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

Miller, Russell


The financial tide had seemed to turn in favor of the College in the mid-1860's, after it had weathered the uncertain period of the Civil War and had received state assistance in the proverbial nick of time. It appeared in 1864-65 that for once the ordinary anticipated income would meet ordinary expenditures. If this turned out to be the case, the Executive Committee was ready with a long list of ways to spend whatever surplus there was. There could be "a regular appropriation for the increase of the Library, . . . the adorning of our grounds," a salary for the president, and even possibly a gymnasium. The goal was not achieved that year, but in 1865-66 there was actually a balance of over $2,000, and the estimated surplus for the following year was over $7,000.[4]  This desirable excess of receipts over outgo continued all too briefly. A disastrous conflagration in Boston on November 8, 1872, known as the "Great Fire," destroyed approximately $25,000 of the College's endowment in investment property and stocks. Much of the business property was rebuilt with partial reimbursement from insurance, the amounts determined by rulings of the state Supreme Court. Other College-held properties were mortgaged to cover the balance of the extraordinary expenditures. One investment of $7,500 in insurance stocks (one of the Walker Funds) was completely wiped out, for obvious reasons.

The sharp decrease in College income from these sources meant a corresponding decline in scholarship and gratuity aid, which had been derived almost exclusively from profit on Boston investments. In fact, in their attempt to assist worthy students, the Trustees and faculty had actually gone so far beyond the regular scholarship grants that costs for student assistance came close to canceling out income from student fees. This was one reason that for four consecutive years (1873-77) expenses again exceeded income. On top of everything else, the College's investments were hard hit by another downturn of the national economy known in American history as the Panic of 1873. As a result, the stocks in


which the remaining Walker Funds ($175,000) were invested were either worthless or badly depreciated. "Ledger value" and "real value" no longer bore much resemblance to each other.

What could and should the College do to meet this new threat to its financial welfare? William H. Finney, who had become treasurer in the midst of this unhappy period, reviewed all of the assets and liabilities, opened a new set of books in 1876, and rearranged the accounts so that principal and income could be perceived at a glance. The modernizing of the system was justified on the ground that the days when the financial transactions were comparatively small and the accounts few in number had long since passed, and the situation required an overhauling.[5]  While the hard-working treasurer was reorganizing his books, the Executive Committee undertook to find ways of economizing and keeping expenses within income. After considering several possibilities, the Trustees agreed in 1877 on the following: to give no more aid to students beyond regular scholarships, to increase student charges (including tuition) from $75 to $100, and to reduce the salaries of the president and the faculty by 20 per cent for one year.[6] 

The outcome of this "general economical management" was merely a slight reduction in the deficit. Retrenchment alone was not enough. Clearly the permanent solution had to be an increase in the endowment. By 1879 the situation had become so serious that, if all attempts at soliciting funds failed, the Trustees saw no other path before them than to (1) abolish the divinity school "in part or in whole" (except for the Packard Professorship, which had to be maintained because of the provisions in the donor's will), (2) eliminate the Department of Oratory, and (3) reduce and/or consolidate existing departments. At the same time, it was voted to notitfy all faculty that, effective December 31, 1879, all obligations of the College toward them would terminate pending


renegotiation, which was, in turn, dependent on the financial prospects by then. Only eight days before the deadline, the faculty were notified that their salaries would continue. Although matters had improved somewhat by the end of the year, a special Trustee committee was appointed to conduct an on-the-spot investigation of the College to see whether instructional expenses could be reduced. Consideration was also given to selling off College land on the fringes of the Hill, but that drastic step was not taken; instead, properties in Chelsea were sold.[7] 

In the 1880's the Trustees launched the first capital funds drive since the College had opened, first by deciding to issue a circular calling for aid and then by proposing to hire a fund-raising agent. His task was to be threefold: to secure funds for current expenses, to seek additions to permanent endowment through gifts and bequests, and to devise and develop plans for increasing enrollment. There were 102 students enrolled in all departments of the College in 1879-80, eight less than in 1877-78. This trend was a matter of continuing concern to President Capen, who called attention in almost every one of his annual reports to the failure of enrollment to increase. In his report for 1879-80 he insisted that the College could double the number of students without materially increasing the teaching force.

Finding an agent was no small problem, for the demands of such a post required an additional member of the staff and increased financial outlay. But the time had come, said the Trustees, when Tufts had to face up to the fact that it was living in a rapidly changing world.

The spirit of competition which is now so fierce in everybranch of business, extends even to our educational institutions.Neighboring colleges are straining every nerve to obtain students;established courses of instruction are extended, and new ones areintroduced, important experiments in instruction and in disciplineare making; attractions unknown in our New England Colleges aquarter of a century ago are presented to the young man whocontemplates entering an institution of learning.... Although itwould be neither wise nor dignified for us to enter into this

scramble, the fact still remains that we must be progressive andaggressive if we expect Tufts College to maintain the rank it hasgained among New England institutions.

