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Dr. John A. DiBiaggio, Tufts University president who advocated for students’ public engagement, dies at 87

Dr. DiBiaggio was president of Tufts University from 1992 to 2001.Tufts University

A son of Italian immigrants, Dr. John A. DiBiaggio believed that engaging in public service and learning to take civic responsibility seriously are essential to every college student’s education.

While serving as president of Tufts University, he encouraged students to recognize that part of their education lay beyond the classroom and campus. In doing so, he drew some of his inspiration from his father, who had been honored in Michigan for never failing to vote in any local, state, or national election.

“As a university president, I believe that it is the role of all educators, particularly those in higher education, to harness the idealism and fervor that happens only when we are 18 and ensure that it finds channels for expression that will last a lifetime and change lives,” he wrote in a 1997 opinion essay for the Globe.


“I am often criticized for not only tolerating but encouraging student political activism,” he added. “But in truth without passion for a cause, for an issue, there can be no lasting sense of responsibility.”

Dr. DiBiaggio, a dentist turned college administrator who also had led universities in Connecticut and Michigan, died Feb. 1, Tufts announced. He was 87 and had moved to Colorado after leading Tufts from 1992 to 2001.

“He gave me great advice that I have passed on to many people over the years: Always do the right thing,” Larry Bacow, who succeeded Dr. DiBiaggio as president of Tufts and is now president of Harvard University, said in a statement.

“That simple imperative shined through in John’s leadership of three of the country’s great universities,” Bacow added. “American higher education is stronger today for his many efforts.”

Succeeding Jean Mayer as head of Tufts, Dr. DiBiaggio arrived on the campus after serving as president of the University of Connecticut from 1979 to 1985 and president of Michigan State University from 1985 to 1992.


The university’s endowment was $180 million when he was inaugurated as president of Tufts, and the Globe reported that it had tripled to nearly $600 million when he announced, in September 2000, that he planned to step down the following year.

In 2000, he founded the University College of Citizenship and Public Service, which is now the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

“He challenged us to elevate the civic lives of all Tufts students by embedding education for active citizenship in the curriculum and extra-curriculum of all Tufts schools,” Rob Hollister, professor emeritus in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning and founding dean of Tisch College, said in a statement.

Dr. DiBiaggio had served on the board of the American Council on Education and the board of Campus Compact. That Boston-based coalition of college and university leaders promotes campus-based civic engagement and using community partnerships to hone the citizenship skills of students.

“Citizenship has to become truly part of the fabric of the university,” Dr. DiBiaggio told the Globe in 2000. “It doesn’t seem to me we can graduate students only with the ability to be competitive for a job or admission to graduate or professional school. We do that already. That’s not enough.”

Born in San Antonio on Sept. 11, 1932, John A. DiBiaggio grew up in Detroit, where his father worked in factories and education was emphasized for the children at home.


“We couldn’t bring home bad grades from school,” Dr. DiBiaggio recalled for a University of Michigan alumni profile. “It simply wasn’t allowed.”

His affection for the arts and the sciences led him to double-major in English and chemistry at Eastern Michigan University, from which he received a bachelor’s degree before graduating from the University of Detroit School of Dentistry.

Establishing a practice in New Baltimore, Mich., northeast of Detroit, he found that dentistry wasn’t quite as fulfilling as he had hoped.

“I was successful as a dentist, but I always felt like I was a bit out of my element,” he said for the alumni profile. “I wanted to be an academic. In fact, I thought maybe I’d be a dean.”

He added: “Imagine, me being the first in my family to go to college and then going so far as to say that I wanted to be a dean.”

Dr. DiBiaggio studied higher education administration at the University of Michigan, graduated with a master’s, and then moved to the University of Kentucky, where he became an assistant dean.

He went on to serve as dean of the School of Dentistry at Virginia Commonwealth University before being named president of the University of Connecticut.

During his April 1993 inaugural ceremony as the 11th president of Tufts, Dr. DiBiaggio promised to “make public service a defining feature” of the university.

“The pendulum has started to swing back, there is a new optimism that we can set wrongs right,” he said.


Part of his time at Tufts was spent ensuring that the university created its own identity.

“If you moved Tufts anywhere else in the country it would be considered a premiere institution. The trouble is that here you operate in the shadow of many great universities, which is both a blessing and a curse,” he said in a Globe interview a few days before his inauguration.

“I don’t want us to be a Harvard,” he added. “Harvard is a great university, but I want us to be what we are and do what we do well.”

According to Tufts, several new facilities were established on the university’s three campuses during his tenure, among them the Jaharis Family Center for Biomedical and Nutrition Sciences in Boston, the Bernice Barbour Wildlife Medicine Building in Grafton, and the Tisch Library on the Medford/Somerville campus.

“John DiBiaggio’s service as president of Tufts capped a remarkable career as a leader in American higher education and has had an enduring impact on the university,” Anthony Monaco, the current president of Tufts, said in a statement.

“He enhanced the physical fabric of our campuses, secured the financial resources needed to support innovative academic programs, and gave new institutional form to Tufts’ longstanding commitment to public service and civic life,” Monaco said.

In 1989, Dr. DiBiaggio married Nancy Cronemiller, who works in international luxury apparel sales. In addition to his wife, he leaves three children from a previous marriage, Dana, David, and Deirdre; a sister, Ederina Utecht; and a granddaughter.


The family has not made decisions regarding a memorial service, according to Tufts.

“We are part of the community and the community is part of us. We are not an isolated little fiefdom,” Dr. DiBiaggio said in the 1993 Globe interview. “We ought to be working together to enhance the quality of life for everyone, and if we become advocates for one another, we all benefit.”

Encouraging civic engagement and teaching students to fully participate as citizens, he wrote in his 1997 opinion essay for the Globe, ultimately is good for the university’s graduates and the nation.

“At the risk of sounding trite,” he wrote, “the one hope for preserving a democracy is to re-empower our students with a sense of civic duty, where knowledge is not intellectual elitism, but the ability to work for justice and prosperity.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.