Spring 2018

The President and the Dentists: A Love Story

The special bond between this school and Jean Mayer transformed Tufts University.

By Sol Gittleman

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No school or faculty at Tufts University held President Jean Mayer’s heart quite the same way as what he called “my dental school.” Photo: Hirsh Health Sciences Library Records

There is something in biology called “synergy,” the action of two or more substances to achieve an effect of which each individually is incapable. In higher education, synergy is the relationship of two components of a university that results in benefits for both that are undreamed of.

When Jean Mayer took the reins as president of Tufts University in 1976, he was all alone. Mayer had been the third choice for the presidency. An offer had been made to the provost of Johns Hopkins, the consensus candidate, who unexpectedly waited a week—and then said “No, thanks.” A shocked search committee went to its second choice, who had already accepted another presidency. Out of desperation, the committee turned to the last candidate standing, a French-born nutritionist who had spent twenty-six years at the Harvard School of Public Health and had been unsuccessfully seeking a presidency for a decade. No one seemed to want him.

But at One Kneeland Street, there were smiles after Mayer accepted the job. In very short time the new president had three visitors from the Tufts School of Dental Medicine. The first two were Abe Nizel, A38, D40, DG52, who for thirty years had preached the benefits of nutrition in oral health, and Robert Shira, the first school dean to welcome the new president and pledge his total support. The third visitor was a restless oral surgeon who had served a year as acting dean of the dental school, but wanted an even greater challenge: his name was Tom Murnane. They invited Mayer to address the dental faculty; they needed a cheerleader.

Those were scary times. Around the country, dental schools at private institutions were tottering on their foundations. Within a few years, seven schools would shut their doors. There was a quiet terror among the Tufts faculty.

Mayer’s speech to the dental school was one for the ages. “Tufts University School of Dental Medicine,” he told them, “will never close!” That’s all the faculty needed to hear. Within three years, Shira was university provost and Murnane was vice president for development. Tufts raised $1 billion over the next two decades, and every dollar had Murnane’s fingerprints all over it.

There was more to the symbiosis. Mayer’s affection for the dental school grew out of a shared history of World War II and the struggle to free Europe from Hitler’s tyranny. The Tufts president had fought with the Free French. Erling Johansen, who had spent five years living in Nazi-occupied Norway, took over as dental dean in 1979 and bonded instantly with Mayer. Hristo (Chris) Doku, chairman of oral surgery, was a passionate Greek-American with vivid memories of the German occupation. Professor Helmi Vogels was a Latvian-American who suffered both German and Russian oppression. Mayer loved them all, and they reciprocated. Everyone seemed to have an accent.

Jean Mayer was president of Tufts University for sixteen years. He created two new health-sciences schools for nutrition and veterinary medicine. But, no school or faculty held his heart in quite the same way as what he called “my dental school.” And out of this deep synergy grew the transformation of a university and its School of Dental Medicine.

SOL GITTLEMAN, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, is a former provost of Tufts University. He is the author of An Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation of Tufts, 1976-2002.

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