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

Miller, Russell


The Board of Overseers created in 1899 represented a significant recognition of the growing importance of the alumni in the affairs of the College. President Capen, quite appropriately as an alumnus himself, was the first president of the institution to make a distinct bid for alumni support. His predecessors had made occasional remarks indicating their awareness of the great potential that would eventually be built up as the number of alumni increased, but it was Capen who saw the full implications of alumni support. He addressed a considerable portion of his Inaugural Address to the alumni. He listed four agencies needed to "best secure the ends of the University." They were: location (situation); living teachers; dead teachers ("books, books, BOOKS - not simply a limited collection of them, however well selected, but in boundless profusion"); and finally, "loyal children." The alumni, he said, had the power in their own hands to make or break the reputation of the College. Among the many things of which Tufts could already be


proud in its brief history up to 1875 was its alumni. They were important "for what they have already accomplished, and for the abundant promise which they give of future eminence and renown." Capen went a step further. "Especially do I invite the frank counsel and confidential friendship of my brethren of the Alumni. In a peculiar and very important sense, the College is theirs; and it is within their power to exert a greater influence than any other body of men whatever over its achievements and destiny. By wisdom and prudence they can easily direct its action and shape its policy."

The most systematic way that the alumni could exert their influence effectively was through organization. In later years graduates of the institution could look back with justifiable pride to the "Association of the Alumni of Tufts College" which was created in 1860- pride not only in its accomplishments, modest as they might have been, but in its very existence. The alumni of Williams College waited half a century to organize; the alumni of Yale, over a century; and the alumni of Harvard, over two centuries.[13]  The alumni of Tufts adopted a constitution when the College had graduated only five classes. It was peculiarly fitting that Capen should have stressed the role of the alumni, for he had been selected as one of the two vice-presidents of the Alumni Association when it was organized the very week he received his A.B. degree.

The possibility of alumni participation in the government of the College was first voiced formally by the Association in 1869, when an appeal to the Trustees was prepared urging that the alumni be permitted to nominate candidates when vacancies occurred on the Board. This effort having received no encouragement, an enlarged committee of the Association was created in 1871 to consider the best method of giving the alumni a share in the management of the institution. The result was the selection in 1873 of a five-man delegation to confer with the Trustees "on the subject of giving to representatives elected by the Alumni Association a place on their board." The columns of the Tufts Collegian were also used to publicize the idea and obtain alumni support. The committee wanted it made clear that their desire for formal representation was not to be taken as a criticism of the Trustees or as an


intimation that sudden or sweeping changes were in the offing. It was simply a matter of recognition that the ultimate responsibility for the College rested with the alumni "as a natural trust." The Trustees had already recognized the importance of the alumni by filling the last three vacancies on their Board with graduates of Tufts. This was a step in the right direction but did not solve the problem. The selection of replacements should be made by the alumni themselves. The interest of the graduate in his Alma Mater had to "rest upon something more substantial than the fleeting memory of his college days."

This proposal, in turn, raised another problem. The Association in 1874 comprised scarcely 50 per cent of the alumni. This was not an adequate basis on which to move with any degree of assurance. Two possibilities seemed to exist: abandon the informal organization as it then stood and make the alumni a corporate body, or greatly enlarge the scope and membership of the existing organization to make it both influential and truly representative.

No visible progress was made for several years toward the goal of either formal alumni representation on the Board of Trustees or reorganization of the Association. But two proposals made in 1878 testified to the continuing interest of the alumni in the College's affairs. One was to consider the feasibility of raising an annual sum of $1,000 for the use of the College, to be raised by five-dollar shares bought by the alumni. Thus was born the Alumni Fund, familiar in some form and in some degree to every graduate of Tufts. The start was unspectacular, to say the least. As the Committee on the Alumni Fund put the matter in 1879, they "had not met with the result they hoped." In one year, they had secured $140 from alumni and the same amount from one other source. Thereupon the Rev. George M. Harmon was made special agent for the raising of the fund. The entire $1,000 of this initial attempt was never secured, but the money that was collected was turned over to the College treasurer.

