Let me say right here that I don’t believe that my Tufts students of fifty years ago were any less intelligent than those I encounter today. Times may have changed, but our students have not. Speaking of changing times: there was a time before the Internet, before smart phones, and, yes, before even the U.S. News & World Report college and university rankings.

It was more than thirty years ago that that magazine, struggling in a distant third place behind Time and Newsweek, made a desperate toss of the dice and, in 1983, created a special edition that ranked American colleges and universities. Today, Newsweek is gone, Time struggles to find a foothold in the market, and the U.S. News college-rankings edition makes enough money to keep the rest of the magazine afloat.

The success of the annual edition is confirmation that Americans love lists, rankings, and prestige. Now, in the Age of the Internet, a nervous parent or applicant can punch “Tufts acceptance rate” into Google and up pops a number: 14 percent. That means that of the more than twenty thousand applications for admission to the upcoming undergraduate class, the professionals toiling in Bendetson Hall will reject somewhere around seventeen thousand. Of those thousands of hopefuls, there will be just five hundred or so who should not have applied: in no way were they qualified. As for the other more than nineteen thousand students, they should all be accepted—but won’t be. There just isn’t room. The reviewers will reject some with perfect scores, and many who were valedictorians, because there are too many of them. Of the more than seven thousand degree-granting institutions in this country, there are perhaps two dozen as selective as Tufts. We are at the peak of academic eminence in the nation. It wasn’t always that way. How did we get here?

Michael Behnke

Michael Behnke

In the 1950s and 1960s, Tufts was just breaking away from its image as a commuter college. It was, at best, a regional New England institution, with a couple of underfunded health-professional schools on its Boston campus, and an independent graduate school of international relations, named after Tufts undergraduate alumnus Austin Barclay Fletcher, located on the Medford campus. Founded in 1852 as the first Universalist college, with a seminary to produce Universalist ministers, Tufts had been church mouse–poor for its first century of existence and demonstrated little capacity to break out.

Tufts’ first four presidents were Universalist clergy, and their strategic plan seemed to focus on the sale of the college’s land during times of financial exigency. Charles Tufts had added to the bounty of Walnut Hill, and at one point the college owned property all the way to Davis Square. But financial pressures resulted in the shrinking of the Universalist footprint, bringing it ever closer to the Hill. Several later presidents tried to find a safe space for Tufts amidst the colleges and universities sprouting up everywhere in Boston and its environs, but students were hard to come by. The war years provided a steady flow of Navy V-12 officer candidates, and the accounts stayed in balance, if precariously so. The returning GIs poured in after the war and propped up the college once again. But by the 1950s, the search for students became critical. Tufts needed a competitive image and leaders who could shape the future. It also needed an admissions enterprise that could hold its own with the rest of higher education, which was becoming increasingly professional.

Not that Tufts wasn’t trying. Starting in 1953, Tufts was blessed with a visionary president in Nils Wessell, a man with grand ambitions for improving the university. But the headwinds he and the school faced were gale-force, and without money the undergraduate admissions people could hardly compete for students, even in New England. They had a sparse travel budget and little technology to reach out to potential candidates. It was the time of Grant Curtis, Miles Uhrig, and Roy Moore, all loyal alumni who somehow managed to find a class. When Wessell gave up and departed in 1965, he left behind one great legacy: the Experimental College (thank heavens it didn’t cost much).

Burt Hallowell came in as president in 1967 with the express purpose of raising the Tufts profile—only to have the 1960s and 1970s fall on him like a ton of bricks. He spent most of his time dealing with the revolution in gender, race, and culture that was then roiling American campuses. “Finding a class” was left to Uhrig, Moore, Jack Palmer, and a new kid on the block—a lacrosse enthusiast who’d come to the engineering college in 1967 and, having graduated, stayed in admissions and…was ready to spend the rest of his life as a Jumbo. His name was Allan Clemow.

Burt Hallowell announced his resignation in 1975, after a decade of frustration and a rash of campus fires, including the one at Barnum Hall that reduced Jumbo to a pile of ashes that could fit into a peanut butter jar. At that point, Bernie Harleston, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the first tenured black faculty member in the college, swung into action: he went outside of the Tufts comfort zone for a new dean of admissions and took a chance on a young associate dean of admissions at Amherst College named Michael Behnke. He was part of a perfect storm, which included a new president whom no one expected.

When he arrived in 1976, Behnke, still in his early thirties and running his own shop for the first time, discovered a staff waiting for a miracle. With applicant SAT scores declining, Tufts was being forced to dig deeper into the applicant pool to get a class. Behnke wasted little time. He squirreled away some funds and then sent out a mass mailing—“New Directions at Tufts”—to every secondary school he could find. He replaced every existing publication and instituted a program to bring potential students to the Hill for campus visits. Hope began to replace resignation, especially with the arrival months later of the new president, Jean Mayer. Along with John Silber at Boston University, Mayer sucked up all the academic oxygen in Boston. The two academic egotists dominated the news, with Mayer seeming to conduct almost daily interviews with some media personality or another. As Mayer pushed his nutrition agenda, announced a veterinary school, and caused a happy mayhem all over town, Tufts made the news for something other than burning buildings.

