(I will be on vacation and not posting until July 14.)

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my opening remarks at Frontiers of Democracy 2015

These were my remarks at the opening of Frontiers (#Demfront) last evening:

Welcome to the United States if you come from overseas, and to Massachusetts if you come from out of state.

Welcome to Boston, and specifically to Boston’s Chinatown, which is our host community tonight.

Welcome to Tufts University. We also have a leafy campus about seven miles from here in Medford, Mass.. You are always welcome in Medford, but we’re pleased to meet tonight in Tufts’ Boston campus.

Welcome to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Tisch College is your host and a co-convenor of this conference. Our dean, Alan Solomont, will talk in a little while about Tisch College, so I will leave the substance to him.

One very close and partner in co-organizing this event is the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, led by Matt Leighninger. Matt’s work is wide-ranging, but an important focus is public engagement in local governance.

Another essential partner is The Democracy Imperative, led by Nancy Thomas, who now also works full-time with us at Tisch College. TDI focuses on democracy in higher education.

Matt and Nancy organized a fantastic conference in 2008 called No Better Time. Frontiers 2014 is the direct descendent of No Better Time. Some version of the conference has occurred every year without a break since ’08. I see many faces from No Better Time here seven years later.

Added to the mix since 2009 has been our colleague Karol Soltan, a political scientist from the University of Maryland, who co-founded and co-teaches the Summer Institute of Civic Studies with me at Tisch College. Twenty-two of the people present here tonight form the 2014 Summer Institute. We have been spending six-and-a half hours every day for the past two weeks discussing advanced theoretical work on citizenship. This year’s group comprises scholars and practitioners from Chile, Mexico, Liberia, Zimbabwe, China, the Netherlands, and Singapore. More than 120 others have taken the Summer Institute in past years, and about a dozen of those alumni are also here tonight. Tisch College’s Sarah Shugars, Summer Institute class of 2013, played an important role in organizing alumni to design some of the sessions for this conference.

Last but not least—in fact, last and most, is Tisch College’s Kathy O’Connor, who organized all the logistics and practicalities of this conference and also helped shape the substance. Special thanks to Kathy.

A few words about Civic Studies, since that is a phrase that may be new to you—but it is rapidly spreading. Continue reading

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Frontiers of Democracy 2015

When the Summer Institute of Civic Studies ends today, the Frontiers of Democracy 2015 conference begins.  The plenary talks will be live-streamed here. A batch of the talks begin this evening at 5:45 pm. The whole agenda is here. You could also follow the conversation on Twitter @TischCollege, #DemFront

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right and true are deeply connected

Beliefs about “is” and “ought” are so deeply interrelated that it is often better to think of truth and rightness as two dimensions of the same thought than as separable concepts.* That means that it is almost always important to analyze whether a moral belief you hold is true (as opposed to false or uncertain) and also whether any factual claim you make is good (as opposed to bad or unethical).

Consider these examples:

1. “It is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race.” That sounds like a pure value-judgment. It may be an excellent or even an obligatory value judgment, but it doesn’t sound like a truth, like “2 plus 3 equal 5,” or “Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.”

However, someone who believes this statement and takes it seriously almost certainly holds a set of other beliefs that are factual. For instance: There has been, and continues to be, a lot of discrimination on the basis of race. Racial discrimination has caused (and seems likely to continue to cause) suffering, injustice, and pain. And people of different races are not actually different in ways that should matter. These statements are true and based on information.

So now the claim is starting to look very factual again. It’s starting to sound like a testable hypothesis that isn’t a matter of moral judgment. But the stance against racial discrimination is also inextricably moral, at several levels.

First, it isn’t a logical or scientific fact that it it wrong to cause suffering, injustice, or pain. when animals cause pain, we don’t blame them morally. Implicit in the idea that we should not discriminate is some account of how we should behave toward other human beings.