The other testimony to the concern of the alumni for the welfare of the College was consideration of the advisability of appointing annually "a Visiting Committee whose duty it shall be to visit the College recitations and examinations and report its condition to the alumni." This suggestion was undoubtedly influential in the


decision of the Trustees to create the Board of Visitors three years later.

After several years of inaction another move was begun (in 1891) to inquire into alumni representation on the Trustees, with a view toward a closer association of the two groups. The Executive Committee of the Trustees in that year invited a group from the Alumni Association to confer with them as to "the number, elections, etc., of the Trustees." The proposed meeting had to be postponed because the Association had not been convened soon enough to choose representatives. A committee to confer with the Trustees was finally created in 1894. The result was a circular sent by the Trustees to all alumni in 1898 to ascertain their reaction to the idea of creating a Board of Overseers. The consensus was sufficiently favorable to encourage the Trustees to work out a plan in consultation with the alumni.

The proposal offered to the Trustees in the spring of 1899 recommended the creation of a Board of sixteen men and the president of the College, ex officio. All sixteen were to be holders of Tufts degrees, but not officers of instruction. No more than four could be Trustees. The members of the Board were to be elected by the alumni for four-year terms and would be eligible for one re-election. Their functions were to ratify all faculty appointments involving the rank of instructor or above made by the Trustees, and to pass on all changes or additions of personnel. They also had power under the original proposal to recommend to the Trustees "such action in any matter of college management or government, not purely financial, as may seem to them advisable, including the power to nominate officers of instruction and government." Action on the plan was postponed until the alumni could again be consulted. Several suggestions were received, although not all were incorporated into the final version. One recommendation made by the Alumni Association on which no action was taken by the Trustees would have provided that alumni would vote only for nominees representing the division of the College (e.g., college of letters, divinity school) of which the voting alumni themselves were graduates. The alumni felt that representation of the college of letters should constitute a majority on such a board.

The plan finally worked out was substantially the same as the original version, except that no Trustee was to be a member aside


from the president of the College, and that members had to have been alumni (holding one or more degrees in course) for at least ten years prior to election. Alumni, to be eligible to vote for Board members, must have been degree holders (in course or honorary) at least five years prior to casting their first vote. In order to bring the Board into existence, a nominating committee was provided, five selected by the Trustees and five by the Alumni Association. They were to nominate thirty-two candidates; the sixteen with the largest number of votes were declared elected and were chosen by lot for staggered terms of from one to four years. The Executive Committee of the Alumni Association was responsibile for nominating two candidates for each regular vacancy on the Overseers. Ballots were then to be printed and sent to each graduate eligible to vote. A Committee on Elections was provided to count the ballots and certify the elections.

One change made in the original proposal theoretically strengthened the hand of the Overseers but in actual operation complicated and sometimes delayed the selection of teaching staff. The Board was not merely to ratify elections by the Trustees but was to approve "all nominations for officers of instruction in all departments of the College, whether permanent or temporary, of or above the grade of instructor, together with all votes providing for changes in or additions to departments of instruction." Fortunately, the provision was made that failure of the Overseers to communicate their decisions promptly to the Trustees could be taken as approval, for in actuality the Overseers in some instances failed to transact business because they lacked a quorum. The Overseers, as formally constituted, retained the authority outlined in the original proposal both to recommend policy changes to the Trustees and to nominate officers of instruction and government on their own. As noted earlier, the provision that the Overseers would also appoint the Boards of Visitors was added after the Board of Overseers had been created.

