A university unbound
had a front-row seat for the transformation of Tufts
During his four decades at Tufts, Sol Gittleman has seen the university evolve from a quiet, tradition-bound New England institution to an ambitious academic and research powerhouse.
As a professor and as provost for three very different presidents, he witnessed a transformation that mirrored the tremendous changes that swept through all of American higher education during the last part of the 20th century.
Gittleman recounts these years of change and the story of the people who—sometimes eagerly, sometimes reluctantly—brought about that change in his new book, An Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation of Tufts, 1976-2002 (University Press of New England, 2004).
The brisk narrative goes beyond the typical academic history.
“This book is for more than just a Tufts audience,” says Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor. “It’s for an audience interested in higher education. The editors wanted a crossover book.”
An Entrepreneurial University is the continuation of the Tufts history series, following Russell Miller’s two-volume Light on the Hill. The difference in title was requested by the publisher to be more “reflective” of the book’s contents, Gittleman says, but it also indicates a change in the way the material is presented. This is a personal history, told in Gittleman’s lively, no-nonsense style: “I write the way I speak,” he says.
Gittleman’s candid approach, though, is what adds spice. In particular, Gittleman reviews the tumultuous tenure of Mayer, a noted nutritionist with the soul of a “riverboat gambler,” who accepted the presidency after no one else seemingly wanted it and took Tufts on a sometimes-wild ride toward the 21st century.
“Mayer created the public image of Tufts,” Gittleman says. “He transformed the university.” Yet, Mayer’s legacy is in danger of being forgotten, he says. “That’s one reason why I wrote the book now.”
By the time Mayer arrived at Tufts on July 1, 1976, the university was beset by financial difficulties so severe that “I think Tufts might not have survived,” Gittleman said. “The [previous] presidents were doing their best with the very limited resources they had…then this ‘accident’ happened.” The “accident” was the feisty and charming French-born Mayer, who accepted the job the first-choice candidate had already turned down.
“The change was instantaneous,” Gittleman says. “He totally surprised everyone. The trustees had no idea what they were getting into.”
For example, Mayer announced at his inaugural that he intended to establish a veterinary school. “Nobody was prepared for that,” Gittleman says. “[The Board of Trustees] would never have asked him [to become president] if they’d known of his plans. No one ever dreamed that Tufts could support a vet school.” But not only did Mayer have a plan—“as was his style, he had already moved forward,” Gittleman says.
Cast of characters
‘Only in America’
“At first sight, I had no business making a life in American higher education,” Gittleman writes. “But, when you give the idea a moment’s thought, you realize that only in America do the children of immigrants become professors.”
Gittleman and his wife, Robyn, now the director of the Experimental College, arrived at Tufts in 1964. “We lived on campus, had the last of our three children, shared a backyard with six other Tufts families and 23 children under the age of four and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves,” he writes. “My father had always said: Man plans, and God laughs. We thought we might be at Tufts for a few years.”
Instead, Gittleman became an integral part of Tufts, helping to guide the university as it moved forward. He became provost in 1981, and by the time he stepped down 21 years later, he had earned the distinction of being the longest-serving provost at any American university.
“Nothing could be better,” he writes at the book’s conclusion. “In spite of…the occasional pain and suffering of the profession, there have been many occasions over the past 40 years when I found it difficult to believe that we actually got paid for this life on a campus.”