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Tisch College Associate Deans at the Forefront of our Work

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Miriam Nelson and Peter Levine are helping to chart the future direction of Tisch College.

Associate Deans Miriam Nelson and Peter Levine

Since its inception 15 years ago, Tisch College has always viewed research as essential. Embedded in our mission to educate students for a lifetime of active citizenship are fundamental questions about how to best promote civic engagement—particularly among young people—and about the values, knowledge, and skills needed to effect meaningful change.

Likewise, we have long worked with deeply engaged Tufts faculty members who are active citizens through their own research in their respective fields. In areas as diverse as health, education, and the environment, these academics are devoted to identifying and addressing some of the most pressing issues facing the world.

In the past year, Tisch College has made a concerted effort to elevate and strengthen that dual research mission. Last August, Dean Alan D. Solomont appointed as Associate Deans Peter Levine and Miriam Nelson, two exceptional leaders whose decades-long work exemplifies each facet of our research.

“In Miriam and Peter we are fortunate to have two nationally recognized leaders whose experience and expertise are matched only by their commitment to civic engagement” says Solomont. “Their work is at the forefront, not just of our ambitious research agenda, but of all our work to educate informed and active citizens.”

Strengthening Civic Life

As Tisch College’s Associate Dean for Research, Peter Levine draws on a wealth of experience studying and working to strengthen civic and democratic life in the United States. Since 2006, he has served as Director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE)—the nation’s foremost authority on the civic and political engagement of young people—leading research efforts that inform policy and practice on civic education and engagement.

“Since its inception, CIRCLE has looked at how youth, especially underserved youth, engage with their communities and in our democracy—and the most promising avenues for increasing and improving that engagement,” says Levine. “That includes better civic education, efforts to encourage youth electoral participation, and making our civic institutions more responsive to youth voices.”

CIRCLE’s research frequently informs the national conversation about issues related to young people in public life. In recent weeks, for example, Levine penned op-eds about the new legislation in some states that requires high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test in order to graduate (Fox News) and about the benefits of lowering the voting age to 17 (Politico).

Levine is also one of the principal figures in the civic renewal movement, which encompasses broad efforts to reverse decades-long declines in various forms of civic participation and to strengthen civil society as a whole. His latest book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America, explores how the people already seriously involved in civic work—at least a million, by Levine’s estimation—can work together and the vital goals they might pursue.

Likewise, Levine is a leading voice in the emerging academic discipline of civic studies.

“In many ways, civic studies is the intellectual and theoretical component of civic renewal,” says Levine. “It takes into account ethical, strategic, and social science considerations to answer questions like: ‘what should citizens know, believe, and do?’”

Each year, Levine co-teaches a Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tisch College that brings together academics from across the country and around the world. This summer, there will also be a “sister seminar” in Ukraine.

At Tisch College, Levine is also an essential leader in our initiatives to collaborate with faculty through programs like the Tufts Community Research Center, which conducts and promotes community-based participatory research, and our Faculty Fellows, who receive support for year-long projects that incorporate civic engagement.

Engaging Citizens to Improve Health

One of Tisch College’s first Faculty Fellows, nearly 15 years ago, was Miriam Nelson, a Professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and in the School of Medicine at Tufts University.

“As a researcher who has sought to engage individuals and communities in research and programs to improve public health, the mission of Tisch College has always resonated with me,” she says.

One of the nation’s leading authorities on nutrition and physical activity, Nelson’s work has focused especially on the health of women and children. Nelson’s StrongWomen program, born out of her groundbreaking research on aging and physical activity, and related best-selling books, has brought together thousands of women across the country who formed Change Clubs to support each other as they transformed their health. In 2011, Nelson visited StrongWomen clubs on a nationwide tour that took her from Alaska to Pennsylvania and reinforced the importance of understanding and connecting with communities in order to achieve success.

“It was really vital for us to see the very real economic constraints, and even cultural challenges, that often keep people from eating healthy and exercising—and how different those could be at every stop in our tour,” says Nelson. “But we also saw so much potential and enthusiasm for change, and identified great opportunities to move the work forward.”

In 2009, with her Friedman School colleague Christina Economos and Tufts Board of Trustees Chair, Peter Dolan, she co-founded ChildObesity180, a national organization founded on many of the same principles of collaborating with communities and policymakers to have an impact. Its various initiatives have reached over a million children, partnered with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, and contributed to a national decline in childhood obesity rates.

Nelson has also contributed to national policy. She has been vice-chair of the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee and chaired the Science Board of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Most recently, she served on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ Committee, which released its recommendations last month.

Since being named Associate Dean of Tisch College last year, Nelson has been involved in every aspect of our work, especially in leading a bold strategic planning process.

“It’s really exciting to have this role at Tisch, a place that has really informed my thinking and my work in profound ways throughout the years,” says Nelson. “Working with my fellow deans and with all our colleagues, I want to make sure that Tisch College can have that same kind of impact so every Tufts student and faculty member understands the value of civic engagement.”