David Cuttino

David Cuttino. Photo: Jon Chomitz

Behkne admitted later that he made only one mistake: he allowed himself to be convinced that the previous year’s admissions model should be used, failing to reckon with either the success of his own efforts or the impact of this new president of Tufts. So on May 1, 1976, when all the smoke had cleared, Tufts Arts and Sciences found itself with three hundred more students than it expected, and no dorms to house them. For the first time in decades, there was no wait list, and no “melt”—the hundred or so students who’d committed to Tufts but would disappear from the class over the summer once other, more selective schools poached them to fill their beds. Some of you reading these pages might have even been one of “Behnke’s babies,” those surprise extra students who spent part of their Tufts career in the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Harvard Square.

Michael Behnke turned out to be the first transformative dean of undergraduate admissions. He made early decision applications to Tufts a permanent and important fact of life, and the year he left, 1985, the university had more than 11,500 total applications, nearly twice the number in his first year. The acceptance rate, meanwhile, had dropped to 30 percent. Mayer, entering his tenth year as president and secure in his accomplishment, paid no attention to the second edition of the U.S. News rankings, which left Tufts out of the top thirty.

With Behnke departed, we set about finding the next great dean of undergraduate admissions. Hiring someone else’s hungry number-two admissions person—Behnke—had worked once before. Why not again? The consensus among those we asked was clear: the best number-two out there was David Cuttino. He had been at Georgetown for thirteen years and wasn’t looking to leave. So I was dispatched by President Mayer to Washington, D.C., to find this unsuspecting associate dean and explain his future.

Cuttino came to Tufts in 1986. The first technologically literate admissions dean, he dramatically increased connections to alumni all over the world, established programs for admissions and outreach from Asia to Africa, built up the Tufts Alumni Admissions Program (TAAP), and raised millions of dollars. In 1993 Jean Mayer, after sixteen years, was replaced by John DiBiaggio, in many ways a professional president who had led big, state-university athletic powerhouses in Connecticut and Michigan. He understood trustees and how they viewed prestige, and under DiBiaggio, the U.S. News rankings took on a new importance. It was in DiBiaggio’s third year that Tufts made the list of the thirty most prestigious universities in the country—and David Cuttino’s fingerprints were everywhere on the accomplishment.

Lee Coffin

Lee Coffin. Photo: Alonso Nichols

By the time Cuttino announced his retirement, in 2003, Tufts had a new president, Larry Bacow, who possessed an uncommonly sophisticated understanding of the importance of undergraduate admissions. Bacow ran his own search for Cuttino’s replacement, and found another transformer: Lee Coffin, then at Milton Academy. For thirteen years, before Dartmouth lured him as vice provost last year, Coffin championed the increasingly eminent faculty to the external world. He brought clarity to the Bacow ideal of intellectual rigor combined with a caring institution and a commitment to public service. We were special, and the dean of admissions never tired of telling the world. Coffin also helped orchestrate the independence of the School of Engineering, with the dean of the school now reporting directly to the provost, and increased the application pool there from eighteen hundred to more than four thousand. He drove undergraduate applications up to more than twenty thousand, and the acceptance rate down to its current 14 percent.

Now, forty years and three deans of undergraduate admissions later, we’ve come full circle, in a way. We have a new dean of undergraduate admissions, Karen Richardson. The search committee looked all over the country—and found the best candidate waiting on campus. She’d come to Tufts in 2008 as director of diversity recruitment.

Karen Richardson

Karen Richardson. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Some might say that Tufts is barely recognizable from the struggling New England institution that in 1976 was worried about where its next meal was coming from. In the 2017 U.S. News rankings, Tufts found itself at number twenty-seven, slipped awkwardly between the University of Virginia, with twenty-two thousand students, and the University of Michigan, with more than forty-three thousand. Thank heavens we don’t have to play them in football.

How did all of this happen? Well, we’ve been fortunate that our last four presidents—Mayer, DiBiaggio, Bacow, and Monaco—have been the right ones at the right time. But one might argue that it was Michael Behnke, David Cuttino, and Lee Coffin who were the change agents, the ones who translated events at Tufts into a message that resonated around the world—and that brought many of you to the Hill.

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and biblical literature and is a former provost of Tufts University.

Sol Gittleman

Sol Gittleman, columnist for Tufts Magazine, can be reached at sol.gittleman@tufts.edu.