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President Monaco Reflects on Active Citizenship at Tufts

Monday, October 1, 2012

The president of Tufts University shares his thoughts on the impact of Tisch College and the University's foundational commitment to civic engagement.


As President Anthony P. Monaco enters his second year as the thirteenth President of Tufts University, he shared his reflections on active citizenship in a range of contexts at Tufts University.

Interdisciplinary Research

At Tisch College, we believe strongly in the need for interdisciplinary solutions to real world problems and our faculty work creates spaces for cross-school and cross-department collaboration. You’ve spoken eloquently on this topic and taken concrete steps to advance the role of interdisciplinary research at Tufts – from the launch of the ChildObesity180 initiative to starting a cross-school strategic planning process.

In what ways is interdisciplinary research an important part of Tufts’ institutional civic engagement?
Interdisciplinary research is at the core of our sense of social responsibility as a university.  There is cutting-edge knowledge in myriad individual fields within our university community, but traditional academic disciplines can only generate partial answers to many of the most pressing questions in today’s world.  They require collaboration between multiple disciplines.  We have to build bridges between fields so that we can draw on different types of knowledge in a way that is suited to the complexity of serious global problems.

What further steps do you hope to take in this area?  What could interdisciplinary research at Tufts look like in five or ten years?
Interdisciplinary research and teaching play to our strengths and I hope they will be a hallmark of Tufts moving forward.  In five or ten years I expect that we will see our current interdisciplinary programs further developed, and that new programs will be addressing interdisciplinary themes.  Our faculty are already thinking about how we can address such issues as globalization.  Issues in environmental, life and health sciences are one obvious area of opportunity for us, following in the footsteps of initiatives like Water: Systems, Science and Society—a graduate certificate program that brings together six Tufts schools to tackle the political, medical, agricultural, engineering, and climate-related issues that stem from the lack of access to clean water for over a billion people in the world.

Student Education and Engagement

As an institution of higher education, student learning is core to our mission. At Tisch College, our hope is that all Tufts students from every Tufts school will graduate with both a world-class education and the skills and desire to use that education to positively affect the world around them.

Of the many students and alumni you’ve met, what’s one story of active citizenship that has truly inspired you?
It’s hard to pick just one.  One of the best parts of this job is that I get to hear inspiring stories about our students every day.  Some of my favorite examples come out of my experience reviewing the candidates for last year’s Presidential Awards for Citizenship and Public Service.  There was a dental student who set up a clinic for Boston’s homeless residents during her time in school, before going to serve as a dentist in the military.  We had a senior last year who combined scholarship on malnutrition in Guatemala—a project for which she learned the local language of the community she was studying—with a local development project that she spearheaded, also in Guatemala.  Students like these, who integrate their passions inside and outside the classroom, blurring the lines between intellectual and practical pursuits in order to make the world a better place, are a real inspiration.

What is most inspiring to you about having undergraduate, graduate and professional degree students all thinking about how their education can improve the world?
The fact that our students think deeply about how their education can improve the world makes me feel truly privileged to be at Tufts.  Between the scholarship we produce and the education we provide, every day Tufts is helping change the world for the better.  Our work does not stay here.  Every Jumbo is an ambassador for our mission, and we enable them to make it their own by supporting their aspirations and providing an environment that permits them to develop their passions and talents.

Diversity and Sustainability Councils

Earlier this year, you announced the formation of two councils, each tackling a critical issue core to Tufts’ institutional vision and deeply connected to the work of Tisch College.

As chair of both the Council on Diversity at Tufts and the Council on Campus Sustainability, what has been the most striking insight from engaging a group of faculty, students and staff on these issues?

With respect to diversity, I am continually impressed by our community’s shared desire to make progress in meeting our commitment to inclusion.  This is part of Tufts’ DNA, and goes all the way back to its Universalist founders.  While we have reason to be proud of our significant accomplishments, people in all corners of the university consider building on these accomplishments to be one of our top priorities.  Working with the members of the Diversity Council has confirmed my belief that diversity can be a tremendous source of strength for Tufts.

In terms of sustainability, it has been exciting to work on an issue where we can so directly practice what we preach.  We are building on a tradition of commitment to sustainability that goes back to 1990 when we pioneered the first university environmental policy.  Last February our renovations to the Dental School were certified at LEED Gold standards.  Now, we are not only steadily reducing our own institutional emissions, water and waste, but also leveraging sustainability programs and activities across disciplines and departments in order to promote a culture of sustainability throughout the university.

Perhaps the most important insight from these processes has been that working on these core issues can truly strengthen our community.  It’s also gratifying to put Tufts knowledge into practice by drawing on the valuable insights of our own faculty who study diversity and sustainable technologies.

Mutually Beneficial Engagement

A core piece of our work at Tisch College is to ensure student and faculty community work is mutually beneficially and meets needs identified by the community.

Since you’ve come to Tufts, what have you most valued about our partnerships with Medford, Somerville, Boston’s Chinatown and Grafton?
Initiatives like Shape Up Somerville, the clinics set up by our students, and the many projects of our Tisch Scholars for Citizenship and Public Service, reflect the importance of our local communities in keeping us grounded.  Tufts is “a light on the hill,” but we have never fit the stereotype of the university as an ivory tower:  We believe in learning through service and serving through scholarship.  Partnerships with our local communities offer opportunities for us to build relationships that live up to our values, and to stay aware that we do not exist in a vacuum.  We should never take for granted the impact that we have on our host communities, and the impact that they have on us.

Active Citizenship

Active citizenship includes the many ways people apply their personal skills and interests to improving the world around them. For students, this often means the real world application of what they’re learning in the classroom while for faculty it means collaborating with communities and undertaking research with meaningful outcomes.

How has your experience of active citizenship at Tufts or in the United States differed from your experience at Oxford?
Oxford takes impact on society very seriously as a key aspect of its mission, but it puts that commitment to work in somewhat different ways.  I think you can trace some of the differences to the distinctive American tradition of volunteer engagement.  But even within the American context, Tufts is a unique place.  We have a tremendous tradition of civic engagement, and in Tisch College we have created a pioneering structure to infuse it throughout the institution.  Taken together, these really do make us unique.