A university unbound

Author 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.

sol gittelman

Former Provost Sol Gittleman had a front-row seat for the evolution of Tufts University. © John Soares

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.

‘A total surprise’
The book covers the presidencies of Jean Mayer (1976-1992) and John DiBiaggio (1992-2001) and the start of Lawrence S. Bacow’s tenure in September 2001. During that time, the university grew, both physically and in academic scope. Among other milestones, the School of Veterinary Medicine, the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences were established. The Medford/Somerville and Boston campuses saw a construction boom; a former state hospital was converted into the veterinary school’s Grafton campus; a former priory in the Alps became Tufts’ European Center in Talloires, France. The federal government established the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts.

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
Although Mayer’s forceful personality makes him a major figure in Gittleman’s narrative, he was but one of many who contributed to the 30-year transformation of Tufts. Among some of the other notables Gittleman discusses are:

The popular President DiBiaggio, who arrived at Tufts with a background unlike any of his predecessors. A dentist by training, he had spent his academic career leading two large state universities. Gittleman characterizes him as a “successful anomaly” whose people skills and management style helped Tufts prosper through the ’90s.

Former veterinary school dean Franklin M. Loew, who became virtually identifiable with the school he led. Loew was “one of the very few [who are] unique and gifted with a special quality of leadership that produces something very rare in faculty: genuine affection and loyalty.”

Former engineering dean Ioannis Miaoulis, one of the two “extraordinary entrepreneurs and change agents in Tufts history”—the other, of course, being Mayer—“who did for the College of Engineering what Mayer did for the university.”

Former nutrition dean Irwin H. Rosenberg, now a University Professor, who led both the Friedman School and the HNRCA and helped knit the two together. After Mayer’s death, “[Rosenberg] carried the flag of nutrition for Tufts, and to a considerable degree, for the country.”

Former medical school dean John T. Harrington, the “doctor’s doctor,” who quoted James Joyce and William Butler Yeats in his annual reports—“a legendary clinician, the physician for many of his medical colleagues, a role model for medical students and a man of sunny disposition and irrepressible good humor.”

Former Sackler dean Lou Lasagna, the “gifted teacher,” who, over the course of 17 years, molded Sackler into “the creative research engine that provided the whole university with its energy.”

Former dental school dean Erling Johansen, who steered his school through tough times. Gittleman says Johansen became “part dean, part policeman and part truant officer.” And current dental dean Lonnie H. Norris, who “changed the culture” of the dental school, “spreading a sense of optimism and satisfaction in the profession.”

‘Only in America’
If Mayer was the “accidental president,” then Gittleman may well be the “accidental academic.” The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Gittleman was a fairly unlikely candidate for an academic career. He includes his personal story in the book.

“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.”