Second, how do we know that racial discrimination has been common? People have experienced it personally and have taken the trouble to share their own experiences with others who have chosen to listen to them; or they have collected evidence of other people’s suffering from libraries and archives. In other words, people have accumulated and shared an understanding of racial oppression in the United States. That process takes intentional effort. Whether you are a professional historian who uncovers original documents about slavery or a parent who shares family memories with your toddlers, you are creating knowledge because of your moral commitments.

So now the statement “It is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race” is again beginning to seem highly moral and not factual at all. It is built on moral concepts like “injustice,” and an understanding of our history and present circumstances that we have created because of our values. But again, we cannot ignore the factual element. Yes, people create an understanding of history. But they cannot make just anything up. Racial discrimination has been all too real. That is why it appears in books of history and not just in fiction. We make the books of history, but it is “history” because it is real.

To add another layer: race itself is not a scientific concept. No biologist from another planet would classify human beings into races. But race is a social construct of enormous power. As such, it has really existed, and its existence has mostly been bad, although certainly some have made good of it through their effort and their art.

In short, a statement against racism, like very many other statements, combines evaluations and facts in ways that are impossible fully to disentangle. And so one question that you can ask about a statement like this is: “Is it true?”

2. Every child has a right to a good education. The invocation of a right in this sentence makes it a moral claim. Rights cannot be detected or vindicated by scientific methods. To say that someone has a right is to assert what is just, fair, or good.

At the same time, education is something that we observe and experience. Although education occurs in many settings (beginning with the home), usually a right to education is interpreted as a right to free or affordable schooling of a certain quality. Schools and colleges were founded at particular points in human history and have evolved and diversified until they reflect a range of purposes, as well as a wide range of quality. It only makes sense to favor a right to education (translated as a right to a certain quality and extent of schooling) if one observes that schools are, or could be, good for children.

That is partly an empirical claim, informed by evidence about their actual impact. But it is not a purely empirical assertion, because what is good for children is a moral question. (Should children become free and autonomous? Obedient and productive? Smart? Happy?)

Moral judgment enters the analysis in another way as well. To say, “Every child has a right to a good education” does not imply that a satisfactory education is what we actually offer in schools today. We can develop a vision of better schools in the future. But that vision should be vivid and detailed, not just a rote invocation of a better time. And it should be a plausible vision, given what we know (or think we know) about how human beings learn, about how institutions function, about what laws can achieve, and about what money can buy.

Once again, the factual and the moral interpenetrate deeply, so that teasing one strand from the other does not seem productive, even if it were possible.

3. “A good and omnipotent God exists”: This is a claim about how the universe actually is. It is phrased so that it is literally true or false, just like the claim that 2 plus 3 equals five or the earth is round. But God is different. God could exist and yet be completely immune from being empirically proven by living human beings during the regular course of history. (Only souls after death or at the end of time would have direct empirical evidence of God.)

I think people are entitled to believe in God if that genuinely feels true to them. I would not advocate deleting that belief from one’s set of ideas because it isn’t a scientific hypotheses, subject to being tested. But you can ask whether your own religious beliefs feel secure and sincere. The question is whether you really believe in God. That is a different question from whether you wish that God exists or whether you belong to a community that traditionally believes in God. Nothing is true just because it would be better if it were true or just because people have believed it.

Again, this is not an argument against the existence of God. It is merely a reminder that one is responsible for reflecting on the truth of one’s religious beliefs, quite apart from their consequences. God belongs in your store of beliefs if subjective experience or reason leads you to believe that there is a God. If not, perhaps that idea should go.

4. “Everything happens for a good reason.” That statement could be true if God or Providence or some other supernatural force makes everything come out well, either on earth or in heaven. In other words, this statement could be true if it is connected to a religious claim that is true. But the statement seems flatly false if it is not sustained in that way. UNICEF estimates that 21 children under the age of five die every minute because of preventable causes, most of which could be removed with modest amounts of money. If those children die for a good reason, I fail to see it. To believe that everything happens for the best without citing a religious justification seems to me a classic example of bad faith. It is an error, a falsehood, motivated by the hope of evading upsetting thoughts. It is an example of the kind of belief that we should delete as we look for falsehoods in our own beliefs (unless, again, you choose to retain it because of a religious belief that truly justifies it).

