Reviving Confidence in Our Democracy

As dean of Tisch College, Alan Solomont wants millennials to become the next greatest generation
Alan Solomont
“Tisch College can be an important voice in a national discussion taking place about the future of our civic and democratic institutions and the road to their renewal,” says Alan Solomont. Photo: Alonso Nichols
September 9, 2014

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In 1960, John F. Kennedy famously called a generation of young Americans to service: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Among those inspired by the words was a teenager from Brookline, Massachusetts, who some years later found similar encouragement while attending college at Tufts.

And so Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, went on to a career that has exemplified civic engagement in extraordinary ways: as a community organizer, as a political activist, as volunteer head of the federal agency that oversees domestic service programs, as a U.S. ambassador.

It is only fitting that a plaque honoring Kennedy now adorns Solomont’s desk at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Earlier this year, he was appointed the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College, which works with students and faculty across all three Tufts campuses to promote an entrepreneurial approach to civic engagement.

“One thing that has impressed me is how much leverage we get from what is the smallest unit at the university,” Solomont says. Tisch College—“a unique animal,” as he describes it—does not have its own faculty, nor does it award degrees. Yet “we have faculty from all of the schools; we reach students in all of the schools. It speaks to how much Tufts values civic engagement and active citizenship and to what extent that is central to its mission as a university,” he says. “I like to say that if civic engagement and active citizenship are part of Tufts’ DNA, then Tisch is the repository of its genes.”

Among the initiatives of the college are its faculty fellows program, which provides grants to a dozen or so faculty members each year to support teaching and research relevant to civic engagement, and the Tisch Scholars, a three-year leadership development program for undergraduates. The college sponsors an honor society, Honos Civicus; it joins with other university offices, such as Alumni Relations and Residential Life, to pilot civic engagement programs; and it offers summer internships for students to work in community organizations and government offices. The Tufts Community Research Center, founded and supported by Tisch College, sponsors faculty research in partnership with community organizations and has generated nearly $10 million in funded research projects.

Tisch College also conducts its own research. It is home to CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a leading authority on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.

Looking at the Big Picture

As successful as Tisch College has been since its inception nearly 15 years ago, Solomont is ambitious for its future. He recently welcomed two associate deans, Miriam Nelson, who joined Tisch from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and CIRCLE Director Peter Levine, who is now associate dean for research (see the announcement of the appointments). “I wasn’t hired to maintain the status quo,” Solomont says.

Among his goals are broadening outreach to students by increasing service learning opportunities and by bringing leading public figures and practitioners to campus. This fall, Tisch College will launch a Distinguished Speaker Series, hosting U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Solomont also hopes to strengthen Tisch College’s work with faculty collaboratively, incorporating civic engagement in their teaching and research.

“The university has faculty working on some very big societal problems across the different schools, including literacy, obesity and food security, to name a few,” Solomont says. “One role that Tisch can play is to knit together some of these efforts and to use civic engagement strategies to increase the university’s ability to make a difference in the world.” And, he notes, that aligns with an important element of the university’s strategic plan, Tufts: The Next Ten Years (T10).

Tisch College will play an important role in supporting other T10 initiatives, such as providing transformative experiences for students, working across disciplinary boundaries and celebrating diversity and inclusion. “I’m impressed with the vision that President Anthony Monaco and Provost David Harris have for this university, and the ways in which Tisch College fits into that vision,” Solomont says.

One example is the new Tufts 1+4 Bridge-Year Service Learning program, which will offer up to 50 admitted students an opportunity to do a year of full-time community service, either in this country or overseas, prior to beginning their four years on the Medford/Somerville campus. The program begins in fall 2015.

The research team at Tisch College studies the benefits of civic engagement and the state of our nation’s civic and democratic institutions, explains Solomont. “We know from our own research that the nation’s civic health has been in decline for some time. For Tisch College to make a difference, it must be more than a research enterprise. It must be a source of knowledge, as well as a thought leader, advocate and activist for civic renewal in this country and the world,” he says.

Renewal of Civic Spirit

Finding ways to awaken a commitment to civic life—like the spark that ignited his own passion four decades ago—is both a professional and personal mission for Solomont. “I think one of the greatest challenges of our time is to revive confidence in our democracy. I think that is the biggest challenge that faces this generation,” he says.

“Our government is broken, our politics are broken and even our discourse is no longer civil. The public has lost confidence and is disengaging, and I think Tisch College can be an important voice in a national discussion taking place about the future of our civic and democratic institutions and the road to their renewal,” Solomont says.

“I’m a believer in looking at history through the lens of generations,” he says. “The greatest generation—my parents’ generation—went through enormous collective challenges. My generation, the baby boomers, went through another set of experiences. This generation, the millennials, are in a position to be the next greatest generation, but we’ve got to help them—not just to be people who want to serve others, but to repair and rebuild our civic culture and democracy.”

Solomont’s compact office in a corner of the Lincoln Filene Center on the Medford/Somerville campus is imbued with a sense of national and personal history. Photos on the walls show Solomont as Ambassador to Spain and Andorra with his former boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; with students from the undergraduate course he taught at Tufts on the American presidency; with King Juan Carlos of Spain; and with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. There’s one of Solomont, the ambassador, visiting Spanish troops in Afghanistan and with his friend Admiral James Stavridis, F83, F84, the Supreme Allied Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe and now dean of the Fletcher School.

His windows look down on the same paths he walked as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, when his experiences at Tufts led him to become a community organizer in Lowell, Massachusetts. He recalls participating in anti-war protests and being an activist on campus, and he cites the influence of faculty he knew then who are still at Tufts, Sol Gittleman, the Nathan and Alice Gantcher University Professor, and Antonia Chayes, professor of practice of international politics and law at the Fletcher School.

“I came from an average, middle-class community in greater Boston. I came to Tufts and had a transformational experience that exposed me to issues and challenges I had never known growing up,” he recalls. “And I became an active citizen as a result of those experiences and this place.”

His career, he says, is proof that life’s path does not have to be linear. “I’ve been a community organizer, a business person, an investor, a diplomat, a teacher and a political activist,” he says. “What I’ve been able to do in my career, for which I feel blessed, is to go into situations, both as a volunteer and a professional, and drive change, moving in new and productive directions.”

Solomont was a founding member of the Tisch College Board of Advisors in 2000, when it was still known as the University College of Citizenship and Public Service. “I know Tisch. I was there at its birth, and I helped to raise it,” he says. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to take it to the next level, and that’s why I’m here.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.