The Aspen Institute, a venerable Washington think tank, announced Thursday that it has selected Dan Porterfield, the president of Franklin and Marshall College, as its new leader. Porterfield is relatively unknown outside of higher education circles where he helped start the American Talent Initiative, a program to get more low-income students through college that is backed by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropy.
Porterfield will succeed Walter Isaacson, the best-selling author and journalist, who has been the Aspen Institute’s president and chief executive since 2003. Isaacson made his mark with the founding of the institute’s marquee 10-day Aspen Ideas Festival, which draws big names in politics, journalism and culture to Aspen, Colo., for panels and seminars, but he has also led the institute as it quietly developed a reach beyond the event.
Porterfield will inherit the think tank’s more than 30 policy programs, tackling issues from the opioid crisis to socioeconomic diversity in higher education. And the Aspen Institute has partner institutes in cities around the world, including Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, New Delhi and Prague.
He spoke exclusively with The Washington Post about his plans for the organization and how it will go about achieving its nonpartisan mission of “encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society” amid the raw divisiveness of the current political discourse.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your first day on the job is going to be June 1. What do you intend to convey to your employees at Aspen when you take over?
Well, I think I want to convey just respect for what they do and get in there and learn about the work they’re doing that they’re excited about, the goals they’ve set and the achievements they’re starting to realize. When you work in a change-making organization, trying to make a difference to the world, you’re full of people with big aspirations, with a lot of idealism, with a yearning to feel the values of their personal lives are expressed through the work. So the main thing I want to convey is that I am joining them to together create work that matters for this country.
You’re taking their baton from Walter Isaacson, who’s made quite a name for himself in the world of ideas. Talk about leading an institution like Aspen following a figure like that.
What amazing impact Walter Isaacson has made. And the beauty of the opportunity is that he and the team, together with the board, have created an institution of civil society that really matters. It is an honor to join. I’m also counting on Walter being a mentor and sharing with me his ideas and hopes for the future. He and I have spoken, and he’s just a lovely, humane, erudite, thoughtful, empathetic human being. I can’t wait to work with him.
Let’s talk a little bit about this moment in Washington, which is pretty intensely politically polarized. It has been for many years. It feels maybe more emotionally raw than it has in years past. How can Aspen fulfill its role in bringing together opposing outlooks in that kind of environment?
I think Aspen’s work is needed more than ever. We have to have a table that people can gather around, to share perspectives and ideas and to translate those ideas into action. It really matters that we commit ourselves to evidence-based argumentation, to respecting what has been established through science, building upon past knowledge. Part of what’s made this country great is a commitment to being reality based and to being factually grounded. Public policy has grown out of so much serious research.
So I think there is also an enormous role for Aspen to play in calling the question of: How do we expand opportunity in every community? And how do we strengthen our institutions so that those institutions can enjoy again can the trust of the American people? I am lucky in that I grew up in Baltimore City. I was exposed the civil rights movement. And my parents were deeply idealistic and believed that America was going to become a truly just society. That essentially the Constitution was a document that would enable the steady development of the country toward a future of equity and equality.
And I have had this belief that my work — whether it was teaching in prisons or running programs for recently arrived immigrants or being a college professor or developing strategies to expand opportunities for college students — could be part of the American story of progress towards justice.
The last two years have been the most bitter and divisive that I have witnessed in 56 years on this planet. One reason I want to be a part of the Aspen Institute community is to help promote healing, community and understanding. I think that part of that requires us to foster greater opportunities for more people and part of it requires for us to rebuild American institutions. Another part of it is to maintain a commitment to civil discourse and to bring people together.
You used the word “supposed” when referring to divides of identity and ideology. What do you mean by that?
I say supposed divides because I’ve had the benefit of working on a college campus for the past 20 years and that is the antidote to cynicism. I’ve seen kids every walk of life, from all different backgrounds and belief systems come together and mash it up, fall in love with each other and make a campus culture that was rich and joyful and fun and growth enhancing. I see that every day at Franklin and Marshall College where we’ve developed a talent strategy over the past six years to triple the percentage of Pell Grant recipients. It’s more than doubled our percentage of students of color. And in so doing we have made the school a deeper place academically, a more vibrant school, more exciting community. Surely that can happen in other communities and that’s one of the things that Aspen’s working toward – really bringing people together in this country towards a common purpose, a common future.
Aspen seeks to bring leaders together. What is your philosophy for leading other leaders?
I think that the best leadership is servant leadership in that it empowers others to do their best work. And I think that the most impactful leaders have not chosen leadership, but have carried themselves in such a way that others were able to realize their potential simply because that person did good work.
I certainly am a leader who believes that collaboration and communication is the best and only way to go. I have no interest in command and control models of leadership, and I believe that the best work I’ve done in my life has been work that has allowed me to take joy in my partners’ growth.
What are two books that have shaped you as a leader?
So “Invisible Man” is the most important book of my life in the presentation from within of the alienation, anger, sadness and the tragedy of racism.
A contemporary “Invisible Man” that people don’t know about but should read is “The Circuit” by Francisco Jimenez. It chronicles the story of a Mexican family in the 1950s that crosses the border. And then are migrant farmers on the farming circuits of California properties. Picking cotton. Picking fruit. The kids live in a different shanty or tent or car over the course of that circuit every year, moving from school to school. If someone read “The Circuit” today, they would think about the Dreamers very differently. If they haven’t imagined how hard it is for a child to feel a sense of statelessness, to live in limbo, they should read that book. At the same time, the book is a celebration of the culture of the family that comes to America and how the values of Mexico and the values of America fuse and create more. The author of the book, Francisco Jimenez, lived the story and went on to become one of the greatest college professors in America at Santa Clara [University].
The book ends with a terrible frustration that a reader will feel as the family gets deported. And then you remember there’s more to the story because the little boy grew up to become the author of the story and one of the greatest teachers of not just immigrant kids but of all kids in Santa Clara. I love the way literature allows us to develop an empathetic response to others. And I also just love the beauty of great language and extraordinary scene setting. And I think that literature has played a role in many social movements both in empowering people to feel they have a voice. And also to bring awareness to communities about the needs of others.