*Cf. Bernard Williams on “thick” moral concepts in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 140-1.

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to whom do the ancient Greeks belong?

There has been some valuable debate about the diversity of the authors on the syllabus of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies. A participant noted, in particular, that Aristotle is mentioned over and over again in the readings. Is that a sign that the scope of the authors is too narrow for the 21st century world?

It could be. My own views on that question are complex and unsettled. But I think it is worth thinking seriously about the identity of a person like Aristotle.

On one hand, he was (to use our terms) a white man. He spoke an Indo-European language and lived in a country that currently belongs to the EU; in fact, his countrymen invented the idea of “Europe” as distinct from “Asia.” He was the tutor of another white man, Alexander, who conquered Egypt, Mesopotamia, and northern India. Aristotle’s thought deeply influenced Greco-Roman civilization and then was grafted onto Western Christian thought (especially after 1100) so that he now provides core ideas for Catholicism and some of its Protestant offshoots. So he is quintessentially Western.

On the other hand, Aristotle lived in a culture strikingly remote from our own. If we are individualistic, materialistic, technocratic, and used to mass societies, he came from a world of tightly integrated, deeply pious, zealously communitarian city-states. He lived in the eastern Mediterranean, influencing and studying cultures in countries that we now call the “Middle East.” The idea of whiteness had yet to be invented in his era. His thought arrived in the Christian world via Islamic authors who had made heavy use of him while hardly anyone in what we now call “the West” knew anything about him. The main entry point for his thought into the Catholic world was the Spain of the “tres culturas” (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). Today, he is more likely to be studied deeply in Shiite Iran or in a Catholic seminary in Bolivia than in the United States.

I do not dismiss the argument that a syllabus in which most of the authors refer to Aristotle is too narrow. But I do dispute the idea that Aristotle is somehow “ours” (where “we” are Westerners) and doesn’t also belong to the rest of the world.

See also Jesus was a person of coloravoiding the labels of East and Westwhen East and West were oneon modernity and the distinction between East and West.

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friendship and politics

Last week, one session of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies was devoted to friendship, and the assignments were:

  • Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracy, pp. 3-35, pp. 163-82, 290-8
  • Danielle E. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown, v. Board of Education, pp 140-186

When people treat one another as friends, interactions have a special quality. This is not a naive point, for people want to have friendships and will sometimes put the development and maintenance of their friendships above other goals. Aristotle observed as much.*

One might suspect that only some cultures cultivate friendships that are strong enough to make people check their conflicting self-interests. We might find people acting as friends among the ruling classes of classical city-states, but surely not in atomized and materialistic America.

Based in part on the great book by Mansbridge assigned for this session, I would propose instead that whether people act as friends depends on the immediate situation. When interactions are sustained and face-to-face (or possibly online, given sufficient bandwidth); when interests are not too starkly opposed or the stakes are reasonably low; and when groups are tolerably small, modern Americans will put friendship ahead of narrow interests and will work hard and skillfully to preserve friendship.

For instance, I hypothesize that a group like the Summer Institute itself (22 activists and scholars from six countries, gathered for 63 hours of seminar time), if asked to plan a recreational activity for themselves, would be primarily concerned with preserving their friendship. They would, for instance, be reluctant to put options for activities to a vote. If time pressures forced them to vote, they would be highly uncomfortable to see a minority disappointed and would–at a minimum–seek to acknowledge and regret their sacrifice. (Allen’s book is focused on sacrifice and how to repair it). If even one person said that he could not participate in a given activity (for instance, he couldn’t go on boat ride because of sea-sickness), that idea would instantly be retracted. On the other hand, if an individual simply didn’t like a given activity, he would be unlikely to say so because expressions of self-interest would make him look like a bad friend.

We didn’t actually assign the exercise of choosing a recreational activity, because it seems better for members of the Institute to make individual choices about how to spend their weekends. But we talked about how such a conversation would likely go, and the predictions seemed insightful to me.

