A Conversation with President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.

Recorded on Thursday, September 1, 2011 in Mayser Gymnasium.

Watch a 2-minute highlights video of this event.

For a summary of the ten sequenced announcements made by President Porterfield at this event, visit Common Hour, with a little help from Mr. Letterman.

Common Hour Q&A with Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.

Excerpted from a Sept. 1, 2011, Common Hour interview with Associate Professor of Government Stephen K. Medvic and Mona Lotfipour ’12

What were your impressions of Franklin & Marshall before you arrived on campus and how have they changed since you’ve arrived?

I knew it was a tremendous intellectual community, an iconic institution with a history that is remarkable. There is a commitment—by all of us—to being a community.

What has emerged for me since joining the community is how welcoming and warm it is. Secondly, there is a lot of innovation here. There is work done here that pushes the ball farther than I thought the ball could be pushed. What I’m thinking about in particular is some of the outstanding work done in the College Houses, about the way the Greek system has worked in partnership with the institution to develop a long-term strategy for Greek life, about the extraordinary amount of work being done between faculty and students—one-on-one research, supervising a thesis, the lack of any buffer between the students and the faculty.

Some of the travel experiences that students and faculty have together are amazing, just incredible—the chance to go to Death Valley together, the chance to go to South Africa, Ecuador. It’s really remarkable, that spirit of innovation, and I’m not even sure the community would describe itself as an innovative community. I don’t know if that’s the word you all would use, because you are in it, but I come from the outside and say, ‘wow, I can’t wait to see what new ideas I get because I’m working with you, and to take those ideas to a larger stage and make sure that we’re recognized for just how creative we are.’

This year F&M welcomes 600 first-years to its family. What advice do you have to the incoming class about the next four years?

Take the plunge. Don’t wait. Don’t hold back. Make mistakes. Break things. Get involved. Make mistakes, again and again. Make mistakes. It’s OK. Learn. Get to know faculty individually. In fact, to anybody here: If you go see two professors during their office hours, I want you to come to my office in Old Main and I want you to say, ‘give me an ice cream cone.’ And I will give you an ice cream cone. I promise. Two professors. Come see me.

There’s nothing more important than that relationship that you can form as a first-year student right away with our faculty. I thought Abby Benkert ’14 did a gorgeous job describing her relationship with Professor Rob Jinks (at Convocation). And just think, she was a first-year student a year ago, attending her first Common Hour.

The lead author of a new study on the value of a college degree for future earning potential, conducted, incidentally, at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown, recently told the New York Times, “The truth is that if you get a liberal arts degree, there are a smaller and smaller set of occupations that you can go into.” How do we explain the value of a liberal arts education to students and parents who are hearing things like this and worrying that a place like F&M may not make practical sense?

I think the idea sells itself, in part, because the simple fact of the matter is that there is no better way to prepare for life than to have the 24-7 intellectual experience of being in a liberal arts college where your intellectual freedom is prized and nurtured and furthered, and secondly, where you are an individual. Not a number, not a person in a chair, not an economic driver of the institution. You are an individual mind with the full integrity and dignity that each person has in this community, equal as a learner.

Now, will the economy value people who develop habits of minds and skills that allow them to synthesize complex information, to understand the culture of evidence and how to support arguments? To be able to present ideas coherently, to be able to connect two ideas to one another, not because someone told them how but because they made the connection themselves?

Will the economy value people who can write coherently and clearly and compellingly? Will it value people who have a sense of their own history? Will it value people who have the ability to work across the supposed divides of country and culture and work together?

There is no way that answer is not ‘yes.’ There is no way that this kind of education, with all the capacity it builds in the young, doesn’t empower those people to do more in a changing economy, in a global society, in an era when science is so much more important. There is no way this is not actually the best possible investment you could make in a young person you love.

How do you envision the F&M community’s relationship with its neighbors in Lancaster County?

Our relationship is that we are our neighbors. We are the community ourselves; we’re embedded in it, we’re a part of it. Its destiny and ours are tied together in many ways.

