Dayna Cunningham is the new Pierre and Pamela Omidyar dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. She arrives at Tufts after working as a civil rights attorney and founding the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her credentials include an undergraduate degree from Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges, a J.D. from New York University School of Law and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Cunningham hopes to leverage the research and community power of Tisch College to address the interrelated problems of climate change, public health crises, wealth disparities and racial divides.
“I think Tisch is a perfect place to…sound a clarion call around the importance of institutional transformation, equipping our governing and civic and business institutions to better meet this moment that we are coming into of a multiracial society,” Cunningham said.
As dean, Cunningham works to ensure that the various branches of Tisch College have the resources and support they need to function. In addition to that work, Cunningham sees herself as responsible for “attending to the mission” of the college.
She must answer the question, in her words, of, “After you announce these aspirational ideas, how do you actually create strategies to implement them?”
Cunningham emphasized that Tisch’s mission is critical to responding to today’s political and social issues.
“We’ve all lived through the pandemic, we’ve all lived through Black Lives Matter, we’ve all lived through January 6 and we’re all watching this current administration struggle from a governance perspective to address problems that have solutions,” Cunningham said. “There is a solution to this pandemic, but public will is not there. For years, my work has focused on problems that have solutions, but don’t have public will. But never, ever has it been so widespread and clear as it is right now.”
According to a June 7 TuftsNow article, Cunningham’s work at MIT’s CoLab promoted equitable development and helped marginalized communities achieve democratic control over their economies through urban planning and development initiatives. Cunningham explained how this work prepared her for her new position as Dean.
“What we are doing [at CoLab] is supporting, through development planning, the strengthening of civic infrastructure, and through our connections to civic infrastructure, strengthening the case for communities determining their own development trajectory,” Cunningham said. “That is the core learning that I am bringing to Tisch: that community knowledge is an essential resource for building democratic societies, that civic infrastructure is an indispensable resource for building democracy and that the strongest and most reliable pathway to all of that … is civically committed higher education institutions.”
Cunningham spoke about what distinguishes Tisch College and Tufts from other institutions of higher education.
“A lot of higher education institutions exist behind high walls with very, very high tuition,” she said. “They take up a lot of real estate in the community, and they almost literally physically turn their backs on [the] community. And I think Tufts … every day distinguishes itself for something different than that. And Tisch is a real leader within Tufts around opening itself up, welcoming in partnerships [and] having a view towards co-creating essential and necessary knowledge with communities.”
James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, led the search committee for the dean of Tisch College position. He discussed the qualities and experience the committee looked for when interviewing candidates.
“We were really looking for a distinctive leader for a distinctive place — someone who could understand and champion the values of Tisch College,” Glaser said. “And we were looking for somebody who could be a strong voice externally, beyond Tufts, on the various issues that Tisch College participates in.”
Diane Ryan, associate dean for programs and administration at Tisch College, who participated in the search committee for the deanship, shared how Dean Cunningham stood out from other candidates during the search process.
“Her experience greatly complements what we do, but also provides us opportunities for growth in those areas,” Ryan said. “I was just very blown away … with [her] very thoughtful approach to many of the questions that we asked her, and I could see her making a relatively seamless transition to the university leadership.”
As dean, Cunningham will oversee Tisch College’s research institutions, which include the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education and the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, discussed how Dean Cunningham’s appointment will impact research at Tisch College.
“I’m confident that she will really be supportive of the kind of high impact research that CIRCLE hopes to do by leveraging communities’ knowledge and expertise, especially [that of] young people,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “We’re just starting our relationship, but I can’t really imagine a better Dean, especially from my position as an applied research center director, to really think about … both the importance of rigor and [the] importance of impact with community.”