Aspen Institute, in Partnership with Kern Family Foundation, Announces New Program on Leadership & Character in Higher Education

June 20, 2024

A new program launches to support and enhance the leadership of college and university presidents in challenging times. 

Washington, DC, June 20, 2024 – The Aspen Institute and the Kern Family Foundation are pleased to announce the launch of the Aspen-Kern Program for Leadership and Character in Higher Education, a new initiative designed to support and enhance the leadership of new college presidents. Building on the Institute’s history of almost 75 years of humanities-based leadership formation, as well as Kern-supported programs dedicated to advancing character formation and flourishing communities, the Aspen-Kern Program will complement existing skills-based support for new four-year college presidents by emphasizing the importance of character formation for democratic citizenship and greater human flourishing. 

The Program will annually serve 20 new college presidents who have held the position for less than three years and represent a broad range of public and private four-year undergraduate-serving institutions. The model will be that of a cohort-based fellowship featuring seminars on leadership and personalized coaching with a distinguished cadre of leaders from higher education and other fields. In addition to the fellowship for new presidents, the Program will provide humanities-informed seminars for specific institutions and develop practical resources and thought leadership for new ways of conceiving the purposes of higher education.

For several decades, it has become increasingly challenging for presidents to lead complex institutions with multiple stakeholders—a dynamic compounded by changing enrollment patterns and financial models and increasing social and campus unrest. Most recently, many presidents have been challenged for how they manage dialogue and dissent on campus and beyond. The Aspen-Kern Program creates a new resource for new college presidents in a time of great need and opportunity.

“What happens on our pluralistic college and university campuses contributes to shaping the fabric of our civic culture—in particular, our ability to sustain respectful, challenging, and creative dialogue, and to foster character formation and community,” said Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield. “The Kern Family Foundation’s investment is both visionary and highly practical for these times.”

The new program builds upon the Aspen Institute’s extensive work in leadership development and higher education, including programs on executive leadership development, justice and society, civil dialogue, social trust and freedom of inquiry, and more than a dozen global cohort-based fellowships that comprise the Aspen Global Leadership Network. It also complements the Institute’s College Excellence Program, which works with community college presidents and university leaders across the country on scaled reforms that advance student access and success. Additionally, for the first time, this initiative will connect the extensive educational and leadership communities of the Aspen Institute and the powerful work and networks of the Kern Family Foundation. 

“The many challenges higher education is facing today have contributed to an increased interest in integrating character formation from a wide variety of colleges and universities”, said Kern Family Foundation President James Rahn. “Through this special initiative with the Aspen Institute, there is a tremendous opportunity to support the formation of institutions that cultivate character and serve the flourishing of faculty, staff, students, and communities.”

For more information about The Aspen-Kern Program for Leadership and Character in Higher Education, please contact or visit our website.

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization whose purpose is to ignite human potential to build understanding and create new possibilities for a better world. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve society’s greatest challenges. It is headquartered in Washington, DC and has a campus in Aspen, Colorado, as well as an international network of partners. For more information, visit

The Kern Family Foundation’s mission is to empower the rising generation of Americans to build flourishing lives anchored in strong character, inspired by quality education, driven by an entrepreneurial mindset, and guided by the desire to create value for others. The Foundation was established in 1998 by Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern, founders of Generac Power Systems.

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