Dan Porterfield brings a career of higher education to thinktank Aspen Institute
Dan Porterfield left an executive job in higher education for the Aspen Institute, yet the thinktank’s newly minted CEO and president likens the transition to being a freshman in college.
The 56-year-old was president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for seven years, accepting the job in November as the Institute’s next leader. He claimed the nonprofit’s reins June 1, just weeks before the Institutes’s marquee event in Aspen — the Ideas Festival — returns for another edition.
“My learning curve is very, very steep,” he said earlier this week during an interview at The Aspen Times office. “I have a lot to learn. It’s just like someone wanting to go college … so I plan to be a very, very dedicated student during the Ideas Fest, going to lots of discussions and panels.”
The Ideas Fest, which kicked off Thursday with its Spotlight Health series, was founded in 2005, the brainchild of noted author, historian and journalist Walter Isaacson. The Institute’s CEO and president since 2003, Isaacson left the Washington, D.C.-based organization — which originated in Aspen in 1949 — to return to his hometown of New Orleans to join the Tulane University faculty.
As heralded as Isaacson is in the media world, Porterfield’s accolades come chiefly in the arena of academia and his mission to unearth the potential of America’s youth who have been bypassed by colleges and universities.
On June 5 in New York City, Porterfield accepted the 2018 Leadership Award from the Kaplan Educational Foundation for his mission to make higher education more inclusive and less exclusive, as evidenced by his role in the founding of the American Talent Initiative. The program, which has enjoyed the support of the Aspen Institute, Bloomberg Philanthropies and educational research and consulting company Ithaka S+R, provides a means for talented, lower-income students to receive a higher education.
An undergraduate with a degree in English from Georgetown University, where he served as senior vice president of strategic development from 1997 to 2011, Porterfield also earned a second degree as a Rhodes Scholar from Hertford College at Oxford University and his doctorate’s degree from The City University of New York Graduate Center. As the senior aide to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala from 1993 to 1996, he also was her chief speech writer.
A mother who inspired
The quench for learning and teaching is seemingly in Porterfield’s DNA.
His late mother, the writer-historian-educator Anne Butler, inspired Porterfield to take a progressive, open-minded approach toward education.
Her 1985 book, “Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West,” demanded the exhaustive research of mining town court records, journals and letters.
“I have this interesting personal connection to Aspen in that my mother was one of the greatest historians of women in American West, and her early research was on prostitution in the American West and essentially how during the Gold Rush and all of that, people were coming out there, they were doing mining, and not far behind, they brought the prostitutes,” he said.
Butler, who died in November 2014, would go on to write about nuns and women homemakers and prisoners of the West, but not until after she put herself through college in her late 20s, while earning her master’s in her 30s and PhD in her 40s.
“I always think of my mom’s story as part of the reason why it’s so important to provide talented people with access to an affordable college education, so they can then contribute to society to raise their families well, but also contribute to the knowledge base and understanding of society,” he said. “Because I believe that the historians of yesterday would have never written that book about prostitution in the American West and the development of culture in Aspen and elsewhere. … You needed to have a woman coming back to college from a modest economic background who had a different lens, and they could see our history and our country in a new way. That’s what Aspen can do, too — provide more people with more lenses at the table, contributing their perspectives and expanding our perspectives of who we are.”
Molding the youth
A champion of the holistic development of students at an early age and through college, Porterfield advocates teaching youth “resilience, optimism and grit” using the Institute as a vehicle for the mission.
Porterfield came to the Aspen campus this week after spending his initial days at the Institute’s D.C. location, meeting colleagues and acquainting himself with their work.
“Now I’m in Aspen, Colorado, which of course is the sort of spiritual center of the Aspen Institute,” he said. “We were founded here almost 70 years ago, and a lot of the ideals of the Aspen Institute today grow out of our founding — a deep respect for holistic learning and the role of the arts and humanities and the cultivation of individuals in society; a lot of dialogue and conversation with an edge toward trying to find the breakthrough ideas that make a difference.”
Porterfield said he welcomes a diversity of thoughts and opinions at the Institute, no matter what the person’s political persuasion. The Ideas Festival, he said, will certainly tackle the issues of the day, including those from U.S.-Mexico border, a situation he calls a “tragedy” where provocative images and audio of children being stripped away from their parents stirred unrest internationally this week.
Porterfield said the Institute’s work is threefold, starting with a focus “on youth and investing in the development of children and youth.”
Second, the Institute must maintain a role of “identifying the major problems and challenges of the day that will limit our future if we don’t address it now, like climate change,” he said.
And third, the Institute must help in “facilitating the development of a working civil society and support for the institutions of democracy.”
“It’s so exciting for me to now be here in Aspen for Spotlight Health and Ideas Fest and the Security Forum, as well as so many of the programs happening in town — the Music Festival, the work at Anderson Ranch,” Porterfield said. “There’s so much happening in Aspen, and having the opportunity to first be in D.C. for a couple of weeks and see the Aspen Institute work there, and then to come to Aspen and to see the Aspen Institute living presence here, among all of those other great resources, is incredibly inspiring.”
Porterfield’s wife, Karen Herrling, formerly served as director of Social Programs in the Department of Human Services for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania under current Gov. Tom Wolf in Harrisburg, and the couple have three daughters — Caroline, 20, and Lizzie, 21, both students at Georgetown, and Sarah, 15, who is in high school.
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