A New Home for the Tisch College of Civic Life

Dean Alan Solomont shares his insights on how Barnum/Dana reinforces the college’s central role in the life of the university

The Tisch College of Civic Life last week celebrated its new home on campus and began its twentieth anniversary year with a heightened sense of purpose.

As many participants noted at a reception and ribbon cutting on January 24, the move to newly renovated Barnum/Dana Hall from Lincoln Filene Hall does more than provide improved space for growing programs and research—it symbolically locates a signature program of the university at the historic heart of the Medford/Somerville campus and of the university.

“One thing I want us to appreciate is how this new space can and must support our work as a center for civic life at this university,” said Alan D. Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, to guests gathered in the lobby. “I hope you all will consider Barnum/Dana your civic gathering place and I believe we need that right now, perhaps more than ever.”

President Anthony Monaco echoed those aspirations, adding that Barnum/Dana is a building with a storied past. It was named for famed showman and Tufts trustee P.T. Barnum, who created it as a natural history museum, and went on to become home to the college’s beloved Jumbo the elephant. It also speaks to the theme of resilience, Monaco said. A 1975 fire destroyed much of the Barnum/Dana complex, but was rebuilt.

It is only fitting that Tisch College, “an institution that has become an indelible part of Tufts University,” Monaco said, “should come to occupy perhaps its most indelible building.”

Indeed, the college carries on a long commitment to civic engagement and service. Its roots go back to 1954 with the Center for Civic Education, later renamed the Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs. In 2000 the university created the University College of Citizenship and Public Service, a name that reflected a greater focus on its cross-school and multidisciplinary scope.

In 2006 the college evolved again when trustee emeritus Jonathan M. Tisch, A76, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels, created a permanent endowment for the newly minted Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service; that name was updated in 2016 to the Tisch College of Civic Life.

Solomont has been a compelling champion for the values of Tisch College since his days as a Tufts undergraduate. The founding chair of the Tisch College board of advisors and its current dean for more than six years, Solomont recently spoke with Tufts Now about turning points like the move to Barnum/Dana, and how they continue to affirm the vitality of the college’s mission—one he sees as more relevant than ever.

Tufts Now: You were one of four signatories on the University College charter back in 2000. What does it mean to you to see Tisch College start a new chapter here in Barnum/Dana?

Alan Solomont: On a practical level we needed to move; we had outgrown Lincoln Filene and the building itself is in tough shape. But it’s also a fantastic change because it’s a symbolic recognition of the centrality of our mission to the mission of the university. The Tisch College of Civic Life influences the education of every Tufts student, whether they’re in engineering, medicine, or arts and sciences, so that everyone—as a student and as a graduate—has the values and the skills and the knowledge to contribute to civic life.

It’s also exciting because we’re at the center of big issues both here and abroad. A case in point—we provide a thousand educational institutions, free of charge, reports on the voting rate on their campuses. In part based on those reports, and the actions they motivated on campuses across the country, college student voter turnout went from 19 percent in 2014 to 40 percent in 2018.

Why? Tisch College’s information is one reason, in addition to issues that students care about like climate justice and gun violence prevention and immigration. For the first time in history, colleges and universities have a way to measure the participation of their students because of the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement. We’re differentiating ourselves as a real leader in higher education.

Does anything change at Tisch College by being here in Barnum/Dana?

I am looking forward to seeing how our new visibility helps us be better known. By being more visible, by sharing this building with other departments and units, we have a location with more foot traffic, and that’s always good. People will have a stronger sense of who we are and hopefully be intrigued and want to get involved. Lincoln Filene is also on the Quad, but its location had a way of making us seem more ancillary than we are.

We’ve also installed a large multimedia screen in the lobby, with the expectation that this will become a magnet for students, faculty, and staff to come together and watch national events—elections, debates. It’s so important to have conversations that challenge us to think through the issues and to develop our appreciation for civil discourse.

Can you describe your work here in the context of current national trends?

If you look at the history of civic life, what makes American democracy unique is that its foundation rested on the civic participation of ordinary citizens. Even before the republic was founded, Ben Franklin started a volunteer fire department in Philadelphia.

We developed civic institutions that were the underpinnings of our democracy: church organizations and labor unions and daily newspapers and civic education in schools. Then at some point, we just started to veer in a different direction. We started to see our government is part of the problem, not the solution.

That’s why our work is so important now, and why what’s being done in this building is reverberating across the country. There is a recognition that something’s wrong with our democracy. The organizations that gave us opportunities to participate, like unions and church organizations, have really declined, and we don’t teach civics in school anymore, although that is changing in places like Illinois, Florida and right here in Massachusetts, thanks to the work of our research teams.

But here at Tisch College we’re right in that sweet spot of trying to trying to figure out how to get the next generation engaged in democracy by participating in civic life, by learning about civics, by learning the skills that you need to participate in democracy, including how and where you get information, how you work together for real change in communities, and how you talk to people with whom you differ.

So where there’s a sense of possibility?

I think there’s a sense of possibility, especially among younger people. There’s a sense of anger, there’s a sense of change, there’s a sense of fear. But I also think the beauty of the younger people is that they are willing to fight for their convictions. When young people saw their peers on the cover of Time magazine and at rallies all over the country—the Parkland students—telling them to register to vote, they did.

What does the future look like for Tisch College? 

I think the next few years are going to be about consolidating our victories, and Barnum is a great fit with that strategy. We’re now in a position where we can focus on what we have built and make sure that our house is as strong as possible before we add on any new wings. Because we’ve really built a lot, and we’ve built it well. What we want to do now is take that infrastructure and make sure that we reach more people, and make sure Tufts students and faculty take advantage of all we have to offer.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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