The newly constituted Board held its first meeting on October 9, 1899, and proceeded to organize, with President Capen and ten members present.[14]  Very few changes were made in the personnel of


the Board of Overseers during its existence of less than eight years. Although the president and secretary could have been changed annually according to the by-laws, Charles W. Parmenter served as secretary until the fall of 1904, and his successor, Arthur W. Peirce, wrote the word "Finis" in a firm hand at the end of the minutes of the last meeting on June 17, 1907. Walter P. Beckwith, principal of the State Normal School at Salem, served as president until his death in 1905 and was succeeded by Edward H. Clement. Most of the Overseers were reelected and in some years, barring an occasional death or resignation, there were no new faces on the Board.[15] 

Even before the Overseers had had an opportunity to select their own officers they were plunged into their work. They were asked at their very first meeting to approve the establishment of Professorships of History, and Greek Language and Literature; to approve the nominations of men to fill the new positions; and to fill two other professorships. The Overseers approved the two new posts but asked for time to investigate the four nominations. Lacking sufficient knowledge of the men involved to allow an intelligent vote, they requested time for a special committee to investigate the candidates. This became a chronic problem which was alluded to in almost every exchange with the Trustees. In their annual report for 1902 the Overseers in the very first paragraph mentioned their "inability to perform these duties with such thoroughness and efficiency as to make evident both our desire to promote the prosperity of our Alma Mater and the success of our efforts." The committees to whom nominations were referred uniformly expressed the feeling that it was "out of the question to make any adequate investigation." A second problem immediately arose. The by-laws of the Overseers, adopted at their second meeting, provided for an annual meeting in October and two other stated meetings (one before Commencement Day and another in January). Experience soon


indicated that if the Overseers were to keep up with the business assigned them they would have to meet more frequently. But distance, time, and professional commitments of the members precluded frequent consultation as a group. In numerous instances action required of them necessitated a hurried conference between the president and the secretary and whatever other Overseers could be contacted on short notice without benefit of a formal scheduled meeting. The provision that nominations for permanent faculty had to lie over for one meeting also made for delays and complications.

Committees (Boards) of Visitors were provided for each of the components of the College existing in 1899 (college of letters, divinity school, medical school, and dental school), to be appointed by a three-man committee of the Overseers and to consist of five members each, three of whom were to be members of the Board of Overseers. Their duties were "to learn what are the methods of government and instruction in the College, and to take such measures as in their judgment will best enable them to report in full on the conditions, wants, and prospects of the College." One of their additional functions was to collect information whenever possible on nominees in the course of their visitations to the campus, so that special committees would not have to be appointed.

The approval by the Overseers of nominations by the Trustees for faculty positions might have appeared routine and a mere formality if one did not look beyond the official records of votes, for the great majority of nominations were approved without question. But inspection of the Overseers' files shows how seriously they took their obligations and how thoroughly and conscientiously they investigated the nominees. Correspondingly, in virtually all instances involving personnel decisions the Trustees heeded the recommendations of the alumni. In the first group of individuals they were called upon to consider, the Overseers found one candidate about whom they had reservations, and the Trustees honored their decision that the appointment (involving a promotion) be delayed at least to the end of the academic year, until the person had proved himself. One matter on which the Overseers were insistent Was that no one should be appointed to the rank of full professor until he had clearly demonstrated his fitness for the title. Ordinarily, they considered the practice of promoting teachers from


instructorships to professorships unwise. A term of service as assistant professor was desirable as a rule first. This principle was applied in a case in 1900, and the Trustees followed the Overseers' recommendations.

