The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life Distinguished Speaker Series will be renamed the Alan and Susan Solomont Distinguished Speaker Series in honor of Dean Alan Solomont (A’70) and his wife, Susan. The renaming will be announced today at the final Distinguished Speaker Series event of the semester, hosting primatologist Jane Goodall.
Solomont is retiring at the end of the semester after seven years in the role of dean and a lifetime of involvement with Tufts University, starting with his undergraduate years. The renaming is made possible by a gift to Tisch College from the Solomonts.
“Alan has left an indelible mark on Tufts, championing the cause of civic engagement both here and across the country through Tisch College’s influential research and programming,” University President Anthony Monaco wrote in a statement to the Daily. “We’re indebted to both Alan and Susan for all they have done for Tufts and Tisch College, particularly for students whose civic lives have been changed for the better by their passion and commitment.”
Solomont has been involved with Tufts for much of his professional life, and his role in what is now Tisch College has been particularly influential. Originally from Brookline, Mass., Solomont came to Tufts in 1966. Despite making friends early on and joining a fraternity at the end of his first year, Solomont did not discover his intellectual interests until later in his undergraduate career.
“I got very interested in urban studies and the plight of American cities back in the ’60s,” Solomont said. “There was a professor who was the dean of Jackson College and a professor of political science who was teaching courses in urban studies, and there were some in the political science department, and I fell under her spell, frankly, and just got really excited about this field.”
Solomont’s interest grew as he became engaged in the civil unrest and turbulence of the 1960s.
“After dinner every night we’d go down and watch the news — and there were only three sources of news, the three networks,” he said. “We’d either watch Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite, or Harry Reasoner … We’d watch the Vietnam War unfolding in real time.”
Solomont soon was actively participating in protest movements.
“My first visit to the [Tufts] president’s office was uninvited,” Solomont said.
The year 1968 saw young people across the nation take civil rights and anti-war movements to the national stage. Solomont, who attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Ill., was no exception.
“I was a page to the Massachusetts Democratic Party, so I was on the floor the night Hubert Humphrey was nominated over Eugene McCarthy, and it was the day of the violence in Grant Park,” Solomont said. “The Democratic Party fractured and didn’t win the White House again for 25 years, with the exception of Jimmy Carter who was maybe a Watergate aberration.”
Overall, Solomont’s time at Tufts made a long-lasting impact on him.
“I became intellectually awakened, politically awakened, and it set me on the path — even though I have a very circuitous path — it set me on the path that ultimately wound up in my being the dean here,” Solomont said.
Following graduation, Solomont traveled to Spain through the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. After his year of travel, he became a community organizer in Lowell, Mass., and was fired from a job at a nursing home for union organizing. He then decided to attend nursing school at what was then the University of Lowell, now UMass Lowell. This led him to the private sector, where he started an elder care company. Solomont was then appointed to the board of the University of Lowell by former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
“I really became awakened to the importance of public higher education and the fact that … most of the kids in Massachusetts who went to college went to public institutions,” Solomont said.
Solomont was looking for further work in higher education when a development officer at Tufts named Eric Johnson asked if he and Susan would be interested in supporting new projects at the university.
“He was being very generous in lots of different places, and Tufts was his alma mater,” Johnson, now senior vice president of university advancement, said. “And so we developed relationships starting back then where I helped him get involved with Tufts, helped [him] and his wife Susan figure out where they really wanted to focus their philanthropy.”
Solomont began working with what would become Tisch College but was then the Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs. He became a trustee in 2000.
Solomont, who had worked on five presidential campaigns — those of Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton (twice), Al Gore and John Kerry — then decided to share his expert knowledge of the institution of the U.S. presidency with Tufts students. For four fall semesters, Solomont taught a course bringing in weekly guest speakers, leading experts in their fields, to discuss their experiences and knowledge with his class.
“I came to see the influence that people out in the real world and public figures and leaders had on these undergraduates,” Solomont said. “[Students] really found it fascinating to get to know these people [who] they mostly read about in the newspapers or in the news, and also they learned an enormous amount about how the presidency worked from people who worked in the White House.”
Solomont’s work at Tufts was put on pause when he was selected by President Barack Obama to become the U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra. He and Susan lived in Spain for three and a half years, during which Susan wrote “Lost and Found in Spain” (2019).
When they returned to the United States, Solomont had two criteria for his next endeavor: He wanted to be on a college campus, and he wanted to be doing something different from what he was doing before he left — preferably something less demanding. Tisch College, at the time, was searching for a new dean, and Solomont was encouraged to apply. He was selected by the hiring committee and began his new, decidedly demanding role as dean.
Thinking back to his instructing days, Solomont was looking to bring public speakers to campus again and decided to create a series out of the concept: the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series.
“Our first event was in the fall of 2014 with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and we’ve hit the ground running ever since,” Jessica Byrnes, program administrator at Tisch College, said.
The series has been extremely successful, and spurred the creation of several other programs.
“We have the Civic Life Lunch Series which started, I think, in 2016,” Byrnes said. “We have pop up events, we have some other donor-related event series like the Edward R. Murrow Forum, which brings a leading journalism figure to campus every year. We have the Solomont Lecture on Citizenship and Public Service which was actually created when Alan stepped down as founding board chair of Tisch College, long before he became dean.”
Tisch College emphasizes hosting speakers from a variety of backgrounds who have had different pathways into civic service.
“A big part of our college goal is trying to help students … understand that you can be a civic leader no matter what field you go into,” Byrnes said. “Civic life is a part of any field that you can pursue, whether it’s investment banking, whether it’s engineering, whether it’s politics and public policy.”
Things have looked rather different for the Distinguished Speaker Series this year, but there have been some upsides to an all-virtual format.
“[COVID-19] happened, and we couldn’t have people on campus,” Solomont said. “But a funny thing happened: We found that we could get more speakers. We didn’t have to set up Cohen [Auditorium] and we didn’t have to arrange food and we didn’t have to fly somebody in and get them a hotel overnight.”
In addition to the higher number of speakers and ease of setting up a Zoom call instead of an auditorium, the virtual format can support many more students. Solomont estimates the overall attendance for all Distinguished Speaker Series events this year has reached 25,000.
After such a successful year, Solomont said it feels right to be retiring now, having made it through the 2020 elections and a year of the pandemic. His work at Tufts will continue to grow thanks to his decades-long dedication and passion.
“I love Alan for a number of reasons, but I think he’s really exceptional at understanding what work the college is doing well and investing additional resources in that,” Byrnes said. “He’s really expanded our research footprint in an effort to really contribute to repairing democracy and studying democracy, and sharing those nonpartisan research findings with people in the field in the hope that it makes a difference.”