Two big questions are:

  1. How can we create a degree of friendship in larger and less stable communities than the Summer Institute, or when the stakes are higher? Allen advocates “talking to strangers” in the US, to build sufficient friendship that we can govern ourselves justly. That requires, among other things, changes in the ways our cities are planned and our children assigned to schools. I doubt that Mansbridge would disagree, but her argument is that politics-as-friendship only works under certain objective circumstances, and when it is impractical, it is better to govern through explicitly adversarial politics.
  2. To what extent should friendship be a normative ideal? Philia may be a virtue, as Aristotle said, but it trades off against other virtues, such as freedom and equality. For instance, when trying to be friends, people may hide genuine interests that they should be free to express and act on. And that suppression may not play out equally.

Background on the two assigned books

Mansbridge emerged from the New Left of the 1960s and 70s, where she observed small groups , “appear[ing] everywhere like fragile bubbles” that had certain features in common. Decisions were made in face-to-face meetings, after much discussion, when someone expressed the consensus of the group. There were no formal distinctions among participants or offices. And there was a strong norm against making self-interested statements.

These forms seemed naïve from the perspective of what Mansbridge calls “adversary democracy,” which presumes that interests conflict and there must be winners and losers in decisions. Yet they seemed to work somewhat well and to have certain advantages.

She studied two examples. Helpline is a commune of the New Left: urban, somewhat racially diverse, aimed at social change. The other case is a Vermont Town Meeting in a rural, socially conservative white community. They differ, too, in that Helpline codifies the principles of “unitary democracy,” whereas Selby has official votes and office-holders and exercises powers granted by the state. And yet Mansbridge finds many similar practices.

This leads her to generalizations about where and when “unitary democracy” can work. She also finds convergence between the two examples.

Allen begins with the observation that democracy requires sacrifice. Some lose when others gain, and the losses are not fairly distributed. Her question is how you can build some kind of “friendship” when some must sacrifice?

Her friendly critique of Habermas: He explains why people will speak with reciprocity if they are in a setting where they are aiming for consensus, but not why they would enter such a space in the first place. She writes,“Friendship is not an emotion, but a practice, a set of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and differences of personality, experience, and aspiration. Friendship is not easy, nor is democracy. Friendship begins in the recognition that friends have a shared life—not a ‘common’ nor an identical life—only one with common events, climates, built-environments, fixations of the imagination, and social structures. Each friend will view all these phenomena differently, but they are not the less shared for that” (pp. xxi-xxii).

*Our next business after this will be to discuss Friendship. For friendship is a virtue, or involves virtue; and also it is one of the most indispensable requirements of life. For no one would choose to live without friends, but possessing all other good things. … Moreover, …  friendship appears to be the bond of the state; and lawgivers seem to set more store by it than they do by justice, for to promote concord, which seems akin to friendship, is their chief aim, while faction, which is enmity, is what they are most anxious to banish. And if men are friends, there is no need of justice between them; whereas merely to be just is not enough—a feeling of friendship also is necessary. Indeed the highest form of justice seems to have an element of friendly feeling in it. And friendship is not only indispensable as a means, it is also noble in itself. We praise those who love their friends, and it is counted a noble thing to have many friends; and some people think that a true friend must be a good man (Aristot. Nic. Eth. 1155a3, 20)

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Alinsky does a one-on-one

In the Summer Institute of Civic Studies yesterday, we briefly listened to Saul Alinsky talking to Studs Terkel in 1971. The tape is both an evocative glimpse of Alinsky as a person (you should picture a chain-smoking older man in a suit and small round glasses, talking like James Cagney) and an example of how he envisioned one of the basic tools of community organizing, the one-on-one interview. Near the end, he says:

I run into you. You’re on welfare, you know, standing on the corner. So we get into kind of a session. So I say, ah, where do you live?

–Over there. Well, where do you expect me to live? I’m on relief. Where do you want me to live–in a 14-carat palace?

–You pay anything to live there?

–Ah, come on, you trying to be funny?

–Well no, I don’t want to be funny. Jeez, ah, the place looks like it’s loaded with rats, roaches, everything.

–You damn well know it is.