One of the principal duties of the Overseers was to receive the annual reports of the Boards of Visitors, make abstracts of them to be presented to the Trustees, and forward their own observations. The first such report was prepared in the fall of 1901 and touched on many problems that seem to recur in the area of academic affairs. The Overseers recommended that departmental work be organized in such a way that the ablest and most experienced instructors were assigned to the elementary and basic courses, for "beginnings are most vital and important." A revised elective system introduced in the 1890's was beginning to result in such a proliferation of courses that the money for increased salaries deserved by the senior members of the faculty was being diverted into the employment of numerous instructors. Restricting the range of curricular choice and offering courses in alternate years could result both in a checking of the increase in instructors and in enhanced incomes for the permanent faculty. The Overseers were informed by the Trustees that their report had received "very careful" attention and that it showed "a thoughtful consideration and wise appreciation of the educational needs of the College." As to the recommendations of the Overseers, the Trustees found most of them already a part of College policy or concurred "substantially" with the propositions offered by the alumni. During their existence the Overseers commented on everything from the sad state of the divinity school enrollment to student behavior and with only a few notable exceptions received the same reply from the Trustees: The ideas were commendable, the College was already attempting to carry them out, or financial limitations prevented putting them into effect. The refrain became a bit monotonous to some of the more impatient alumni.

The Overseers almost immediately expressed doubts about the feasibility of continuing the visitation system. In 1901they reported to the Trustees that "there seems to be strong reason for believing that the present method of supervision by Boards of Visitors is not likely to be greatly useful, from the exceeding difficulty, if not actual impossibility, of securing suitable persons of sufficient


leisure to undertake the task." The Trustee Committee on Education to which the reports of the Overseers were submitted disagreed with the Overseers as to the value of the Visitors. In their opinion the discontinuance of the Visitors would be a mistake. Yet even the Overseers themselves were reluctant or unable to serve as Visitors, for in 1903 their by-laws were suspended so that Boards of Visitors could include as many persons not members of the Overseers as was deemed advisable. In 1903 the requirement that Overseers be represented on the Boards of Visitors was completely abandoned.

There was so much criticism of the Trustees for alleged failure to pay attention to the lengthy and painstaking reports of the Boards of Visitors and to keep the alumni properly informed that the Executive Committee printed and distributed to the entire alumni body a summary of the reports for 1904-5. The Executive Committee hoped "that the alumni of the College will find this communication of sufficient interest and importance to desire the publication of similar bulletins in the future." So far as the records indicate, this was the only such bulletin published, although reports of individual Visiting Committees continued to appear in the Tufts College Graduate (the alumni magazine) from time to time.

The Overseers also began to question the value of their own existence as an organized body. After four years of operation they looked back on their accomplishments and found them wanting. They had been disposed to take their duties seriously and to strive earnestly to be of genuine service to the College, which they loved. But even after making allowance for whatever intangible contributions they might have made, they had developed a keen sense of "the apparent inadequacy and unfruitfulness" of their efforts. It could hardly be otherwise when the Overseers were engaging in activities for which they actually had no ultimate responsibility. The responsibility rested with persons whom they did not meet face-to-face and with whom they could hardly be said to have had "a thorough working understanding." Positive action in regard to nominations of faculty was "difficult and rare." Consideration of financial matters was explicitly excluded from Overseer jurisdiction. Many of the topics discussed by the Overseers were already dealt with by the faculties of the College and resulted in needless duplication of effort unless each group was informed of the views of the other. It was therefore recommended that the reports of the


Overseers be submitted to the appropriate faculty, with replies returned to the Overseers by way of the Trustees. In short, it was desirable that "the closest possible relationship" be established between the faculties and the Overseers.

The problem of establishing a closer tie with the Trustees was at least partially met in the fall of 1903, when the Executive Committee of the Trustees voted to arrange for joint meetings with the Overseers or a committee of them, at least annually. The arrangement for ratifying nominations to the faculty was never worked out satisfactorily. As they pointed out repeatedly to the Trustees, the Overseers entered the picture only after persons were already nominated, and they were hesitant to express an unfavorable opinion at that stage of the proceedings. If that function of the Overseers was to be meaningful, their participation should be in the preliminary rather than in the final stages of the process. Provision for consultation with the president of the College and the chairmen of the departments involved was suggested. The Trustees had never explained to the Overseers the reasons for the system of ratifications of nominations in the first place.