There is a great deal of work done in the community right now that blew me away as I started to learn about it last year. Testing for lead in parks. Building poetry kiosks around the city. Creating Power Pack lunches that allow working parents to know that they are able to feed their children healthy dinners that they themselves are cooking, not just having meals provided to them. Mona and other’s work to develop a program to help families understand that there is a resource called the earned income tax credit that allows families making less than a certain amount of money to get a very significant tax credit simply by filing for it. Thanks to VITA, $800,000 is in the hands of people who only have access to that resource because Franklin & Marshall students thought about it, knew about it, shared the idea, and implemented the idea in a way that was effective.

The short answer, I guess, is ‘let’s do more.’

You’re an avid user of Twitter, and might be tweeting as we speak. Is social media like Twitter going to be an important part of higher education?

Social media is here to stay. We’re fish. It’s the water. It’s a part of our lives. It won’t not be a part of our lives. I think it’s important both to participate in culture and to critique culture. And the critique of culture is more effective if you’re inside the culture and understanding it and not just pointing fingers at it and demonizing it and saying ‘oh, isn’t it terrible. Life is changing.’

What I’ve noticed about social media is that it helps me as an educator. I have a number of Facebook friends. Ninety-nine percent of them are either students at Franklin & Marshall or students I taught at Georgetown, and in having 2,500 or 2,600 students who are Facebook friends of mine, I’m learning what interests them. I’m getting a sense of the pulse of the campus through what they post. I’m also getting some ideas about things we can do to make a difference in the world because those students are proud of the things they’re doing, and they’re posting about them. Finally, I’m able to put out my own ideas to that group of students about thoughts that might be of interest to them.

This past week I posted a number of different items about Franklin & Marshall as we started the school year, but I also put up a movie review of The Help, which I thought was extremely interesting. I put up an article about the Dream Act, which is a bill that I think needs to be passed as quickly as possible to empower students who have done all the right things but don’t have the legal status to go to college or serve in the military. And so, for me, social media is a tool that can make a difference. It’s also a tool for pleasure, a way for experiencing community.

Is it perfect? No, of course not. We’ve all heard about cyber stalking. We all know about kids who are so tied to their texting that they don’t experience family life as much as they used to because they’re constantly on; they’re constantly performing. But I think we have to critique and improve the way social media is used, not to pretend that we can jump out of the aquarium and exist in a place where there isn’t water anymore. Social media is what it is, and there will be more of it, not less of it. I think we can become some of the shapers of how it is used for good.

Can you tell us about your interest in diversity and how you hope to make F&M a more diverse campus?

My sense is that Franklin & Marshall is already a diverse community in many ways. The question is not ‘how do we get more diverse?’ The question is ‘how do we go find the students around the county in all communities who are destined to be the thinkers and shapers and leaders of tomorrow?’ That is the crucial question. How do we go find—in every corner of the country and as far out into the world as we can reach—the leaders? How do we make sure that we can finance their education? How do we build the continued impact of the institution in the world because of the talent that we find, and that we educate here, for good?

Now, in terms of how to ensure that a community is able to reach out as far as possible, and not be satisfied that the talent simply found it? How to be more proactive? There is the great work that our Admission office already does, that Daniel Lugo and I are going to double down on to do even more. That’s why we doubled the Posse program. It’s a proven winner in helping us find great kids who make an impact in the world and our academic community right here even better. That’s why we went with KIPP for F&M College Prep right out of the box. That’s why we’re also working with Lancaster public schools and the rural schools of Pennsylvania and with some emerging charter networks that you’ll hear more about, like the Cristo Rey Network, the Mastery Network, the Achievement First Network, the Yes Prep Network.

By building strong pipelines with the highest-performing educational programs and schools around the country that are reaching deeply into the American community, we will have a better chance of building our community for the future in a way that makes it even more reflective of the country’s population.

