2016 Presidents’ Forum Summary

By Imagining America | February 27, 2017

Hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone, and facilitated by the Presidents’ Council Co-Chairs and Planning Team, the 2016 Imagining America Forum addressed critical questions:

  • What public role should university and college presidents play during and after this presidential election?
  • How can the arts, humanities, and design help us better understand this unique political moment, providing a more realistic and nuanced portrayal of current issues?

The annual Forum has become an intimate space of reflection and analysis for leaders of publicly engaged academic institutions and cultural organizations to consider their successes and challenges given the broad forces affecting higher education and the country. Participants noted it was difficult yet productive to speak across different regional and institutional contexts. In a powerful expression of distributive leadership, Presidents’ Council members made candid presentations to their peers. Themes that emerged from these provocations include:

Dialogue and action: The concept of dialogue has been neutralized, and many voices are being excluded and even shut out by the notion of political correctness. Higher education needs to create even more expansive spaces for involving diverse students and community members. Training students in the tangible skills of community organizing, which could support students’ participation in local and state government, is one direction for college campuses. How are the arts, humanities, and design being utilized at colleges across the country to embolden dialogue and incite action?

University and college presidents and politics: Higher education presidents face the difficulties of nonpartisanship and are hesitant to tread into the political realm. Yet, the president of a college plays an important role personifying the democratic values of the institution and campus-community, so must be active in creating spaces that address racism, xenophobia, prejudice, and bigotry. Realizing higher education’s greater purposes is a strategic challenge that requires deep consideration of its meaning and manifestation. What are presidents in various regional and institutional contexts learning as they lead their institutions beyond the election?

The task of imagining America: The arts, humanities, and design can enable the expression of diverse voices and increase public tolerance for listening to stories that are different from one’s own. Given rapidly changing demographics and the cultural divides revealed by the election, liberating the imagination to foster cultural pluralism is vital. What program activities can Presidents’ Council leaders initiate locally on their campuses, as well as nationally through Imagining America and its partnerships with peer associations?

The discussion, which built on the previous year’s Forum at University of Maryland-Baltimore County and on numerous intervening virtual discussions, inform these suggestions for action.

#1. Convene the next Presidents’ Forum during the Imagining America Conference at University of California-Davis, October 12-14, 2017. The annual Forum will welcome new Presidents’ Council members, continue the Council’s discourse and action-planning, and highlight the issues and opportunities in the host institution and region.

#2. Develop and publish reflections by university and college presidents that use their inaugural addresses as the basis for considering successes and challenges for making higher education a public good.

#3. Advance planning on a storytelling initiative to advocate for realizing the democratic, public, and civic purposes of American higher education.

#4. Engage new presidents and senior administrators in discussions about the democratic purposes of higher education. The Council continues to express enthusiasm for sharing their learning and experiences with new presidents and senior administrators.


Acknowledgements: Thank you to Chancellor Mark Mone and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UW-M) for hosting the 2016 Imagining America Conference and Presidents’ Forum. Appreciation to Council Co-Chairs Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Rutgers University–Newark (RU-N) and President Brian Murphy, De Anza College. Joint planning and facilitation for the Forum was enhanced by President Richard Guarasci, Wagner College; President Devorah Lieberman, University of La Verne; Senior Vice Chancellor Peter Englot, RU-N; President Emerita Judith Ramaley, Winona State University and Portland State University; Donald Harward, Director of Bringing Theory to Practice; and Associate Vice Chancellor Rob Smith, UW-M. Thank you to Interim Chancellor at UC Davis Ralph Hexter for sending a virtual message.

Through the Forum, it was wonderful to deepen Imagining America’s partnerships with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Campus Compact, and the Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Enterprise.

Presidents, senior leaders, and Imagining America board members attended the Forum representing institutions from Ash. Cultural Arts Center; Augsburg College; College Unbound; Macalester College; Oregon State University; Pennsylvania State University; Syracuse University; University of California, Davis; University of Dayton; University of Illinois at Chicago; University of Maryland – Baltimore County; University of Massachusetts – Boston; University of Richmond; University of Washington – Bothell; UW-M; and University of Wisconsin – Parkside.

The Presidents’ Council acknowledges the immeasurable contributions of Earl Potter, 2007-2016 president of St. Cloud University, who passed away last year. Potter was honored by his peers, Paul Pribbenow and Ramaley, at the recent Forum.

Imagining America is immensely grateful to Syracuse University for its support as hosting partner for the last ten years, and looks forward to its next chapter at UC Davis.