There was another matter that still required consideration and appeared periodically on the agenda of Overseers' meetings, namely, alumni representation on the governing body of the College. The Overseers, in their annual report for 1903, inquired of the Trustees whether any steps could be taken "looking to a more formal recognition of the alumni through their organized representatives." Three more years went by before another step was taken. The recommendations of a special committee of the Overseers appointed in 1906 to investigate the possibility spelled the doom of their own organization. They inquired into the precedents and practices of the older New England colleges and found that a substantial majority provided for some form of alumni representation on their boards of trustees or overseers, or both, when both existed. The committee reminded the Tufts Overseers that the Trustees were a self-perpetuating body that by the original charter was to consist of twenty-three members, enlarged to thirty by legislative act in 1878. The Board of Overseers, which could have been created by the same device of charter amendment, actually existed merely by virtue of a by-law of the Trustees. Hence the Overseers had no such legal existence as would give the alumni any


guaranteed representation in the management of the College and could be abolished at any time by an amendment to the Trustee by-laws.

In view of the manner in which the Overseers had been brought into existence, the meagerness of their authority, and the constantly growing body of alumni worthy of having "a substantial voice in the management of the College," the committee made a series of recommendations unanimously adopted by the Overseers and transmitted to the Trustees. The recommendations were as follows: that an enactment be secured at the next session of the legislature providing for the election of ten members of the Board by the alumni of three to five years' standing. Two were to be elected each year for five-year terms. The Board of Overseers was to be abolished as soon as the charter change was made. The number of Trustees provided by the revised charter was sufficiently large so that ten alumni would be about in proportion to the number of trustees on the boards of "several of the other New England colleges."

A joint meeting of representatives of the Trustees and the Overseers confirmed the basic agreement of the two bodies as to the course of action proposed by the Overseers. The recognition of the principle of alumni representation was unanimously voted by the Trustees and the number agreed upon was ten, two to be elected by the alumni each year for five years as vacancies occurred on the Board, until the entire ten places were filled. The question of whether, under such a plan, the alumni should also have a voice in filling vacancies among the other twenty Board members (who held unlimited tenure) was submitted to the alumni for consideration.

The last meeting of the Overseers was held, as was the custom, in Young's Hotel in Boston, on June 17, 1907. After receiving the reports of the Boards of Visitors to be transmitted to the Trustees, and after confirming a whole host of nominations to the faculty (mostly medical and dental), the Overseers in effect voted themselves out of existence. In view of the change which had taken place in the College charter on March 29, 1907, providing formal alumni representation on the Board of Trustees, the Overseers recommended the repeal of the by-law that had created them. The Trustees acted accordingly at their fall meeting.

After existing for nearly eight years, the Board of Overseers


willingly bowed out in favor of machinery that would insure a closer relationship between the College and its alumni. Even though there had been practical difficulties, and the Overseers had not always agreed with the decisions or policies of the Trustees, their experiences had given them a more intimate view of the College. While this "nearer view point" had revealed many ideals unrealized, the Overseers had come to believe "more fully than ever in the present strength of the institution and to have a better grounded hope for its future prosperity." The Overseers themselves had served a valuable purpose in providing a transitional stage in alumni representation. Many of the procedural details, such as the eligibility for alumni Trustee membership and selection, were almost identical to the system prevailing under the rules and regulations of the Overseers. All persons who for five years had held a degree (in course or honorary) were eligible to vote for the ten alumni members. Any person who for ten years had held a degree in course was eligible for membership on the Trustees, provided that at all times at least seven of the ten members so elected should hold the first degree in arts or sciences. Except for the first election, alumni were to serve for five years and be eligible for reelection. The filling of vacancies on the Board by the alumni was to be limited to those positions that had been held by alumni Trustees. When Jackson College was chartered in 1910, alumnae received the same franchise rights as the alumni and the same opportunity to be elected to the Board of Trustees. In 1919 it was further provided that the nominations and elections of alumni Trustees were to be conducted in accordance with the rules and regulations of the Alumni Association. No further charter changes were made until 1934, after the Alumni Council had been created and the alumni were empowered to delegate their voting rights for alumni Trustees to a representative group rather than to act directly.