But let me be clear in saying that as we build these new pipelines, it doesn’t mean that we don’t care about or won’t continue to deepen the pipelines that traditionally have been so valuable for F&M. We have a tremendous set of schools and communities that send students to F&M right now. My hope is that we can expand the pool, not change the nature of the communities that are already a part of this one.

If, as you suggested in your Convocation address, the faculty are the Beatles and the students are Jay-Z, does that make you D J Danger Mouse? That is, do you help catalyze the mash-up?

This community mashes pretty well. We had 85 Hackman Scholars here this summer. They were mashed up with faculty all summer long, and we have a huge percentage of our student body doing independent research with faculty, a number much higher than most of our peers, so the mashing is there. Maybe what I’ll be is the front man for the mash-up up or the promoter of the mash-up. But you’re already mashing really well, and one of the things that was most fun about playing just that little bit of the song during Convocation is how many faculty and professional staff came to me and said ‘Oh, I love the Grey Album.’ So think about that, students. Go figure out who knows the Grey Album.

Dean Stameshkin refers to leaving F&M as ‘the scariest thing that happens in one’s life.’ What advice do you have for seniors who are going to be leaving at the end of the year?

Don’t go. I actually mean that in spirit. Don’t go, in spirit. Continue that sense of having a living and active feeling for this place and a trajectory that’s taking you to greatness. Everybody here is empowered by the aspirations that you’ve acted on for years, and you don’t want to turn that off just because you graduated, right? So I think the goal is to take that F&M aspiration and make sure you’re always keeping it alive. I know it seems like a little thing to have an email address for life, or to make the Common Hour available now via digital technology to all alums, but it’s meant to send a message that the values and aspirations that brought you here are part of your battery pack for a life of meaning and impact. So, you may graduate, but don’t go.

Can you name a book that has had a great impact on you and tell us why it was so influential?

Good Night Moon. That gave me a sense of security.

I stayed up all night when I was 12 reading The Exorcist, and it made me know I didn’t want to deal with the devil, ever. And then when I was in college, there were two books that I read with so much intensity that I can still feel what it was like to get into those books: William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I don’t think I ever thought about a book as much as I thought about that one after I read it. In fact, I read it over spring break during sophomore year. I was alone, and it was an amazing intellectual experience. I’ll never forget the sense of flow of being in that book.

And then Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which taught me so much about the dynamics of sameness and difference. It characterized the American experience and it challenged us to reach across any supposed divides and to see ourselves as brothers and sisters from one larger human family, and never to deny the difficult experiences that are part of our past or our present in the sense that, maybe if we don’t look at it closely enough, it won’t hurt so much. Ellison’s book really woke me up.

How do you think your scholarship and academic background affect your views of the F&M presidency?

I guess I would say that my academic background is one of being believed in by those who taught me. I think I was a better student in their eyes than I was in my own eyes. But later, as I grew up, the faith they showed in me became a resource that allowed me to challenge myself to take risks intellectually.

In terms of my scholarship, I can’t wait for the day I’m able to publish the work I did learning about poetry written by women and men behind bars. I wrote a dissertation on that theme. There is extraordinary poetry being written all across the country. America imprisons about 2 million people a year, and has done this for many years. The individuality, the brilliance, the diversity of people behind bars is astonishing.

I love the way literature forces us to take those issues that we read about in the headlines and then see them in human terms. That is something that before I’m done in education, I hope I am able to take the next step in my scholarship, that body of work, and maybe make it more available and more recognized as important literature.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in academia?

I’d be working with young people. That’s what is most exciting to me: being present to youthful talent, youthful aspiration and helping people wrestle with the issues that choose them as well as the ideas they choose. That’s what I would be doing, probably working for school reform right now, because this is an era in American history when there is a tremendous educational reform occurring in some communities, and basically the era of hopelessness is almost over in many communities now that (we know) public education isn’t meeting the full need, and I’d want to be part of that.

If one of our current class of 2012 students returned to campus five years from now, what changes do you hope they would encounter at F&M?

