Around the Institute

What It Means to be a Great Institution

July 28, 2022  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the below remarks at the 10th annual Resnick Aspen Action Forum on July 28, 2022 in Aspen, CO. This is the prepared version of Dr. Porterfield’s remarks, which he delivered extemporaneously. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

It’s great to be able to be here together with all of you. Phil said to me, in preparation for today, “Dan, we really want you to be vulnerable.” I went home and said to my wife, Karen, “Phil wants me to be vulnerable.”

She said, “Good God, they don’t want that—they don’t want that at all!” So, I’m going to try to thread the needle now between my spouse and my colleague today, and I suspect you know as well as I do who I most want and need to keep happy.

We are so fortunate to be together here in this place and space. We give gratitude to the Ute people, still thriving in community, who first inhabited and revered this land. We give thanks to the founders of the Aspen Institute, who came here in 1949 determined to find new mechanisms to preserve humanity in a world that had brought the Holocaust, nuclear devastation, the Soviet System, and an industrialism that some feared would depersonalize the human.

Of course, our forerunners didn’t see every problem when they founded the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, but they saw a lot of them. Their idea was that a new institution could bring productively together people from the supposed divides of background and discipline, professional focus and geography, and identity and belief system. They had faith that, together, human beings can structure conversations that are inspired, inclusive, optimistic, pragmatic, and full—one that could lead us to a better and more sustainable world.

This institution was born at a time of global crises and needed to extract meaning and solutions from them. What came from our founding included a set of methods, programs, principles, and organizational ways of being in the world. All added together, they have made us one of the world’s great nonprofit institutions. We should take seriously what it means to be a part of a great institution, because there aren’t a lot of them, and many are under fire these days in part because some find their contradictions intolerable. It’s those tensions that I’d like to reflect upon today, with the hope of helping you have and create the deepest possible relationship with the Institute.

To do that, I would like to start by saying a word about great institutions.

One feature they share is that they bring people together across our different identities, perspectives, and backgrounds into a community that can then help people do and learn more together than they ever could have individually. Great institutions provide coherence and cohesion in our societies. They offer trusted perspectives that people can connect to and resonate with. They provide resources, connection, and permanence to the individual. Great institutions stay with us in our bones across our lifetimes. I suspect that all of you are affiliated with other great institutions besides the Aspen Institute—perhaps your high schools or universities, or your place of work, or your religion, or the new institutions you’re building in your communities right now with support from the Institute community.

As we age and change, great institutions become permanent presences that ground us, as well as a force and factor for social development. I’m lucky to have been affiliated with a couple, and one lesson I’ve learned is that truly great institutions almost always carry within their DNA sustaining tensions that are essential elements of their greatness.

For example, the institution that formed me the most is Georgetown University, where I grew up as an undergraduate and later went to work, building community programs and teaching and even living on campus with my family. Georgetown is the place in the world where I feel most at home—where different strands of my history and identity become more present to me.

Georgetown is America’s oldest Jesuit and Catholic institution. This Catholic, Jesuit identity, which has evolved over time, and isn’t one thing, is central to Georgetown University (and it involves inclusion of all faith traditions, a topic for another talk). At the same time, also central to Georgetown is its secular identity as a student-centered American research university with global reach. That, too, has evolved over time and isn’t one thing. In other words, while embracing its spiritual identity, Georgetown also strives to be the very best university it can be in secular terms, too.

This intersection of the spiritual and the secular is one place where Georgetown’s distinctive greatness can be found, but, admittedly, sometimes the two values are in tension. Neither side should obscure the other. Georgetown must not de-commit from secular excellence for students from all backgrounds and must always privilege academic excellence and free inquiry even when those commitments exist in tension with its religious identity. It also must never de-commit to being authentically Jesuit and Catholic—even if the secular world couldn’t care less about that and certainly doesn’t reward it.

