In memoriam

Former President Nils Wessell guided Tufts to university status

Nils Yngve Wessell, a psychologist who, as the university’s eighth president, oversaw the transformation of Tufts College to Tufts University, died on March 4 in Naples, Fla., from complications from a fall at his home on February 14. He was 92.


“He was the one who had the vision that we could be bigger and greater,” Bernard Harleston, a university trustee whom Wessell hired in 1956 to teach psychology, told The Boston Globe.

The son of Swedish immigrants, Wessell, whose middle name is that of a Viking hero, was born in Warren, Pa. He received a B.S. in psychology from Lafayette College in 1934, an M.S. from Brown University in 1935 and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Rochester in 1938.

Tufts President Leonard Carmichael, who mentored Wessell at Brown and at Rochester, brought him to Tufts in 1939 as an assistant professor of psychology, director of admissions and dean of men. Wessell was just 25, and the Boston media often referred to him as “the boy dean.” Personable, outgoing and enormously popular, Wessell was named a full professor in 1947, and in 1949, he was appointed dean of liberal arts, a post he held until he was named president in 1953.

Wessell’s presidency bridged the university’s past and future. In the 1950s, the undergraduate student body included war veterans who came to Tufts on the G.I. bill. In the 1960s, students arrived as new high school graduates, and Tufts was an institution in the process of transforming itself, having been known as a commuter college with distinguished graduate schools. When Tufts College officially became Tufts University in June 1955, Wessell noted that the change in legal designation had “not altered the fundamental academic processes within the institution . . . [but was] of great significance in making clear the essential character of Tufts to individuals not intimately associated with it.”

Natural allies
Wessell sought build Tufts’ eminence as an undergraduate institution. In 1956, the university embarked on the Tufts-Carnegie Self-Study, which produced more than 130 recommendations, including sweeping curricular revisions, an expansion of the Graduate School, the hiring of 76 new faculty, the creation of 15 new Ph.D. programs, increased funding for financial aid, and an infusion of support for scholarship and research. “Teaching and research are not mutually exclusive, not competitive, not antithetical,” he once said. “They are close and natural allies, and the one improves the other. We should not choose between them. We choose them both.” Many of the self-study recommendations had been implemented by the time Wessell left office as a result of a capital campaign, Building for Greatness, which raised more than $7.6 million.

Wessell also oversaw the construction of numerous facilities designed to keep pace with the needs of students and faculty at an institution whose reputation was on the rise. Four new dormitories, a dining hall for Jackson College and several new academic buildings were constructed. Wessell’s crowning architectural achievement was the Nils Yngve Wessell Library, which opened in 1965, the year before he left office. The trustees decided to name the new library for him, because, as one trustee said, the president was “the man who has given the foresight and enthusiasm, including considerable downright hard work, to spark this university into the greatest growth in both education and physical plant in its history.”

Wessell informed the trustees in June 1965 that he would resign after the coming academic year, saying he sincerely believed “in the wisdom of change in the office of president in a university every 10 or 15 years.”

At his last commencement, in 1966, the trustees awarded Wessell an honorary doctor of laws degree. He was elected president emeritus in 1977. After leaving Tufts, Wessell became president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, from which he retired in 1979.

He had been living in Naples, after spending much of his retirement between homes on Sanibel Island, Fla., and a house on Chebeague Island, Maine, that he bought in 1951 from the island’s milkman. His wife, Marian Sigler, whom he had met at Brown, died in 1997. He is survived by his daughter, Roberta W. McCuskey, of Los Angeles; a son, Nils H. Wessell, of Mystic, Conn.; three grandsons and two great-grandchildren. At his request, there were no services. His ashes will be spread in Casco Bay near Chebeague Island, as were his wife’s.

This story ran in the Tufts Journal in April 2007.