Cousens, John

John Albert Cousens
John Albert Cousens

John Albert Cousens (November 17, 1874-July 2, 1937), a Universalist businessman and educator, was for eighteen years the president of Tufts College.

John was born to Sarah Catherine Wiggen and John Emmons Cousens in Brookline, Massachusetts, members of the Shawmut Universalist Society in Boston (after 1905 it relocated and became the Beacon Universalist Parish in Brookline). He was later the chair of its standing committee for many years. Having attended public schools, in 1894 he entered Tufts College in Medford, Massachusetts. He was a good student, a player on the varsity football team, and president of his class. Because of his father’s death, he dropped out of college in his senior year in order to run the family business, a local coal company. He did not receive his A.B. (extra ordinem) until 1903.

Under Cousens’s direction the coal company flourished. Eventually it merged with the Metropolitan Coal Company, and he became the vice-president. As his business experience broadened he added to his duties the position of vice-president and chair of the Investment Committee of the Brookline Savings Bank. He later served as the chair of its board of directors and as its president. In addition he was a director of the Brookline Trust Company and the first president of the Brookline Board of Trade.

In 1906 he married Elizabeth Frances Edwards; they had no children.

An enthusiastic alumnus of Tufts University, Cousens led the campaign to establish the 1898 Scholarship, the first such fund endowed by an alumni class, and in 1908 gave the bell which hangs in the tower of Goddard Chapel. In 1911 he became a trustee. During his tenure he served on the Finance Committee, the Board of Visitors to the Medical School, and the Executive Committee. This training made him a candidate for the office of president when Hermon Carey Bumpus resigned in 1919.

Concerned over Cousens’s lack of experience in the field of education, the Tufts Trustees initially appointed him acting president. By 1920 he had so impressed them that they made him president. The editor of the Universalist Leader observed that Tufts had “found a head and a heart in President John Albert Cousins.” Samuel P. Capen, his classmate and the Director of the American Council on Education, also welcomed the appointment. He felt that Tufts needed, above all else, “genuine and enthusiastic leadership.”

Although much of Cousen’s presidency coincided with the Great Depression, he kept the college solvent during this period. At the same time he was able to modestly improve its physical plant. He accomplished his goal to add one additional building to the campus each year. When the modern athletic facility he had promoted was finally built in 1931-32, the Trustees named it the Cousens Gymnasium.

During the almost two decades that Cousens was its president, Tufts remained a small, regional New England institution. Many of its divisions and departments were undistinguished or even weak. Lack of money to adequately support its teaching programs crippled several of its schools, including the school of medicine, which in 1935 was placed on probation by the American Medical Association. In order to provide a viable working hospital connection for the Medical School, in 1928 Cousens agreed to a plan to have Tufts, the Boston Dispensary, and the Boston Floating Hospital join forces to create the New England Medical Center. He immediately launched a financial drive to support it. In 1930, the Center opened, but only in a limited way. In 1933 Tufts and the Harvard Law School jointly established the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the first school in America to award a graduate degree in international relations. This arrangement took tact and patience on the part of Cousens. He was, however, unable to secure an adequate financial base for its operations.

Cousens’s 1923 plan for “a radical change in the organization of the College” and “for an experiment in education of extraordinary importance” was unsuccessful. He proposed a increasingly competitive three tier system, with a two-year Associate of Arts degree, a further two-year Bachelor’s degree for the better students, and professional training for those who could do “a superlative quality of work.” Faculty opposition doomed this and several other controversial curriculum reforms that Cousens tried to introduce.

Cousens initiated reforms to the college’s administrative structure that later made it possible for Tufts to grow to become an international university. He took the financial management, fund-raising, and day-to-day operations of the college away from the Trustees and place them in the hands of a centralized administration. According to Tufts historian Russell E. Miller, he nevertheless attempted to manage this administration in detail by himself, “from enrollment and endowment to the contents of broom closets.”

From the start of his presidency Cousens courted the alumni/ae and the students. He wrote a regular column for the alumni/ae magazine, encouraged them to contribute, visited their gatherings across the country, and proposed that the Alumni/ae Association president be made an ex officio member of the Board of Trustees. He wrote for the weekly campus newspaper and gave students private financial assistance. One of the students he sponsored was the poet John Holmes. In “Map of My Country,” Holmes wrote: “John Cousens looked right through you, and you’d better be sure he’d see nothing you’d be ashamed of. He worked hard, with a grim love, with life for his material, knowing time short. You wouldn’t do less than your best for the president of your college. You couldn’t. He’d know.”

In 1922 St. Lawrence University and Lombard College each awarded Cousens an honorary LL.D. He received one from Tufts in 1930. He enjoyed travel and with his wife made a trip to the Near East in 1935. He was an active member of the National Association of Audubon Societies, the American Museum of Natural History, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


Cousens’s sudden death from a heart attack at 62 shocked the college and the larger community. The funeral service was held at Goddard Chapel on the Tufts campus. The Trustees passed a memorial resolution saying that “Tufts has been a small college, but it will be a great college in its ultimate achievement because John Cousens loved it.”


There is a John Albert Cousens Collection at the Tisch Library, Tufts University. Among other articles Cousens wrote “Tufts College—Its Future,” Tufts College Graduate (Dec. 1925-Feb. 1926) and “The Two-Year College,” Tufts College Graduate (Sept.-Nov. 1925). There are obituaries in the Boston Evening Transcript (July 6, 1937), the New York Times (July 7, 1937), The Christian Leader (July 10 and 17, 1937), Tufts Weekly (September 30, 1937), and Tufts College Alumni Bulletin (December 1937). For his Tufts presidency see Russell E. Miller, Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts College 1852-1952 (1966). Also helpful are Richard M. Freeland, Academia’s Golden Age: Universities in Massachusetts 1945-1970 (1992) and Sol Gittleman, An Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation of Tufts 1976-2002 (2004). See also Who Was Who in America, volume 1, 1897-1942.

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted May 24, 2005