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

Miller, Russell


What is usually considered graduate work began at Tufts in 1876, with the accession of President Capen and the announcement that the Master's degree would no longer be given "in course" in accordance with time-honored usage. This seemingly innocuous statement meant more than it appeared to. It actually represented both a step in the direction of the modern concept of the earned graduate degree and a clarification of College policy regarding the whole subject of academic degrees. It was the occasion to review not only earned and honorary degrees but also a third category of Tufts degrees - neither earned nor honorary - that was awarded between 1861 and 1878 and had by the late 1870's apparently outlived any purpose it might have served.

In 1860-61 Tufts had joined the ranks of the majority of collegiate institutions by offering what for want of a better designation might be called the "unearned M.A.," although the euphemistic and somewhat misleading designation "in course" was often used. The requirements were minimal, the number of recipients impressive. It was provided that the degree of Master of Arts would be conferred on any alumnus who had been a holder of the Bachelor of Arts degree from Tufts for at least three years; had, in the interval, "sustained a good moral character"; and had paid a fee, including the diploma, of $5.00. The fee was payable (in advance) upon application to the president at least one week before Commencement.[12]  Various explanations have been offered for the widespread practice illustrated by Tufts' policy before 1876. Systematic graduate study,


patterned to a large extent on German models, was not introduced into American higher education until after that date.[13]  The Master of Arts "in course" was offered as a sort of substitute. Possibly colleges desired to have graduates reminded of their academic training or connection. Any degree beyond the first was considered to have real value in the professions; it had built-in prestige. President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard is said to have made the facetious (or cynical) comment that the requisites for the distinction of receiving an M.A. degree "in course" were "five dollars and continued existence." Tufts awarded seventy-three such degrees between 1861 and 1876, spread occupationally over most professions but with the preponderance going to teachers and clergymen. One attempt was made in 1870-71 to make the "unearned" M.A. a bit more meaningful by requiring "satisfactory evidence of having successfully pursued some professional or literary study." This was presumably to be determined by the president of the College, but there is no indication that any systematic attempt was ever made to implement it. Each such degree, however, was voted by the faculty and was usually followed by authorization from the Trustees.[14] 

President Capen felt very strongly that all degrees conferred "in course" by the College should be truly earned. The M.A. "in course" was particularly offensive to him. He considered it a step forward, therefore, when the faculty voted to inaugurate a new M.A. program which required the following of a prescribed course in at least two departments for at least one year, the required attainment to be ascertained by examination. The new program, effective in 1876-77, was open to graduates of other schools whose courses of study were equivalent to those for which the same degree was given at Tufts. In order that no injustice be done those who were already members of the College, the faculty agreed to continue until 1878 to recommend M.A.'s under the old condition. In making the M.A. an earned degree, the College was indicating its


"emphatic approval" of similar measures already taken "by a few of the leading Institutions of the country." Approval of the new policy had already been expressed, for applications had been received from graduates of other colleges, and even some Tufts alumni had proposed to become candidates, feeling as they did that the degree as formerly conferred "was not worth even the five dollars required for the diploma."

Like other educational institutions, Tufts began the practice of awarding honorary degrees almost immediately after it was chartered, and individuals associated with the College both before and after its establishment have received a goodly share from other colleges and universities as well. Again following long-standing practice, any recipient of an honorary degree from Tufts automatically became an alumnus or alumna of the institution. Universalist leaders had been greatly pleased in 1845 when Harvard conferred an honorary D.D. on Hosea Ballou 2d. A writer in the Trumpet had been so bold as to suggest that, since a precedent had been established, there were great numbers of other deserving Universalists who might also be honored. Such unbridled enthusiasm was not unanimous, however. One of the very men suggested for such an honor objected strenuously to the whole idea of conferring honorary degrees - particularly D.D.'s - on anyone. The gesture might appeal to one's ego, but the degree was meaningless in substance, pretentious, and did not in any way "add to a man's talents, his learning, his piety, or any other good thing in his character; nor does it fit him to discharge the duties of his office with more ability, zeal, and fidelity." To make matters worse, requesting the bestowal of an honorary degree for anyone sounded like begging for honors -not a very upright thing to do.

President Capen expressed himself as forthrightly about the granting of honorary degrees as he had about unearned M.A.'s. No academic practice, he thought, had been so much abused as the granting of such degrees on the slightest provocation, and without any evidence of actual scientific or literary attainment.

