By the time of former University President Jean Mayer’s inauguration in 1976, Tufts University was plagued by financial problems so severe, they could have shut the school’s doors for good.
“We might have closed. We were not viable as an institution,” Sol Gittleman, once a Tufts provost and senior vice president and now a professor of Judaic studies and German, said. “That’s what the local historians were writing … They said Tufts is not viable. And we couldn’t raise a nickel.”
He added that, before Mayer assumed office, a number of preceding presidents such as Leonard Carmichael and Nils Yngve Wessel quit because they believed that Tufts was going nowhere.
“We were not a research university, we were not even close,” Gittleman said. “Everything was marginal. We had no money, no resources.”
According to “Light on the Hill” (1966), a book by Russell Miller that details Tufts’ history, Mayer’s inaugural speech in July of 1976 articulated a long-term goal “to raise our university from excellence to greatness.”
The new president knew that funding was a priority if Tufts was to boost its prestige. According to “Light on the Hill,” he emphasized the importance of acquiring funding from not just private contributors, but public ones as well.
In his book “An Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation Of Tufts” (2004), Gittleman wrote that Mayer was determined to turn Tufts around.
“[He aimed] not only to strengthen its reputation, but to make its presence known to the educational world to a much greater extent than had ever been the case,” he wrote.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Mayer had a background in both academic and political pursuits. He worked as an Associate Professor of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, and was a well-established researcher in nutrition, according to “An Entrepreneurial University.”
According to Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Berry, Mayer was President Richard Nixon’s advisor on nutrition and was asked to head a national conference focusing on hunger and nutrition due to an increased focus and public outcry over starvation.
According to “An Entrepreneurial University,” while at the conference, Mayer met two men who would not only change the history of Tufts, but also incite a revolution in university funding: Kenneth Schlossberg and Gerald Cassidy.
“[Mayer] discovered that Schlossberg and Cassidy had remarkable insights and access; their knowledge of the workings of the [United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)] was very impressive,” Gittleman wrote.
Schlossberg and Cassidy planned to use their background in policy to start a lobbying firm that would work to obtain government funds.
“Cassidy, a Democrat, began 30 years ago to search for laws that might be exploited to provide benefits to potential clients,” Washington Post journalist Robert Kaiser wrote in his book “So Damn Much Money” (2010).
The pair began to contact potential clients, including Mayer, who quickly responded just days after assuming presidency, according to Gittleman. Schlossberg and Cassidy were able to lobby to get language put into a bill that designated funds for a Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center.
“Mayer had a reputation in nutrition as one of the worlds leading scientists, so he had some credibility,” Berry said. “And he gave Tufts credibility.”
According to Gittleman, Mayer recognized the strong need for a center of its type at the time.
“Americans didn’t know anything about wellness or prevention,” Gittleman said. “Women had no nutritional evaluation, men had no nutritional evaluation, old folks had no nutritional evaluation. Nutrition was nothing.”
According to “An Entrepreneurial University,” Tufts received $2 million for construction of a 15-story building in downtown Boston, as well as $7 million annually to run the center. The center was to be run by Tufts and funded by the USDA.
Today, the center — one of six human nutrition research centers in the country — is known as the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), and its goal according to its website is to “explore the relationship between nutrition, physical activity and healthy and active aging.”
Schlossberg and Cassidy’s work, lobbying to get language put into legislation for appropriation of funds, was an earmark, or “pork legislation.” Before this, according to Gittleman, no other university had ever done anything like it.
“It was just the beginning, it was like Genesis,” Gittleman said. “In the beginning, there was light.”
According to Gittleman, after Tufts received its earmark, other schools quickly followed suit, including Boston University.
“It turned into, over 20 or 30 years, billions and billions of dollars,” Gittleman said. “[Mayer] invented it; it all started with a charismatic little Frenchman at Tufts University in 1976. Before that, there was nothing.”
According to Berry, Congress has largely stopped earmarks, mainly due to Tea Party protests. Although there have certainly been frivolous examples and abuses of earmarks, Berry explained how important this funding was to the construction of the HNRCA.
“There’s a limited amount of money we can get from alumni and parents of students paying tuition, so it expands the pie of money, and in our mind — our Tufts minds — we take this money and do good things with it,” he said.
Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College for Citizenship and Public Service, agreed that earmarks were a useful tool to fund projects that benefited the country as a whole.
“[It was a] way for individual members of Congress to get funds to help what were overwhelming, important public projects,” he said.
Indeed, the HRNCA has made many contributions to its field, especially with regards to research on nutrition and health in relation to aging. For example, according to a Sept. 26, 1990 article in the New York Times, Dr. Bess Dawson-Hughes, a researcher at the center, directed one of the first studies finding a link between calcium intake and older women’s bone strength.
“Our nutrition center is one the treasures of this country,” Gittleman said. “The research that comes out is spectacular.”
Solomont agreed, emphasizing the center’s importance in both its physical and academic area.
“It’s a great example of exactly the benefit that we receive,” Solomont said. “Not just “we” in the narrow sense — it’s a good thing for the university, it’s a good thing for the City of Boston, it’s a good thing for the region, it’s a good thing for the country and it’s a good thing for the world, and it’s a good thing for science.”