowance "equal to 4¢ per mile, one way" was provided in 1900.

[17] One of the two who resigned that year was Rev. Calvin Gardiner of Waterville, Maine, who had endeavored to raise money for Clinton Liberal Institute and Walnut Hill Evangelical Seminary.

[18] Eli Ballou of Montpelier, Vermont, who had been a member of the original Board, was forced to resign under this provision.

[19] Rev. W. H. Ryder, who moved to Chicago, was a case in point.

[20] An assistant to the treasurer was authorized in 1895. The Finance Committee was enlarged from three to five in 1896.

[21] The Committee on Schools was redesignated as the Committee on Education in 1897.

[1] The distinction must be borne in mind here between operating expenses and endowment; the latter amounted to slightly under $100,000 in mid-1855, but to have touched the principal would have threatened the College with the loss of its charter.

[23] See Frank W. Blackmar, The History of Federal and State Aid to Higher Education in the United States, Bureau of Education, Whole Number 161 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890).

[24] See Sherman M. Smith, The Relation of the State to Religious Education in Massachusetts (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Union Bookstore, 1926).

  • 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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