The lavish manner in which such titles have been distributedamong well-meaning dunces, has exposed our American institutionsto ridicule among all who believe that learning is the very lastprovince which shams and charlatans should be permitted to

invade. The sooner, therefore, all degrees, even the higher ones ofDoctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Laws, etc.,shall be based upon actual attainment, to be ascertained, in allcases, by competent and impartial examiners, the better will it be,not only for our reputation at home and abroad, but for soundlearning and genuine culture.

He thoroughly approved of the conservative policy so far pursued by the College in limiting its honorary degrees to those only who "were eminently worthy to receive them."

Tufts awarded its first honorary degree (Doctor of Divinity) in 1858 to Thomas Whittemore as the highest tribute the College could bestow on one of the men instrumental in bringing it into existence. The first honorary Master of Arts was bestowed the following year. The largest number of honorary degrees in the early history of the College went to Universalist clergymen, although they were more likely to receive M.A.'s than D.D.'s.[15]  Several members of the faculty, such as Benjamin Graves Brown and Moses True Brown, also received honorary degrees from the institution in the nineteenth century. Rev. Charles H. Leonard, first Goddard Professor of Theology when the divinity school was opened in September 1869, was voted an honorary M.A. in August, and a special Trustee meeting had to be hastily called to approve the faculty action The first LL.D.'s were awarded in 1872. Some individuals, including faculty members, received two or more honorary degrees from Tufts. Arthur Michael, a pioneer organic chemist who had attended several institutions in Europe but never received an earned degree, was given an honorary M.A. from Tufts in 1882 and in 1890 an honorary Ph.D., one of seven such degrees awarded by Tufts in the 890's, when the practice was widespread among other institutions. William Leslie Hooper, of the Class of 1877, long-time member of the Engineering Department and acting president of the College between 1912 and 1914, received an honorary Ph.D. in 1898 and an LL.D. in 1915. Most benefactors of the College, as well as men who became its presidents or were especially active on the Board of Trustees, were likewise recognized by honorary degrees of some sort.

After the medical and dental schools joined the Tufts family,


it became traditional to include a prominent physician or dentist on the list.[16]  Tufts scored a "first" by awarding an honorary M.A. in 1895 to Otis Augustus Skinner, the first professional actor in the United States to be so recognized.[17]  In the next year Mrs. Mary A. Livermore, active in feminist and humanitarian movements, became the first woman to receive an honorary degree (LL.D.) from Tufts. The College expanded its honorary degree offerings in 1900 by giving its first Doctor of Science degree to Frederick Stark Pearson, engineer, scientist, businessman, Trustee, benefactor of the College, and member of the Class of 1883.

As the College grew in stature and influence and broadened its horizons, it selected increasing numbers of honorary degree candidates from outside its own ranks, either religious or educational. Among recipients of such degrees before 1917 were Elbert Hubbard, the homespun philosopher; Edwin Ginn (Class of 1862), textbook publisher; Julia Ward Howe, author; Albert Bushnell Hart, historian; Henry S. Pritchett, one-time president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and first president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; and Luther Burbank, horticulturist.

Tufts had awarded 297 honorary degrees by the time of American entrance in the First World War.[18]  Thereafter, the number of prominent individuals so honored became even larger, and the persons selected tended to reflect the many-sided and changing patterns in American society, from Jane Addams and Evangeline Booth, of social service renown, to Van Wyck Brooks in literary history and Admiral Arleigh Burke of naval fame. Artists, businessmen, scientists, clergymen, scholars and educators, political leaders, and men of public affairs in innumerable professions, both civil and


military, have been among those honored.[19]  By the mid-1960's, Tufts had further expanded its list of honorary degrees to include the Bachelor, Master, and Doctor of Business Administration, Master and Doctor of Education, Doctor of Engineering, and Doctor of Fine Arts.[20] 

