Around the Institute

Authors of Our Destiny: Remarks to the Society of Fellows

June 18, 2018  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered remarks at the Society of Fellows Opening Reception. He spoke in the Doerr Hosier Center on the campus of the Aspen Institute in Aspen, CO.

Thank you, Peter [Waanders], for that gracious introduction and for your work, and your teams’ work, in developing this extraordinary resource: the Society of Fellows.

I’m so pleased that we are joined by the Chair of the Board of the Society of Fellows, Bonnie McCloskey, who is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Aspen Institute.

It’s wonderful to be here with all of you—less than three weeks into my new role as President and CEO of the Aspen Institute—in this fantastic space and place to kick off another transformational summer for the Institute, for all of us, and for society here in Aspen.

It’s such an honor to succeed the legendary Walter Isaacson in this role. No doubt many of you are among Walter’s greatest friends and admirers–as am I. He led the growth of reach and impact for this Institute in remarkable ways and I’m honored to succeed him. Yes, he has big shoes to fill, but we have a lot of people here at the Institute who have big feet! One of whom, standing to my right, is the great Eric Motley, our Executive Vice President who leads all of our advancement efforts with vision, commitment, and love.

My wife Karen, my daughters Caroline and Sarah, and our dog Sophie, and I arrived Friday night and we have been blown away by the beauty, serenity, and centering power of this magical place. We can’t wait to see and experience what’s to come here with you over the next few months—and this year’s Ideas Festival, led by the incomparable Kitty Boone, promises to be one of the best yet.

As you may know, I just finished almost eight years of service as president of Franklin & Marshall College, one of the country’s great liberal arts colleges. Karen and I undertook that endeavor together, just like this one. She’s a public interest attorney who most recently served for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and oversaw many programs providing support for vulnerable people. Everything we do we do together, supporting one another, and I know that she’s excited to meet you.

So much has happened already in my short time with the Institute.

Back in D.C., our staff has been hard at work making change that advances this country and the world by convening thinkers, publishing new knowledge, training leaders, informing decision-makers, and advocating for habits of mind whose ascent has advanced our civilization. I’m thinking of reason and evidence-based inquiry, the enduring value of humanistic study and artistic expression, the value of scientific discovery, and, of course, ethical reflection and values-based leadership.

I had the pleasure of joining—in my first couple days—a meeting of a national commission we are leading on the social and emotional development of the young, and a workshop of a global group of colleagues measuring the impacts of entrepreneurship and small business leadership in developing countries.

I had the pleasure of interviewing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a Society of Fellows gathering focusing on her new book, Fascism: A Warning.

And I had the great joy of participating in a panel on college success with former First Lady Michelle Obama and the actor Daveed Diggs before an audience of first-generation college-goers at the Twitter offices in D.C.

This range of programming speaks to the breadth and depth of all that the Aspen Institute does and all that our work means across society.

We’re doing work that promotes the national and global good.

Our work expands in reach, however, because we are profoundly centered.

We are a values-based organization that prizes convening inclusively and moving ideas to action—and our core, our center, are the values and ideals associated with this remarkable community, Aspen, Colorado, and the visions of founders such as Walter Paepcke and Herbert Bayer.

It is so fitting that, each summer, we gather here where the Institute was founded, to re-center ourselves in the history, natural splendor, and community of Aspen, and to renew our energies and commitment to all that we stand for.

The Aspen Institute’s foundation—upon which all that we do is built—is solidly situated right here in the values of our original home in Colorado. Upon this base we produce for the world what it needs now more than ever: the neutral convening of diverse voices, the cultivation of powerful ideas, the appreciation of all that life has to offer, the intellectual rigor to frame problems properly and then the catalyzing of action for societal change where it’s needed most. This was the vision of our founders almost seven decades ago.

This centering is of so much value in a fragmenting world. Our ability to come together to find common experience, common cause, common growth, and common meaning happens here and it happens elsewhere because it happens here.

Part of the uniqueness of the Aspen Institute is that the genius creator who developed our campus and so much of our iconography, Herbert Bayer, was able to make in material form diverse, insightful, and beautiful art that invites each individual and a community to be the authors of our destiny. I believe that the world will soon come to know Herbert Bayer, an immigrant American, still better as one of the most creative, catalyzing minds of our time. So, I hope you’ll go downstairs to see the wonderful exhibition that we will open formally in July, here because of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, that captures the evolution of Bayer’s ability to see movement among and within our mountains. Movement within mountains.

Bayer is a creator with remarkable wisdom—not a term we often use in describing artists—but the wisdom within his vision invites us to develop the wisdom in ours.

Which leads to a final thought: Each of you—as our supporters—make the Aspen idea possible. Each of you are leaders and champions of this remarkable Institute and all that it stands for—both this summer in Aspen and throughout the year and around the world.

I want you to leave tonight with an appreciation for the demonstrable differences you’re making in peoples’ lives by having chosen to engage with and contribute to the work of the Aspen Institute.

Because of you, 50,000 more high-achieving low- and moderate-income high school students will have the opportunity to attend a college or university with the resources to cultivate their talents and launch them into lives of meaning and impact through the American Talent Initiative, an alliance of higher education institutions committed to this goal funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and led by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.

Because of you, a new national literary prize was launched this year by Aspen Words that celebrates influential works of fiction that illuminate a vital contemporary issue and demonstrate the transformative power of literature on thought and culture. The inaugural winner, “Exit West”—a powerful portrait of migration, love, conflict, and optimism—by Mohsin Hamid will be honored tomorrow evening right here in Aspen at the Aspen Words annual gala.

Because of you, the Institute’s Stevens Initiative—named for the late U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens—is bringing youth together from across the United States and the Middle East through virtual exchange programs for dialogue, 21st-century skill development, and community-building towards mutual understanding and lasting peace.

And because of you, the Aspen Institute can make demonstrable differences for the one and the many right here in Roaring Fork Valley, through programs like Teen Socrates that give young people the chance to talk, listen, read, create, learn, and be heard.

This is just a taste of all that the Aspen Institute creates for the world—just a taste of the changes we bring about, the impacts we make, and the experiences we generate both in the summer in Aspen and all year round.

And all of this happens because we have a big, bold network of supporters who believe in us and everything we do.

Your participation, your leadership, your support, your energy, and your ideas are the fuel that has allowed us to power this great Institute—and are what will propel us into a very bright future and beyond.

Thank you so much, and have a great summer.