With the demise of the Overseers the Trustees resumed their authority to appoint Boards (Committees) of Visitors, and the matter was placed in the hands of the Executive Committee. The system differed only slightly from that of preceding years. The committees, appointed annually by the Executive Committee, were originally to have consisted of three persons, one of them a Trustee who was to be responsible as chairman for preparing a report to submit to the annual meeting of the Trustees. In actuality, the


number of members of Boards of Visitors assigned to the various divisions of the College varied from two to six. In order to get as many points of view as possible and to involve the largest possible number of persons who it was believed should become acquainted with the work of the College, the policy was inaugurated in 1909 (at President Hamilton's suggestion) of changing the personnel annually. The policy of rotation was not consistently followed, but it did represent a recognition of the dangers of inbreeding and of the possibility (unfortunate as it might have been) that Visitors would refuse to serve for prolonged periods.

Whatever the doubts might have been about the utility of Boards of Visitors, they continued to exist and continued to play the same rather ambiguous role that had been assigned them when they had been first appointed by the Trustees in 1881-82. When the medical and dental schools were added in the 1890's and Jackson College for Women was created in 1910, Boards of Visitors were promptly provided for them. As other major divisions were added to the institution, such as the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1933, they too had Boards of Visitors assigned to them. Mrs. Cora Polk Dewick, who was serving as chairman of the Committee of Visitors to Jackson College in 1924 and was in the process of preparing her report to the Trustees, commented rather acidly that "my observations at past meetings have led me to decide that nobody listens to the reports anyway, so I cannot hope to make much of an impression." President John A. Cousens, in a letter in 1931 to the man destined to succeed him, recognized the problem and commented that "of late years the reports have tended to be more and more perfunctory." He solicited suggestions for improving the system, which was apparently moribund. No matter at what period they existed, the value of the Boards of Visitors depended on such variables as their composition from year to year, the state of the general administration of the affairs of the College, and the role that the alumni and others ostensibly interested in the College saw fit to play.

It was in the midst of the economic insecurity of the 1890's and the discussions over the merits of such devices as Boards of Visitors that the College assumed new responsibilities and reorganized many of its internal operations in response both to local pressures and to an enlarged awareness of its educational obligations. In


this decade the College opened its doors to women (after great debate and delay), added a medical school and a dental school, broadened the base of its engineering curriculum and opened a technical preparatory school, expanded its graduate department to offer the Ph.D. degree, completely revamped its undergraduate liberal arts program and reviewed its admissions policies, and reorganized its faculty and administrative structure. Tufts in the 1890's became a university de facto, although it persisted in calling itself a college.


[13] Charles F. Thwing, A History of Higher Education in America (New York: D. Appleton, 1906), p. 402.

[14] Henry Blanchard (1859), Edwin Ginn (1862), Roland Hammond (1868), Minton Warren (1870), William B. French (1870), Frank M. Hawes (1872), Walter P. Beckwith (1876), Charles W. Parmenter (1877), Arthur W.Peirce (1882), and Samuel W. Mendum (1885). The following Overseers were not present at the organization meeting: Charles H. Eaton (1874), Edward H. Clement (1864), Seldon Connor (1859), William D. T. Trefry (1878), Francis B. Harrington (1877), and Frank 0. Melcher (1887).

[15] The following men served at some time as Overseers in addition to the original group: Frank T. Daniels (1890), Milton G. Starrett (1886), Alphonsus H. Carvill (1866), Fred Gowing (1881), H. Austin Tuttle (1891), Arthur W. DeGoosh (1893), William Fuller (1879), and Frederick W. Perkins (1891).

  • 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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