–Hmm, what would happen if you didn’t pay your rent?

–What would happen? They’d throw me out, my kids, everybody else. What do you mean?

–Yeah. [Pause.] What would happen if nobody paid their rent over there?

–Why they’d …! Well, truthfully, they’d have a little trouble throwing us all out, wouldn’t they?

The tape ends there, but the next move would be for Alinsky to say, “Hey, mac, we’re having a meeting tomorrow night down at Our Lady of Sorrows. Interested in stopping by for a while to talk with some other tenants on relief?”


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the launch of Brigade

Yesterday, Sean Parker of Facebook fame launched Brigade, a new app that lets you express opinions about political issues (including new issues that you introduce), discuss and persuade other users, identify people with similar concerns and views, and recruit them to your own “projects.”

If a random person invented such an app, I would be highly skeptical that it could attract enough users to be valuable. A network’s value is proportional to the square of its users (Metcalfe’s Law), which is why Facebook itself is a valuable place to engage and participate, and most startups go nowhere. But with Parker’s fame and his almost $10 million of initial funding, Brigade could “go to scale.”

I think it will do good if the design causes people to engage in relatively substantive (yet fun) ways, without degenerating into trollery or being taken over by organized interest groups. I think it will do even more good if users routinely introduce and share valuable content from other news and opinion sites in their efforts to persuade.

I can envision dangers if Brigade’s scale becomes huge and it gains some control over our public sphere, but that seems a distant hypothetical problem. As I told the Huffington Post’s Alexander Howard, I am rooting for Brigade to gain a substantial user base because I think it can be educational and energizing.

Brigade emphasizes issues rather than candidates and campaigns. In talking to the Washington Post’s Ana Swanson, I exaggerated the following point:

Parties, candidates and analysts alike have also found that Millennials are more willing to organize around particular issues rather than political parties. “For all human beings, it makes more sense to talk about issues than parties – who cares about parties[?] Most people are more interested in solving issues,” says Levine. “But I think it’s especially true for young people, who have a particularly weak attachment to political parties.”

In fact, a lot of people are driven by partisan attachments, which can even determine where they stand on specific issues. For some, loyalty to party comes first, and the issues follow. I nevertheless believe that there is a substantial proportion of Americans–especially young ones–who do not have strong partisan loyalties, and for whom Brigade’s focus on issues will be appealing.

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notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution

For use in today’s Summer Institute of Civic Studies. The morning’s readings are

  • Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, pp. 18-25, 37-48, 240-7
  • Hannah Arendt” from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I first asked participants to name various kinds of freedom, and categorized the answers as positive and negative, inner (such as freedom from anxiety) and outer (such as freedom from coercion), and individual and group.

Arendt’s reading of the American Revolution: the founders were after freedom, which they didn’t initially define all that sharply but which probably meant mostly negative individual freedom: “the more or less free range of non-political activities which a given body politic will permit and guarantee to those who constitute it” (p 20). But in creating new institutions that would protect that kind of freedom, they discovered public freedom—the freedom to create together. And this was a source of happiness for them. P. 24: “they were enjoying what they were doing far beyond the call of duty.”

In the French Revolution, however, the leaders felt themselves compelled by great forces beyond their control and they also lost interest in creating new institutions or even following the rules they had constructed as they declared the “social problem” the only thing that mattered. As a result, they lost all forms of freedom (pp. 40-1).

Relation between freedom and equality

Many might see freedom and equality in tension. But for Arendt, public freedom requires equality. People are not naturally equal but they are made equal in “artificial” political spaces, “where men [meet] one another as citizens and not as private persons” (p. 21.) The tyrant, the master and the slave are not free because they are not engaged in equal politics.

Politics as performance and self-discovery

Arendt is not a deliberative democrat, envisioning public life as a discussion about what should be done, in which people try to discipline their own interests and personalities in the interests of the common good. She appreciates competition and the pursuit of excellence in public life. And people discover their full humanity by displaying their personalities in public. “Freedom was understood as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man required the presence of others. Freedom itself therefore needed a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper” (p. 21)

Civic republicanism/liberalism

Arendt sees political participation as a source of happiness (at least for some) and self-discovery. It is thus an intrinsic good, not just a means to justice, or security, or happiness, or other goods. And you need government not so much to guarantee good outcomes for communities as to be a space for politics.