In other words, this tension between the secular and the spiritual is the feature of Georgetown University, not the bug. It is a major reason why Georgetown University is a great institution. As President Jack DeGioia often reminds the community, the university’s destiny is to live the commitments and questions that come from both aspects of its identity, sometimes breaking new ground because few institutions share this dual commitment or even pose such questions.

By analogy, then, as members of the Aspen Institute community, we also live with, and sustain, commitments that sometimes come into tension, making us a more rich and distinctive and aspirational organization as we try to bring together assets and bridge differences that other institutions don’t even try to include in their composition.

For example, “dialogue” and “action.” We value and need them both.

Some say, “Dialogue? That’s too slow—too complicit with the status quo.

Others say, “Action? That’s not reflective—unreflective action is self-satisfied and oblivious to its limitations.

Within our community, some members lean much more to dialogue, others much more to action. To the extent we have partisans for one value or the other, that’s good—as long as neither approach overwhelms the other, just like with Georgetown. The Aspen Institute needs to be a place committed both to dialogue and to action—to their synergies and their contradictions.

Take another sustaining tension: We are trying to promote the development of individual, values-based leaders. So many of you here today have benefited from that commitment. We go out to identify, select, and support individuals as you are and as you become, because we see in you a commitment and desire to contribute to the world, to grow fully, and to make a difference in whatever you do. We don’t pick you because we have a specific agenda for the world and see you as the instruments of that design.

The commitment you have benefitted from—to values-based leadership journeys—is complimentary with, but also in tension with, the focus in other fabulous Aspen programs that work on systems change. In fact, on this stage, you just heard from leaders in our policy programs who are working as entrepreneurs or orchestrators within some of our most complex and vexed social systems—education, public health, energy, criminal justice, the economy, digital culture, and more—often selflessly and inclusively helping people reform those systems from within so their outcomes become more just, more equitable, and more inclusive.

Some might say these two Aspen Institute traditions are in tension—values-based leadership and systems change. I agree—though not always. And I say that we are a far greater institution because we invest in and can assemble people working on both sides of what some might consider a dichotomy.

Another tension: short-term change and longer-term change. There is a fierce urgency now. We know it. We feel it. We heard about the need for immediate change last night when Navyn talked about walking through hospital wards and confronting the silence of malnourished children and the cries of their desperate parents.

At the same time, we are committed to working for the longer-term change needed so that there may be fewer children in those hospital wards to begin with.

Sometimes hearing people talk about long-term change can seem like a denial of urgent and immediate need. Sometimes hearing about short-term change can seem like it’s too focused on putting bandages on problems and not getting at the front of the cause. This is another tension that the Institute contains—in fact, I suspect, one that most of us live and feel individually at those inflection points when we are asking about our callings.

We are so fortunate to be a part of an institution that values the existence of such tensions—and sustains them—so that we can participate in ongoing, lifelong work where we sometimes take on one side of any given tension and other times embrace the opposite side or them both. This rich resource of the Aspen Institute is here for every single one of us, as we grow and change.

For too long, some of the different programmatic assets of the Aspen Institute have been kept separate and siloed from one another, leading us to ask if we should be unhappy with the tensions among them. That’s not a criticism of the past, because it’s how we developed, and our history is what brings us to this present place of possibility with so many resources for the world that we need to apply ever more intensively. We are lucky to be at a place where we can now name, know, and live these tensions.

Let me ask a long question: Can we authentically embrace and sustain the tensions that come from being an institution with so much capacity and difference, and then create the frameworks, like this Action Forum, where friends and colleagues from diverse schools of thought and methodologies for change come together and say: “I not only want to pursue my way of working, but also learn your way of working. I not only want to commit to my ideological view about how the world is structured, but also better understand your view. I not only want to be a part of a community that cares about what’s happening in its own backyard, but also I want to broaden myself and learn about the parts of the world that I’m in relation to even if I may never get to visit them”?

If the answer to that question is “yes,” we will be living the mission that our founders gave us, and providing something rich and distinctive not just for the world but for ourselves. Enjoying this richness also gives us a job—to be stewards of the Aspen Institute in its complexity and multiplicity—not to be partisans to one program or methodology or ideology but to be advocates for the place that contains and supports all.