I hope you’re able to say ‘wow, this is my F&M!’ That you are wanted and welcome here and that its values are enduring. That it is the same place. I’d also want you to say that during those five years, as graduates of previous generations have been able to say, you could come back and see that the school is continuing to develop, that we haven’t sat still. We recognize that we have so much to offer and that we’ve been creative and innovative in moving forward to move still more to our students and to the larger world.

Next week we are going to be observing the 10th anniversary of the events of 9/11 at Common Hour. What are your memories of that tragic day?

That was an amazing, horrible day in my life. I was working at Georgetown. The first plane hit, then the second plane hit, so everybody knew that something awful was going on. Then there was the plane that hit the Pentagon. We could see, from Georgetown, the flames, and we just didn’t know what was next.

I remember there were all kinds of planes in the air that day. And there was the tragedy of the plane that was heroically grounded here in Pennsylvania. But nobody knew that was the whole of it. We only know now that was the whole of it, so I remember that terrible feeling of uncertainty, and, in the days that followed, the tragedy of lost lives. There were 23 members of the Georgetown community who died that day. A member of our faculty was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, along with her children. There were a number of alums and parents and current students who died that day. We had, just as F&M had, a huge number of alums working in New York City. It took days to find them.

Then I remember the larger spirit of the country, of the campus I was a part of, of coming together in solidarity and support, and I believe that if something so tragic and terrible were to happen again, this community would rally as it did 10 years ago, and others I have been a part of would rally, and we’d be able to get through it together.

The following questions were submitted but were not addressed during the Q&A due to time constraints:

What are the two or three biggest challenges facing Franklin & Marshall today?

Our main challenge is to ensure we make the greatest possible impact on our students and society by adhering to our 224-year-old mission of engaged teaching and knowledge discovery. Like all colleges in the country, we also face the challenge of how to ensure that families can afford the cost of an education at Franklin & Marshall. Another important challenge is to make sure that we build still stronger relationships with alumni and all stakeholders.

What are your immediate goals for the coming academic year?

For this academic year, they are to connect with the broader Franklin & Marshall community, to help the institution strengthen itself in terms of its outcomes and impacts on our students, to further engage our 26,000 alumni, and to help the College develop a strategy for a secure and strong future.

Last spring you appointed Daniel Lugo as the new VP for enrollment. What are some new strategies that you think will be put in place as a result of the new leadership in Admission?

Daniel will strengthen our relationships with existing schools and feeder pipelines while developing new approaches to finding extraordinary talent among high school students all across the country. He, his team and I will work together to increase the visibility of Franklin & Marshall among a wide range of communities.

What are some of your plans to promote and enhance students’ academic and residential experiences at F&M?

There are many ways we can continue our positive trajectory of creating a high-impact experience for our students. These efforts include the curriculum review the faculty is beginning this year; developing a strategic plan for the College House system; creating an even more diverse student body and encouraging intercultural dialogue within the community; expanding opportunities to help students compete in a global society and economy; and helping our young graduates sustain a relationship with the College that fosters lifelong intellectual and personal growth.

Is the administration adopting any policies to reduce operating costs? Several friends and family members, as well as myself, have expressed concerns over recent and proposed building projects and want to know if F&M is doing anything to minimize cuts to programs and spikes in tuition.

This question addresses an American phenomenon, and no college will be able to act independently to make a major change to the cost structure. However, we can work hard to develop budgets that limit cost increases and sustain high-quality programs, and we can build new relationships or strengthen existing relationships with the communities that invest in our mission and excellence.

I understand the pressure we all feel to finance the education of the next generation of American leaders. This is a great American challenge. We will move forward with the greatest respect and sensitivity to the positions of our families. We will work to hold tuition increases to the lowest levels possible, while assertively reaching out to find new supporters and new sources of revenue to help finance our mission.

Would you be interested in considering an initiative of a campus-wide theme each year around which campus events (music, art, films, speakers, College House activities, Common Hour presentations, etc), courses, alumni events, civic engagement opportunities, and so forth might be focused? This would be similar to the Celebration of Great Teaching/Great Learning in 2010-11.