The procedure for recommending candidates for honorary degrees changed over the years. In all cases, recommendations were acted on by the Trustees, but for many years the nominations originated with the faculty and the president. In fact, the Trustee by-laws of 1881 provided that "the General Faculty shall have the power of recommending to the Trustees candidates for honorary degrees." For almost thirty years the Trustees merely rubber-stamped the recommendations already voted by the faculty; there is no evidence that any of the honorary degrees voted by the Trustees during that time were suggested initially by that body. When the appropriate section of the by-laws was amended in the winter of 1885, the general faculty still had the power to originate recommendations for honorary degrees, but in order that the Trustees might have some opportunity to inquire into the qualifications of the candidates, it was provided that all faculty selections were to be submitted first to the Executive Committe and at least ten days before being acted on. The first indication that a change of this sort might be made had come the previous June, when one candidate recommended by the faculty was not approved, and another candidate was substituted by the Trustees. The privilege of the faculty to make nominations was never removed by a specific prohibition, but in 1889 the Trustee by-laws were again amended to provide that "honorary degrees may be conferred by the Trustees upon such persons as may be recommended by the Executive Committee." This step was taken after a special Trustee committee had found


"the present system of leaving all nominations to the Faculty . . . in open meeting . . . open to objection." The president was to make his nominations through the Executive Committee, so there was still an avenue by which the faculty could express its views if the ear of the president could be bent; it meant that candidates were no longer to be the subject of debates on the floor of faculty meetings. When the Trustee by-laws were amended in 1889, it was also provided that an honorary degree could be conferred on nomination by any Trustee, as long as the vote of the Trustees to confer such a degree was unanimous. Persons who had been voted honorary degrees were expected to be present at the Commencement or other occasion when the degrees were awarded, but more than one honorary degree was conferred in absentia.[21] 

Not much ceremony accompanied the early awarding of honorary degrees. Until 1916 a brief citation in Latin was read; such a citation had first been used in 1875, when A. A. Miner received a Doctor of Laws degree. When the granting of honorary degrees was resumed after the First World War, the citations were read in English.[22] 


[12] The definitive work on the whole subject of degrees is Walter C. Eells and Harold A. Haswell, Academic Degrees (Washington: United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Bulletin 1960, No. 28).

[13] See W. Carson Ryan, Studies in Early Graduate Education (New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Bulletin No. 30, 1929). This work describes in detail the pioneer contributions of the Johns Hopkins University, Clark University, and the University of Chicago.

[14] Typical of the working of the system was the vote in 1874 "to recommend the conferring of the degree of A.M. in course to such eligible candidates of the Class of '71 as may apply." Three such degrees were awarded under this vote.

[15] Most of the early D.D.'s went to presidents of St. Lawrence University.

[16] Such was Jarvis Wight, of the Class of 1859, who at the time he received an LL.D. (in 1894) was Professor of Surgery and Dean of the Long Island Hospital Medical College.

[17] Stephen E. Epler, Honorary Degrees: A Survey of Their Use and Abuse (Washington: American Council on Public Affairs, 1943), p. 100. Skinner was a member of the same family as Otis Ainsworth Skinner, who had raised the initial subscription for the College, and the actress Cornelia Otis Skinner, who received an honorary M.A. from Tufts in 1935.

[18] Master of Arts, 89; Doctor of Divinity, 57; Doctor of Humane Letters, 1; Doctor of Literature, 26; Doctor of Laws, 60; Doctor of Philosophy, 7; Doctor of Sacred Theology, 21; Doctor of Science, 16.

[19] It is always dangerous to generalize, but the writer calls attention to the unusual ability of the Trustees to select as honorary degree recipients men who were later destined to become Presidents of the United States: Calvin Coolidge (1919); Herbert Hoover (1920); John F. Kennedy (1954); and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963). The danger of the generalization is illustrated by the award of honorary degrees to Thomas E. Dewey (1937) and Adlai E. Stevenson (1962).

[20] It had not, however, gone so far as to imitate a large mid-western university which in 1960 bestowed the degree of Doctor of Athletic Arts on a baseball manager and two football coaches after an unusually successful season.

[21] The first such instance occurred in 1902, when the recipient of an honorary M.A. was unable to be present because of illness. Eight of the fifty- seven honorary degrees bestowed in June 1905 celebrating the semicentennial of the first Tufts Commencement were awarded in absentia. The late John Holmes, well-known Tufts poet and faculty member, received his honorary Doctor of Literature in this fashion in 1962.

[22] Honorary degree recipients were furnished with caps and gowns after both the faculty and Trustees voted to appear in academic regalia in 1902-3. President Hamilton first suggested the idea in 1910 that honorary degree recipients should receive hoods as well, but this practice was not consistently followed until after 1923.

  • 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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