Around the Institute

Personal Leadership

June 12, 2018  • Corby Kummer

The students Dan Porterfield would soon, and reluctantly, be leaving give a preview of the leadership style he brings to the Institute.

“I’ll be with you in five minutes,” Dan Porterfield says on the campus of Franklin & Marshall College. He’s almost late for another appointment but promising me a debrief of a day of meeting with students, partly to explain why he is leaving a job he loves to be president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. That five minutes turns into nearly 30, because so many students stop “Dr. P,” as everyone calls their college president, for their own personal debriefs every couple of steps along what is a very, very short walk from a science classroom building to the coffee shop, newly contracted out to a local operator, that is the constantly humming heart of student life.

The delay isn’t really Porterfield’s fault. Or not entirely. From the day students arrived on the F&M campus in the small city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania—and, in many cases, a good deal before—he made it clear that he would be available to them and take an interest in their careers during and after college. Without exception, students I stopped, usually to ask directions, described their own encounters with Dr. P. Like taking a selfie with him the first day of class and being startled a few weeks later to hear the president jovially shout a greeting and get their name right. Like surprise at how active and responsive he is on social media. Like the far deeper involvement of an impromptu but intense meeting when the decision of which major to declare provokes a bout of soul-searching, or of the president’s office quickly finding funds for emergency trips home and buying a ticket for a roommate when emotional support is required.

As Porterfield walks ever so slowly down the path; or breezes in and out of his office to see which student or faculty member is raiding the well-stocked ice-cream freezer that is his trademark and one he plans to bring to the Institute (assistants make semi-monthly runs to come back loaded with “indecent amounts” of ice cream, and the expressions of sneaky guilt and childlike pleasure on the faces of people who make forays into it could inspire a revival of Candid Camera); or heads with his hot drink to the dead-center coffee-shop table where he is likeliest to be interrupted; or chats with every third student and exchanges fist bumps, it’s clear that he is in his element.

This constant contact with seemingly the entire student body is what everyone on campus will gladly, and unprompted, talk about. Those who have worked more closely with Porterfield point to the far-thinking tactician and change-maker (see “On Dan Porterfield and Leadership,”

page 55). “I’ve known Dan for 35 years,” says Bart Moore, the vice president for advancement at Georgetown University, where Porterfield both taught English—an oversubscribed course he designed was called “Those Who Teach, Lead”—and served as senior vice president for strategic development. “He’s so authentic, and so effective at a person-to-person level, that people might miss that Dan is a long-term strategic thinker and problem solver. What gets overlooked is that it’s exactly the combination of his people skills and his strategic acuity that produces results.”

One example: in the late 1990s, Porterfield partnered with John DeGioia, now Georgetown’s president, to find a new footing for its hospital, which was struggling to adapt to the changed health-care economic landscape. The two leaders devised a multiyear strategy that enabled the renowned medical school and hospital to remain with the university. “Dan sees problems,” Moore says, “he conceives solutions, and then he knows that it’s all down to the execution.” That vision led him to concentrate early in the 2000s on the looming crisis of access to elite higher education and to head up national conversations and action. The trick to Porterfield’s success, Moore says, is his ability to “motivate people to execute plans and accomplish things they wouldn’t have thought possible.”

Porterfield’s signature accomplishment at F&M (of many; see “Initiatives and Achievements,” page 56) was in fact that work on access—and it just happened to be in close concert with the Institute. Working with the Institute’s College Excellence Program and its director, Josh Wyner, Porterfield conceived and led the American Talent Initiative, a program designed to increase by 50,000 the number of high-achieving, low-income students enrolled at colleges. F&M’s own results attracted 102 leading institutions, from to the whole of the Ivy League, to share results rather than compete (see “Staying In,” page 62). Sparking social impact through organizational development and collaboration is work he is eager to continue on the Institute’s international canvas.

Recognizing talent, expanding opportunity, and creating the next generation of leaders—these are all key elements to Porterfield’s national reputation. I thought, then, that observing and speaking with the students he would soon, and reluctantly, be leaving would provide a preview of the leadership style he would bring to the Institute. It took no time at all to see—and keep seeing—rich evidence.