I announced during the September 1 Common Hour the creation of a set of idea groups that will canvas the community for good ideas that we might implement in the years to come to strengthen academic quality and intellectual life, to enhance the holistic student experience, to engage with alumni, and to sustain an even stronger and more empowering work culture. This is the kind of idea that might be discussed through that process.

How are you planning to improve/integrate the relationship between Greek life and the college house system?

Both the House system and the Greek system seem to me to be strong and impressive in their own rights. I’ll look to students to identify areas where the two traditions can and should be integrated more.

If everything were to go as you envision, where do you picture F&M in 10 years?

In 10 years I see F&M continuing to be a leading institution of liberal arts education with an even stronger academic profile and an even more secure competitive position.

By now, most of us have seen your Twitter account or have experienced your use of technology in the day to day scene at F&M, either tweeting on events, or uploading pictures taken directly from your iPhone. To what extent to do you think our society (namely college students and the rising work force) benefit or suffer from the integration of technology in daily life? Or perhaps how far is too far, and where does the F&M experience go from here with this technology?

As I mentioned during Common Hour, social media is here to stay—the good, bad and in-between aspects of it. It is important that we continually improve it and use it to shape a positive dialogue.

What plans (if any) are there to make F&M part of the Open Source community? This can range from having our Common Hour talks shared as part of the Creative Commons to having full classes available to the web for free?

It’s a great question. I’m very pleased that we are taking the step this year of making Common Hours available online in a viewable, compelling format to thinkers and listeners not physically on our campus. In a different way, there are all sorts of professors who are involved in open source-style work in multi-college research collaboratives. Increasingly, student activists are practicing open source social engagement in all the ways that undergraduates today pass ideas and promising practices for promoting social good from campus to campus. One of the greatest benefits of the digital and information revolutions are that they facilitate sharing, dialogue, collaboration and breakthrough.

As students who make up the majority of the F&M community, what can we do that will serve to contribute to the growth and expansion of our fine institution?

Students can help the institution first and foremost by giving generously of themselves in their college years to create the most meaningful and effective learning community. Students can also help make the school even stronger by promoting and advocating for us in their home communities, in their workplaces and even online.

What are some skills, developments and student involvements that you have identified in your experiences as crucial necessities to developing educated and engaged students?

Self-confidence is important. Students should believe they bring something to the table right now that can make a difference for themselves and others. I also think the critical ability to think independently, to challenge assumptions, to write well, to listen to others and understand what they are saying are critical skills fostered by a liberal arts education that can make a real difference in the world at large.

Also, I think students should be active and get involved in issues that they are passionate about, believing deeply that one person, even acting alone, can make a great difference in the world. It’s important for students to be creative and active in learning for others, finding out what their peers are passionate about, supporting other people’s efforts, believing that students help society when they generate knew ideas, and creating and promoting a culture of entrepreneurship and an active citizenship among all students.

5 Responses to “A Conversation with President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.”

  1. Annalisa Crannell August 31, 2011 at 7:22 pm #

    You are a scholar with an impressive research program behind you. Not all college presidents nowadays can say the same. How do you think your scholarship affects your views of the F&M presidency?

  2. Candace Roper September 1, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    That was a great first Common Hour! I am curious about the president’s comment towards the end about public education… not sure I understood what he said. Thanks for clarifying.

  3. Claire Retterer September 1, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

    Great start to the semester!
    I particularly enjoyed and appreciated the technology used – much more visually engaging and current than those in the past.

  4. Kathy Fish September 13, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    I was unable to attend the first Common Hour this year, so I was very grateful for the availability of the website and video. I would like to compliment all those responsible for its development. Awesome job!! Both the website design and the video itself were very professionally done! Very clear, very attractive!! I stayed late after work this evening and watched the entire video. Our new President was very captivating indeed, and thanks to the website, I feel I didn’t miss a thing! Exciting times!! Thanks so much, Kathy

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