Alan Solomont (A ’70), the newest Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, sat down with the Daily to discuss political activism, his experiences with Tisch College as an undergraduate and the future of civic involvement.
The Tufts Daily: How did your experience as a Tufts student inspire or deepen your interest in political activism?
Alan Solomont: I arrived here in the fall of 1966, a sheltered and suburban kid from Brookline, Mass. … The sixties were a politically charged time on college campuses. Students were opposing the war in Vietnam, students were supporting the civil rights struggles, and I got deeply impacted by that. I had a professor who introduced me to this whole field of urban studies and so I started to think about what was happening in America’s cities.
I was a page [for] the Massachusetts delegation at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and I was on the floor of the convention the night that the anti-war candidate Gene McCarthy was defeated by the nominee Hubert Humphrey. It was also the day of the disturbances in Grant Park … The next time I was in Grant Park was 40 years later on election night in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, so it was a pretty intense set of bookends … I have spent my life politically [active] and as an engaged citizen, and it all is a result of my experiences here at Tufts as a student.
TD: How have you been connected to the university as an alumnus?
AS: There was a period when I was relatively unconnected … I graduated in 1970, I traveled overseas for a year and then I moved to Lowell, Mass., [where] I was a community organizer for the better part of the ’70s. But when then [University] President [John] DiBiaggio and founding Dean of Tisch [College] Rob Hollister had this idea of creating a new college at the university to promote active citizenship, they approached me about whether I’d be interested in helping assemble what was then the first national advisory committee, which eventually became the Board of Advisors.
That’s really what reengaged me here at the university some fifteen years ago. And then I became a trustee and then my daughter came here and then I taught a course for four years … on the American presidency. I tell my friends I bleed brown and blue.
TD: In what ways have you seen political activism on campus evolve since your time spent here as a student?
AS: I would say that I’ve observed two things, one that is somewhat discouraging and one that is much more heartening. There has been an erosion over the years in people’s confidence in our political institutions, [and] there has been some decline in political involvement by young people. I think for a variety of reasons, [such as] Vietnam, Watergate, the rise of the influence of money … people have lost some confidence in the whole process.[But] I think [this] generation, the data indicates, is interested in being involved in things larger than [themselves]. I was part of the baby boomer generation, some people call it the “me” generation. Although we were idealistic, we were also sometimes narcissistic. I think [this] generation is the hope for the future … Young people are looking to do national community service at unprecedented numbers. I really do believe that [this] generation is going to solve a lot of these problems that my generation neglected or caused.
TD: To what extent has the presence of the Tisch College amplified student interest in public service?
AS: It’s an odd reality that Tufts has always produced people who are interested in being active citizens or who are interested in public service. I’m probably a reasonably good example of that. So that’s the mission of Tisch College, to spread the importance of educating students to be lifelong active citizens and to be civically engaged. If this is part of the DNA of the university, then we’re the gene that has to be its engine … I think that we have a really important mission to maintain, to keep that important distinctive quality about this university not only alive, but [also to] keep heightening it. And I happen to believe the need for that is more pronounced today than ever before because I do think that some of the most important issues we face as a country and in the world have to do with rebuilding civil society, rebuilding civic institutions [and] reengaging the people in their communities.
TD: What changes or developments would you like to see in Tisch College?
AS: I’m exceedingly proud of what Tisch has accomplished. I think that founding Dean Rob Hollister, Nancy Wilson, who has been the dean for the last couple years and the board of advisors have really established a solid foundation. But I think my job is now to take that to the next level.12