Mihika Miranda met Porterfield for a few minutes at Georgetown as a Mumbai high-schooler taking a summer program abroad; she heard him give a talk and took his card after a brief conversation. That conversation turned into two years of occasional correspondence, including a copy of a commencement address Porterfield sent. In essence he was recruiting her, and it worked.

How did I happen to hear this story? The first morning I visited the F&M campus, I stopped the first student I saw to ask if she knew where the president’s office was. Yes indeed, she replied.

If students I randomly met all had Dr. P stories, the ones he and his staff assembled for an informal but elegantly presented lunch in his office had even closer, college-long collaborations with him. Jabari Benjamin, a graduating senior who changed his major to economics when he found that he liked working with social-service agencies enough to head one, served as president of IMPACT, a campus group that provides peer mentorship for undergraduate men. At the lunch, he spoke of volunteering for a local youth-service agency in Lancaster, one part of his activities as an official off-campus study ambassador—activities he took seriously enough that he got a job to stay on working with Lancaster youth after graduation. “I’m not done with this place,” he said. Later that evening, as I was writing notes in an offcampus ice-cream shop, Benjamin strolled in and pulled up a chair opposite me to ask how my day had been and to discuss his evening’s volunteer work. As he walked me to my car, he told a story I by now recognized as typical: at his Brooklyn high school in the “not integrated at all” neighborhood of Sunset Park, Benjamin’s teachers encouraged him to go to college, and helped pull together train fare for him to visit three colleges south of New York City. His first stop was F&M, where he heard Porterfield talk about educational equity. He took the next train home without visiting the other two colleges and applied early decision the next day.

The kind of change Porterfield has made in student lives became unexpectedly clear to me when, at an opening event for the Institute’s new Washington headquarters, I greeted a longtime friend I had never seen at an Institute event. Tim O’Shaughnessy, now the president and CEO of Graham Holdings, co-founded LivingSocial, an e-commerce and marketing company whose sales grew under his leadership to nearly $2 billion. He was just three years out of Georgetown’s business school when LivingSocial launched. (He also set a record as the business school’s youngest commencement speaker.) The secret to his success? An encounter with Dan Porterfield, he told me, as a Georgetown undergraduate. “Dan helped turn me from a couch potato,” he wrote me, “into a person who suddenly believed that ideas could be turned into reality and that every person can create lasting change in the world. He can quickly cut through a person’s facade and bring out the true talents that lie beneath—and convince you to use those talents. Dan believes in you so much that you can’t help but believe in yourself.”

It’s that kind of encouragement Porterfield means to unlock across the Institute and across the country, as he told a group of students at the end of the afternoon. They came to F&M as Cooperman Scholars, a program that supports students from Essex County, New Jersey, with summer programs and mentoring in addition to scholarships. Porterfield hadn’t met the students formally as a group and sat in on a class, inviting questions about their experience. The subject came around to him. Rasheed Adewole, a young man who works in the president’s office three days a week, asked how Porterfield would stay involved with the college after he left.

“I’m calling myself an honorary alum,” Porterfield began, saying that 12-hour workdays ought to count for something. He described programs at the Institute for which he hoped student leaders would later be eligible and mentioned the American Talent Initiative. Then he became reflective. “I do feel a measure of sadness about leaving,” he said. “Just as you’ll feel sadness in leaving something you love. But you’ll also be called to do more in the spirit of what you’re doing. Precisely because I love kids so much, I want to make more of a difference for more kids. I loved living on campus at Georgetown and teaching. I gave that up to be president of F&M, and I loved it. I still enjoy kicking around ideas with kids. Now I have to give up something I love and feel the fulfillment of more campuses being strong. I hope you’ll see me advocating for better public education and more resources for students to pursue what they’re passionate about in college.”

He swallowed. “I hope you’ll see me and say: ‘There’s my president. There’s my mentor. There’s my friend.’ ”