Dan Porterfield on the Aspen Institute's Meadows Campus

Image: Daniel Bayer

Aspen Sojourner: What drew you to the field of education?

Dan Porterfield: My parents. My dad was a teacher in Baltimore for 40 years. My mother was a single mom who went to college in her thirties and became a leading scholar writing about the experiences of women in the American West.

The highlights of your career leading up to your tenure with the Institute?

The proudest moments have always been the growth and achievement of my students, whether from Georgetown University or Franklin and Marshall College, where I worked for the past 20 years, to earlier phases in my career—working with immigrant youth, court-supervised kids, or adult prisoners, whom I saw in a variety of ways. Nothing is so beautiful as seeing the flourishing of students through the process of learning.

In this day and age, why is studying the humanities important?

As the word implies, they are a window into our humanity. We understand ourselves, whether as individuals or as social beings or as members of a community or particular cultural traditions, through the study of the humanities. I think a traditional liberal arts college provides students with the intellectual formation to pose and answer questions for themselves, the power to analyze, think, research, compute, and synthesize. People should have access to any and all forms of education, from liberal arts to coding and from trade schools to research and scholarship. Skills and knowledge—the combination of the two—are enabling resources for freedom for the individual and society.

Stepping into the shoes of former Aspen Institute president and CEO Walter Isaacson—who led the organization for 15 years and is credited with increasing its visibility and relevance to the public—is no easy task. What is your game plan for your role and your long-term vision for the Institute?

My game plan is to listen, to learn, to help amplify the work of the Institute, and to contribute to efforts to frame and solve problems that promote change serving the common good. The Institute can and should be one of the most impactful nonprofit organizations in the world, promoting the empowerment of individuals, communities, and society.

What difference can the Institute make in this country?

I think it can make a profound difference in convening diverse changemakers in order to frame problems effectively and catalyze solutions confidently. Some of the areas where I hope we’ll be able to make a demonstrable difference include empowering youth with knowledge and opportunity, addressing the major challenges of the future, and supporting and strengthening democratic society.

How about an example of an Institute program, initiative, or outcome that has particularly impressed you?

I’m extremely impressed with the work of the Institute’s College Excellence Program, which leads a national effort known as the American Talent Initiative. Its goal is to expand by 50,000 the number of Pell Grant students enrolled in any of the roughly 300 colleges in America that have at least 70 percent graduation rates, by the year 2025.

Given your career focus working on issues of diversity—and the Institute’s current emphasis on it—how do you feel about being the 12th white male to lead the organization?

Every leader has a responsibility to facilitate inclusive practices in all aspects of an organization. Promoting inclusion, diversity, and excellence in the reach of our work is an essential priority of mine. My whole life, I’ve been working in cross-cultural and multicultural contexts. I believe that America is woven of many strands, and our destiny is to become one yet many. But that destiny can’t be realized until those with privilege in our society—and that certainly includes me—make the effort to try to see America and the needs of our people from a broader lens than our own experience.

What’s your favorite idea?

We create the education that we seek. Second, it’s a good idea to end every meal with ice cream at Paradise Bakery.

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