It was first proposed that the fund-raiser be an alumnus of the College and have academic rank as Professor of "Ethics" in addition to the title of "General Secretary," at a salary of $2,500.[8]  The Trustees felt, however, that this would be too elaborate and too expensive an undertaking. They compromised temporarily by relieving President Capen of his teaching duties for 1881-82, at an expense not to exceed $500, and giving him a mandate to raise $150,000. He reported in March 1882 that he had secured subscriptions of $139,000, and the Trustees decided that the sum was so close to the goal that the subscriptions could be called in by May 1. The sum of $12,000 had been added by January 1883. The financial plight of the College might have been alleviated by the endowment drive, but it certainly had not been solved. Service on indebtedness alone outran general expenses (exclusive of salaries) by $500. The Executive Committee was authorized in the summer of 1883 to sell off additional investment property, including holdings in Winchester and Woburn and, if necessary, part of the land in Medford acquired many years before from Timothy Cotting. Trustee Wilmot L. Warren filed a vigorous objection to what he considered a shortsighted policy, and recommended that the Trustees retain the properties, leasing or renting them subject to periodic renewal and first option of the lessees to buy the buildings and other improvements. He cited the success that Columbia College (later University) had had with such a policy. But the majority decision of the Trustees prevailed, and the Cotting land northwest of the College across the Boston and Maine Railroad was sold.[9] 

Financial conditions were improving to some extent by the late 1880's, but deficits in operating costs continued to plague the College. President Capen was again selected to head a two-pronged campaign to obtain pledges for current expenses and for endowment, and particularly to obtain $2,000 cash for fifty scholarships.


The idea of employing a "canvassing agent for the College" was also resurrected in 1888, and the Trustees secured the services of the Rev. A. P. Patterson, who worked with President Capen. Sufficient money had been pledged by 1891 to create twenty-seven new scholarships and to increase the total scholarship funds of the College to $54,000. New permanent scholarships were established in many names, including Miner, Travelli, and Talbot. Besides these and some scholarships established by endowments for a term of years, there were eight provided by that many Universalist parishes by means of annual payments. The College also received in 1890 over $32,000 from the estate of Rev. W. H. Ryder, and part of this was earmarked for the hard-pressed divinity school.

President Capen could report to the Trustees in 1890 that the total increase in funds for the one year had been more than $130,000. If this rate of increase could have been maintained for a period of years, the Trustees would have soon been "relieved of the anxiety under which they have labored for some time in carrying on the work of the institution." But even this impressive addition to the College's resources failed to meet its long-range needs. The Trustees sold the improved land in Woburn for $60,000 and early in 1890 disposed of sizable holdings in Boston from the Packard estate. They were reminded in 1895 of the unhappy fact that the annual operating deficit for the preceding five years averaged over $12,000, and the unrestricted funds left to meet it were almost exhausted. There seemed no alternative but to employ on a permanent basis "the best financial officer available." The appeal, said President Capen, must be made "to all, in or out of the ranks of the Universalist Church." In view of the straitened circumstances of the institution, "no increase of salaries of teachers and employees should be considered, but every decrease possible should be availed of." [10] 

Rev. Benjamin F. Eaton was employed in 1896 to solicit funds, on a commission basis. Even with an agent, funds trickled in so slowly that a special Trustee committee spent six months in 1897 inventorying the entire College. They came to the gloomy conclusion that any reduction in instructional staff or teaching equipment


would impair the effectiveness of the institution and its standing in the educational world. Unless whole divisions or departments were closed down, the only choice was to employ additional agents. Eaton tried hard, but it was a discouraging business. The 1890's were a time of economic unrest throughout the nation, and the agent ran into it at every turn. "Promises to do something for the College when 'the times permit' " he received "almost without number," but tangible results were very slim. Eaton collected less than $3,000 in cash and subscriptions in the second of his two years as agent. He put the blame on three circumstances: the economic uncertainties of the times; the disruption of the Spanish-American War, which siphoned off many prospective students; and the failure of the College to offer sufficient financial inducements. He considered Dartmouth College one of Tufts' greatest competitors in the latter respect. Eaton resigned in 1898 because he could not earn an adequate livelihood as agent and because he seemed unable to "do the most good for the College" under the circumstances.

In view of the disappointing results of Eaton's efforts, the Trustees undertook still another retrenchment campaign at the College. If all of the recommendations had been adopted, the institution would, among other things, have lost three faculty members. As it was, one of the three was hurried into retirement, one was given a greatly increased load at a slight increase in compensation, and the third exchanged a promotion in rank for a reduced salary.[11]  The Trustees began negotiations in 1899 with another prospective financial agent, Rev. Henry W. Rugg, to take Eaton's place and hoped the new year (and the new century) would brighten Tufts' prospects.


[4] Of the $37,000 received in 1865-66, less than $3,400 came from student term bills.

[5] The treasurer, as an economy move, was authorized by the Trustees in 1879 to declare the property on the Hill tax exempt when making annual reports for assessment purposes. The question of exemption for College property had not been previously raised.

[6] The salaries for instructional staff at this time ranged from $800 to $2,625. The librarian received $500. In 1878-79 total salaries amounted to $32,000, paid out of an income of $85,000; the net from tuition that year was only $2,050.

[7] One by-product of the difficulties of the 1870's was the adoption of a budget based on appropriations, beginning in 1880, so that "ways and means will be considered before disbursements instead of afterwards."

[8] Before the plan was submitted to the Trustees, the title was changed to "General Agent," and the proposals that the new officer be a member of the faculty and reside on the Hill were dropped.

[9] Marshall and Cotting Streets, in that area, commemorated two names prominently associated with Tufts' early history.

[10] At this time the improved property on the Hill was estimated to be worth $1,268,000 (exclusive of land); over $230,000 of that had been donated to erect five buildings which were constructed after 1880.

[11] The third person referred to was Frank W. Durkee, who was promoted to the Professorship of Inorganic Chemistry created especially for him, at a salary of $1,200.

  • 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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