That reflects what is now being called the “civic republican” tradition, in contrast to what is sometimes called “liberalism,” which holds that politics and governments are costs we must pay to get benefits. The liberal tradition encompasses a great variety of answers to the question: how much government and politics do we need? (Some liberals say: a lot.) But all see government and politics as a cost, whereas Arendt sees politics as a benefit and government as the space that allows politics.

Must/should everyone participate?

The civic republic tradition poses the question: who should participate? Granting that politics has intrinsic value, does it have value for all (or only some) and is it the highest value or only one valuable pursuit?

On p. 271, Arendt suggests that there are just some “who have a taste for public freedom and cannot be ‘happy’ without it.” And it’s OK not to participate, because “one of the most important negative liberties we have enjoyed since the end of the ancient world [is] freedom from politics.” (p. 272)

But on p. 247: “no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public business.”

How to keep public freedom alive?

Most of us are not in the position of the American founders, able to discover happiness and freedom by creating institutions and feeling that “man is master of his destiny, at least with respect to political government” (p. 41).

So what are some options?

  • Frequent revolutions?
  • Co-creation in other domains? (What about a startup enterprise?)
  • Radical decentralization—Jefferson’s proposal for “ward” government?

Private and public

In the civic republican vein, Arendt is a great defender of public life. But she is also an explicit and strong defender of the private life and, indeed, of privacy. Sometimes she takes the latter to a fault, as in her “Reflections on Little Rock,” where she argues that sending paratroopers to Arkansas was a violation of the private sphere. But it makes sense that we need a strong private domain to create an impressive public space. The “four walls, within which people’s private life is lived, constitute a shield against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive” (Between Past and Future, p. 186). After all, her public space is not about agreement but contention, and one needs a private space to develop enough individuality to contend.

See also: Hannah Arendt and thinking from the perspective of an agentHannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of lifehomage to Hannah Arendt at The New Schoolwhen society becomes fully transparent to the state; and on the moral dangers of cliché.

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job openings in civic renewal (10)

This is the tenth in an occasional series. Just two jobs in this post, but they are important and good ones. Four good jobs in this post:

Director of Public Engagement for Public Agenda. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues and work together on solutions. For forty years, Public Agenda has fought gridlock and facilitated public problem solving on K-12 and higher education, health care, criminal justice reform, and many other issues. We do so by acting as an honest broker employing the tools of research, engagement, and communications. We also seek to contribute to the field of deliberative democracy and enhance the nation’s capacity to solve problems.

The director of public engagement leads a team in the development and execution of public engagement projects on a variety of local and national issues, and leads the ongoing development of our public engagement methods, products and services.

Senior Associate and Public Engagement Associate at the Great Schools Partnership, a leading education nonprofit working to create innovative models of public schooling. With offices located in downtown Portland, Maine, the Great Schools Partnership works on a variety of small- and large-scale educational projects throughout Maine, New England, and the country. The Partnership offers professional development and technical assistance to educators, schools, districts, and state agencies, while also developing practical school-improvement resources and coordinating the implementation of grant initiatives.

Director of Leadership for the Greater Good, Engaged Cornell. The 10-year Engaged Cornell initiative, launched last October, is charged with promoting innovation in community- engaged and real-world learning, and making those practices the hallmark of the Cornell undergraduate experience. This is a $150 million initiative for community-engaged learning.

Director, Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, University of Texas. The Director will be a well-known figure in government, politics, or the civic engagement community; knowledgeable specifically about Texas and United States government and its politics, as well as possessing acumen in non-partisan activities. The Director will serve as an inspirational leader both internally and externally, acting as the face of the Institute for its many publics. Funded by the state monies, grants, and private donations, the current income for the Institute is $1.3 million and the long-range plan is to grow the endowment by $10 million over the next five years.


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