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

Miller, Russell


One area of administration which did not involve the knotty problems of finance but about which President Capen felt very strongly was "bringing the College into intelligent contact with the outside public." One of the best ways, he thought, that the public could be informed of how well the standards of the institution were being maintained and could be apprised of its progress was the creation of Boards of Visitors. Such boards, drawn both from the


wider community and from those with some association with the College, could also serve as a stimulus to teachers and students and could awaken "a fresh interest" in intellectual activity. The result of Capen's efforts was the establishment in the winter of 1881-82 of two Boards of Visitors, one for the college of letters and one for the divinity school, both appointed by the Trustees. Article 9 of the by-laws adopted in 1884 provided that at least three of the nine Visitors to the college of letters were to be graduates of the College, and at least two of the seven to the divinity school were to be alumni of that school. In a sense, the creation of these boards did not represent a radical departure from existing practices, for precedents could easily be traced back to the early years of the College.

The idea of having individuals outside the instructional staff review the work of the College had taken form in 1855 with the practice of holding public exercises in the form of oral examinations for all classes twice a year (at the end of each term). The Trustees were notified of the exact date. Occasionally the examinations scheduled for midyear had to be postponed because such a high proportion of the students were away teaching school. In 1856 the Trustees began to appoint "Committees of Examination," consisting of at least three Trustees, the requisite number of alumni, and a sprinkling of outside talent (usually clergymen). Even after written examinations were introduced by some teachers in 1857 (with Trustee approval), oral examinations were continued, and the examiners were required to make a report to the Trustees. There were frequently as many as fifteen examiners, with two to five assigned to each subject. Beginning in 1863-64 the names of the examiners were printed in the catalogue. From time to time the tasks of the examiners were lightened by conditions at the College. The examinations were omitted in the second term of 1867 and 1868, in the first instance because of "over-working of the Sophomore class, and ill-health of the Junior class."

Written examinations were adopted by the faculty in all departments in 1867-68 "with highly satisfactory results." As a consequence, the last recitation day in each course was devoted to such examinations, and in 1869 outside Committees of Examination were abandoned and were replaced by "Visiting Committees" of eight for the "Academic Department" and six for the divinity school. They were "invited to visit the several departments of


instruction at any time and without previous notice; also to inspect the papers at the Annual and Semi-Annual Examinations."

Many of the Committees of Examination discharged their responsibilities "with great fidelity and perseverance" and left for later generations some interesting and occasionally amusing reports of their reactions. As might be expected, their findings were rather mixed. Occasionally they were couched in the broadest of generalities; conversely, some dealt in minute detail with the academic work and the personalities involved. One committee was "highly gratified with the results" they had observed and departed "satisfied that in this institution there is no reason to fear a decline in the study of the Ancient Languages . . . [which were] an essential part of a thorough education." One observer in a class in English grammar came to the circumspect and ambiguous conclusion that "while there were no failures, it may not be expedient to report the names of one or two members, who, if judged solely by the examination, would rank below the average merit of the class." One class in mathematics received a "special commendation" because its written work in geometry and trigonometry was done "with exactness and elegance." One department received a "highly unfavorable report" because the student responses were inaccurate, the written work was carelessly done, the questions prepared by the instructor were too elementary, and the students were allowed to use their texts while the examinations were in progress.

The greatest difficulty in administering the plan of Committees of Examination was finding sufficient individuals willing to serve. The Executive Committee of the Trustees often had to use "much persuasion" and often "without entire success." In more than one instance, only one of the members assigned to examine the class appeared, and after the system had been in operation for only a few years there were so many resignations from committees that the Trustees requested the Executive Committee to review "the whole subject of appointing the usual Committees of Examination."

The system of a Board of Visitors for each part of the College, which was instituted in 1881-82, likewise worked with only moderate success. Some conscientious members did visit the College occasionally and made elaborate reports reflecting considerable thought and attention. Byron Groce, a graduate of the Class of


1867 and master in the Boston Latin School in the 1880's, was forthright in his recommendations. He was critical of the quality of academic performance and called for higher standards in examinations both for admission and for meeting degree requirements. He urged greater attention to English composition and believed the subject should be required for each year until graduation. The experimental work in the chemistry and physics laboratories encouraged by Professors Dolbear and Michael was thoroughly approved by some of the Visitors; on the other hand, some were concerned that graduate-level research was being carried on to the detriment of undergraduate instruction and were particularly disturbed to discover that Professor Michael was interested only in supervising the work of three or four graduate students and "relegated" the instruction of undergraduates to those with lesser academic rank. Another member of the Board of Visitors (in 1885) would "be sorry to see Tufts take on too much the nature of a university; it ought to be sufficient glory for her to be a first class college." [12] 

Several difficulties arose in regard to the Board of Visitors, and President Capen used his personal influence as much as possible to alleviate them. One was the often-repeated complaint that the Board members, drawn as they were from many professions and locations, did not feel competent to evaluate the work of the College without being experts in higher education, and had little or no opportunity to know what other institutions did; so it was difficult to compare Tufts with other schools. Other Board members complained that their reports, often containing specific recommendations worthy of consideration, were merely "placed on file." As Samuel W. Mendum of the Class of 1885 expressed it in a report made in 1897, "the fate of the reports . . .seems to be a speedy assignment to a cavity in the archives . . . from which they never emerge to the light of day. The honor of having our names in the pages of the Tufts College Catalogue is great but it is too dearly purchased as the price of days of visitation at the college, if our reports are ignored and consigned to oblivion before the ink with which they are written has time to dry." The chairman of one Board of Visitors to the college of letters complained that interest


in its task was so minimal that "it was almost impossible to get a quorum of Visitors together to visit the College." One reason he gave for this negative attitude was the widespread feeling that "their labors or suggestions did not count for anything."

Several recommendations were made for improving the situation. One called for the printing and distribution of Visitors' reports as part of the president's annual report. The Executive Committee, spearheaded by President Capen, came to the defense of the system and, in a circular distributed to the Trustees and the Visitors, pointed out that the reports were not ignored. The College was not always able to act, but the reports were referred to various standing committees and to the president of the institution. The point was added that much of the material contained in the reports was confidential and dealt by name with individuals. The information certainly should not be made public property. One result of the complaint that no one paid any attention to the Visitors' reports was the appointment, beginning in 1898, of a special Trustee committee to review them and report any matters requiring comment or action. In 1899 a Board of Overseers was created consisting exclusively of alumni, and the function of appointing Boards of Visitors was transferred from the Trustees to that body.


[12] Most of the reports of members of the Boards dealt explicitly with the departments or divisions to which the Visitors were assigned and have been referred to elsewhere in this work.

  • 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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