Nils Wessel became the president of Tufts in 1953, a time when very few universities, Tufts included, were interested in innovation or change. At Harvard that year, 87 percent of legacy applicants—the children or grandchildren of alumni—were accepted. At Yale and Princeton, the numbers were even greater. Here on the Hill, meanwhile, you would have been hard-pressed, when looking at a formal photo of a Tufts faculty meeting, to find anyone who didn’t shave. The faculty of Liberal Arts and Engineering, like most of American higher education, was overwhelmingly male, white, Protestant, and satisfied. Departmental hiring excluded candidates who were “different.” When, for instance, a newly minted female Harvard PhD wrote to the chairman of the English department, inquiring about an advertised position, she received the following reply: “Dear Miss Hennessey: Thank you for your letter. The Tufts English Department does not hire women. Yours truly, Harold Blanchard, Chairman.” Helen Hennessey—Helen Vendler after she married—kept the letter as she went on to become arguably the most renowned literary critic of poetry this country ever produced. She received a Tufts honorary degree in 2001.
In a thirteen-year presidency, Nils Wessel did all he could to transform Tufts by ushering it into the modern age. Admissions quotas were ended. The English department hired its first Catholic and Jew: two academic anarchists named Bernard McCabe and Michael Fixler. The history department hired its first non-Protestant, George Marcopoulos, a Greek Orthodox. Wessel also saved from extinction two unwanted departments made up predominantly of women faculty and gave them a permanent home in Arts and Sciences: Eliot-Pearson and occupational therapy. And he had one more gift: in 1963, he pushed forward the idea of “an experimental college,” a place where faculty and students could engage in independent and creative thinking, test out ideas, and learn outside the restrictive box of academic tradition. “The Experimental College was the most important thing I did at Tufts,” Wessel said, looking back thirty years later.
Wessel was ahead of his time. As his tenure at Tufts began winding down, the academic world was still slumbering quietly. The civil rights protests, begun in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, caused barely a ripple on college campuses. And there were no student protests about policies at the post-war housing development Levittown, on Long Island, that prohibited the re-sale of units to “Negroes.” Here at Tufts, the women’s dorms had no Coke machines, because the dean of women said the soft drink was bad for the teeth of females. The student draft registration was calmly accepted. Fourteen southern states still had legislation that made marriage between people of different races illegal.
But Wessel sniffed something in the air. In 1962, a University of Michigan student named Tom Hayden wrote the Port Huron Declaration, announcing an organization called the Students for a Democratic Society that was dedicated to the transformation of American democracy. Wessel knew, even if few others on campus did, that change was coming, and he intended to position Tufts to be prepared to deal with it. That is what led to the brand new Experimental College: non-traditional subjects and faculty, smaller classes, and full credit toward Commencement. The Ex College opened its doors for business in September 1964 with an overriding mission: empowerment to students. The Ex College voted to have three students participate in all decisions, then added a fourth the next year, and gave all of them full voting powers, a first not just for Tufts, but for most colleges and universities in the country. In that year, the University of California Berkeley campus erupted in angry demonstrations when students demanded a voice in governance; what they got were arrests.
The Ex College faculty/student board had two goals in that first year: all students would be teachers, and all teachers would be students; and students would discover the knowledge necessary for the world that was coming. The first faculty-led Ex College classes seem innocent enough today, but at the time it was revolutionary to be teaching modern European literature of the absurd, in English translation led by team-teaching faculty from three different departments. And that was just the beginning. Within three years, freshman seminars were being offered by student and faculty board members on topics ranging from urban poverty, race, and gender to sexuality and community involvement. In 1968, when senior board member Tom Glynn suggested that the people in the communities knew more about their lives than most faculty, Joanne Ross, a high school graduate who had spent thirteen years on welfare, became the first visiting lecturer at the Experimental College, teaching a course on urban poverty that left the undergraduates calling for more. Community activist James Vance, meanwhile, had to repeatedly offer his race awareness course because of student demand.
The late 1960s was a tough time on American and European campuses, and Tufts didn’t escape the disruptions of the civil rights conflict, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. We had our share of building occupations and confrontations. But somehow there was always an extra measure of civility and communication, because the Ex College was always there to offer a symposium, a conference, or some other means of getting people together to talk.
As Tufts continued to change and evolve, however, it was getting more difficult to find faculty who were willing and able to make time for the commitment to the Ex College. Research and publication were growing in importance, and many young faculty were advised by their older colleagues to stay away from the Ex College because it was too time-consuming. Dean Bernie Harleston recognized that even with its courses, visiting lecturers, student engagement, and hundreds of enrollments, the Ex College was in danger of collapse because of its lack of staff. So Harleston made a critical decision. He authorized two part-time “co-ordinators.” In 1971, those roles were filled by Margaret Ritchie and Robyn Gittleman (the wife of the author of this article), who together brought organizational stability. When Ritchie left in 1975, Gittleman was appointed full-time director. At last the Experimental College had someone who could deal with crises, act as godmother, and soothe anxious faculty nerves. In 1979, Arts and Sciences voted permanent status for the Experimental College. It had gained “respectability,” but it preferred to keep pushing the envelope.
As the years passed, the Ex College further developed its way of anticipating what was missing from the traditional curriculum, its openness to new ideas, and its willingness to fail. Risk was never far away, but always taken with understanding that student interest was often ahead of faculty response. For example, when students in the early 1980s demanded courses related to the mass media, the Experimental College found professionals in the community who could provide unique experiences while not losing sight of a liberal arts education. In this way, communications and media studies was born in 1982. That same year produced the Ex College peace and justice program, with the active involvement of faculty from sociology and political science because it was too interdisciplinary for any one department. The Ex College, in other words, always had a home for orphans, until someone adopted them.
Some orphans stayed for longer than others. In 1985, the Ex College student board members Eric Siegel, Lisa Fair, and John Barrengos challenged the faculty to create a more intellectually serious campus environment. They wanted controversial topics, in-depth analysis, outside experts, and intense preparation. They wanted what would eventually become the Symposium Project. The idea was to create a semester-long course that entrusted the students to take ownership of every aspect, and that culminated in a weekend-long symposium. It sounded like a great idea, but one that would require just the right kind of leadership. The organizers found a not-quite-traditional freelance academic outsider named Sherman Teichman who was waiting for just such a chance. The Ex College took a risk, gave Teichman a home, and gave full academic credit for student participation. Far ahead of anyone else, the Symposium Project engaged in topics such as the West Bank and Gaza Strip (1987), covert action and democracy (1988), and drugs, international security, and US public policy (1989). Over time the Symposium Project evolved into EPIIC, and then into the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership. Through it all, for more than thirty years, it has been a global-oriented, in-your-face conversation that draws in opinionated participants from all over the world and from every Tufts professional school.
The Tufts Experimental College was part of a movement of such programs across the nation that burst out in a wave of late-1960s reaction to campus change. Today that wave is gone. Once there were dozens of Ex Colleges; today, Oberlin College is the only other one that maintains enough interest to continue with the name, but it has no faculty and little administrative involvement. There are two or three other “experimental colleges” across the country, isolated on their campuses: empty shells. The Tufts Ex College, however, continues to thrive. In 2016 Gittleman made way for Howard Woolf, the second director (and true believer) in the Ex College’s history.
Nearly sixty years ago, a Tufts president’s intuition foresaw a student revolution that would require the constant reinvention of the undergraduate curriculum and the need for a creative mechanism to assure a new kind of student involvement. To this day, the Ex College serves to remind the Tufts community that in the DNA of our university is Nils Wessel’s idea of a student-centered college education.
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.