One reason I know we can do this is because I’ve seen it during COVID-19 and all the ensuing crises of the last two years, when people really came together for the good of the enterprise and not just its elements.

Phil made the point in his introduction that over the past two years we have dealt with challenges. Yes, on March 13, 2020, when everyone went to their homes to learn Zoom, and work in new ways, we had no idea what would be required of us. In April 2020 we projected we would lose 30% of our budgeted revenue. But everybody leaned into the challenge and asked what they could do for their own program and how they could be part of an institution that was going to have to rely on everyone across the differences of program and approach and individual roles.

Two years later, we have not only gotten back to our pre-COVID budget, but we have increased it by 30%. Because supporters have invested in our work, and believed in us, we are making even bigger differences in the world. That is why this institution has been able to thrive. Yes, we coped, but we used a moment of crisis to collaborate and create and to turn our multiple methodologies and approaches into a sustaining asset rather than a disabling contradiction.

Some simply can’t get their arms around our multiplicity of approaches not simply because they see tensions among our methods but because that multiplicity makes them feel tension within themselves. I completely understand that. Great institutions have exactly that effect.

Great institutions also have these effects: Over the last few years, the Aspen Institute has been able to significantly enhance our work preventing generational poverty, addressing the erosion of job quality, supporting entrepreneurs for health around the world, growing our work to understand surveillance capitalism and misinformation, to promote community college excellence, and much more.

Across the board, during the pandemic, we’ve been able to grow almost all of our programs—with their different goals and methods. As a result, even with the loss of revenue in 2020, the pandemic didn’t cause us to make any layoffs or reduce any benefits or eliminate any programs. This happened—we coped and created—because, during this crisis, this institution was able to say, “We can’t just stay in our silos. We can’t just stick to our own methodology. We are dependent upon and in reciprocal relationships with one another as colleagues. Let’s be sure the work we do overlaps and combines in all sorts of powerful ways in the world.”

That is why we are a stronger institution today than we were two years ago.

This Action Forum is so heartening for me because I can listen to the great work of Fellows across the world. I can cheer and be inspired when I hear about your ventures, while, at the same time, as AGLN Fellows, you now have a chance to hear from Policy Program leaders like Anne Mosle or Vivian Schiller, about what they and their colleagues are doing at the Aspen Institute and in the world to change the structures and systems that affect us all, whether we know it or not.

In a moment you’ll hear from Yuliya Tychkivska, who leads the Aspen Institute in Kyiv, where nine colleagues have had to leave their place of work, six of whom are in exile, as they’ve dealt with the epic injustice and inhumanity of Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

Because of the strength and reach of the Aspen Institute—and the harmony we have made from the potential contradictions between domestic and international work—we were able to go out to our Board, our supporters, and our U.S. staff and ask for donations so that we could keep funding Aspen Kyiv. Together, this coalition put together $800,000 to send resources to those nine people so that they can keep working for democracy and justice even in hiding and with their lives in danger.

Such connectedness and feeling of solidarity and community that came to us, partly because of COVID-19, is our greatest opportunity going forward. All it requires is that we keep giving our best selves to the work we are doing while also taking the time to listen to how others work—to theories of change that may be radically different from yours—and then to value these different Aspen approaches even though they may be counter to how you do things or see the world. That is what it means to be partners in a great institution. We get to rise above our immediate commitments to think about how others think and work, kindling a creative fire within ourselves precisely because of the friction that comes from difference.

This is a great institution that has the possibility for continued contribution towards a more free, just, and equitable world because we have been able to assemble such diversity within this very tent and beneath these very mountains time and time again, for 73 years, growing more inclusive, and thus, yes, having more sustaining tensions, more kindling for our creative fire, as we go—and with that, more diversity of committed talent and ideas than almost any other institution I know of.

I thank every single one of you for being a part of our big tent and collaborative authors of our service, as we emerge into the future of our making.