For the past seven years, President Daniel R. Porterfield has championed liberal arts education at F&M. Now he’s set to take what he’s learned to the renowned Aspen Institute as its next president and CEO.
The golden light of the late afternoon sun falls warmly on the dark wood in the office of F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield.
“We need to engage this audience as allies in the fight to protect liberal arts education. And we need to reinforce their instinct to support students as ‘whole persons’ whose identities are multi-faceted and beautiful and fluid.”
He pauses to reflect at the end of his thought. The tapping on the keyboard abruptly stops, and the scraping of pen on paper belatedly grinds to the end of its sentence.
F&M’s 15th president is preparing a speech for a Mennonite Educators Conference in Leesburg, Va. He’s brainstorming with Kelseyleigh Reber ’16 and Katie Machen ’15, two high-achieving Franklin & Marshall graduates who returned to their alma mater to work with the president.
For seconds that seem like minutes, there’s quiet. Then some more words come—slowly, haltingly. Porterfield’s eyes are closed.
“The rate of societal change is increasing exponentially. Artificial intelligence. Globalization. Climate change. Fake news…. The work of these teachers matters deeply. Young people are our greatest hope.”
He seems meditative, searching for the words to fit the concepts, like a composer. Not of music, but of a place for education in both the present and the future, for the one and the many.
In that sense, Porterfield is a consummate composer. He’s been composing the place of liberal arts education at Franklin & Marshall College for the past seven years, and will take what he’s learned to the renowned Aspen Institute as its next president and CEO when the current academic year ends.
But his next move is no seven-year itch.
“Dan has been a transformational leader for F&M,” says Sue Washburn ’73, chair of Franklin & Marshall’s Board of Trustees. “He has positioned our college for a future that will require us to embrace and lead change. I know he will take F&M with him as he steps into a new role that magnifies his ability to champion issues critical to our country.” Washburn and her partner, Kristin Rehder H’17, have committed $1 million to financial aid, recognizing that generous scholarship support made possible Washburn’s attendance at F&M.
Porterfield’s vision for higher education could be summed up in six words: Compose the place. Claim the future.
Porterfield began his tenure at the College in March 2011. During his first years, he brought together the community to create a strategic plan, titled “Claiming Our Future.” Its central strategic gesture, he says, is to build upon excellence of the College’s academic offerings by strengthening its overall value proposition—work that grew from and complemented the achievements of his predecessors, presidents Richard Kneedler ’65 and John Fry.
The plan now lives in concrete ways. The faculty developed the new Connections core curriculum and partnered with Porterfield and former Provost Ann Steiner to create a new Office of College Grants and Faculty Center for work on pedagogy and scholarship. More recently, Provost Joel Martin secured an $800,000 foundation investment to increase inclusivity in faculty hiring and the curriculum.
“The intellectual formation of students and the contribution of knowledge and insight to society rest at the core of any national liberal arts college,” Porterfield says. “To paraphrase the first president of Marshall College, Frederick Rauch, we live our highest calling as a college when we ‘kindle fire’ in the minds of the young.”
Porterfield believes “Claiming Our Future” is also about deepening the value of student learning outside the classroom by building upon the College’s innovative College House system created by President Fry in 2005. One major project of Porterfield’s was to replace F&M’s 60-year-old infirmary with an integrated health and wellness center developed in partnership with Lancaster General Health. The president sees this as a new model for the nation, in part because of its emphasis on mindfulness programming, thanks to a $1 million endowment gift from Trustee Tony Kreisel ’66 and his wife, Dr. Kimberly Faris.
A second was to strengthen the student-athlete experience, which Porterfield calls “a catalyst for a transformational college education, not an obstacle to it.” The construction of Shadek Stadium, which has received $16 million in donations—led by a $5 million gift from Trustee Larry Shadek ’72, P’05, P’06, his wife, Patricia Shadek P’05, P’06, and the Shadek Family Foundation—may be the most visible sign of Porterfield’s commitment. But Porterfield also points proudly to the high grade point average of student-athletes, the renovation of F&M’s locker rooms and tracks, the $5 million donation of Trustee Dave Lehman ’68 to fully endow the College’s Division I wrestling program, and the recruitment of full-time coaches in softball and women’s soccer.
A third was the creation of a new Office for Student and Post-Graduate Development (OSPGD), whose focus is to help students and alumni anticipate the many opportunities and transitions of their 20s—the so-called emerging adult years—whatever their interests, whatever their needs.
Porterfield recruited Beth Throne ’95 to compose the center, which is has been relocated with the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement to Hartman Green as part of Harwood Commons, thanks to a $1.5 million gift from Trustee Brett Harwood ’71.
“Our students have so much to offer society,” Porterfield says, “and their F&M education is a rocket launcher. OSPGD gives us a growing resource to propel our students into opportunity.”
Indeed. Led by Throne, F&M has developed a cadre of student advisers, a network of alumni mentors, funded summer internships, created a signature dinner to celebrate students’ declaration of their major, and a constant focus on helping students prepare each year for their post-graduate lives.
With Porterfield himself running interview prep sessions, in 2017 F&M was No. 1 in the nation among liberal arts colleges in seniors securing jobs with Teach For America. And, mentored by Director of Fellowships Monica Cable, the College has seen a steady increase in fellowship winners from three in 2009 to 19 last year.
And overall, surveys show that 98 percent of the last two years’ graduates were working or studying fulltime six months after graduation.
Composing their place. Claiming their future.
Clearly it’s happening on a College-wide scale, too.
During Porterfield’s time, F&M has set new records for dollars donated and applications, averaging 1,000 more applicants the last four years than the College’s previous all-time high. The College has become more selective, with greater academic depth and stronger SAT scores for incoming classes. Incoming Pell Grant students have more than tripled to 20 percent of the student body, and the proportion of incoming domestic students of color has nearly tripled.
Porterfield calls this “F&M’s talent strategy.” He says it’s about building the very deepest, most-engaged student body possible, which helps all students. One key was to grow the need-based financial aid budget significantly while meeting all students’ full financial need and reducing student indebtedness by 25 percent over five years—changes modeled by longtime Vice President for Planning Alan Caniglia that almost no other college has achieved all at once. Two other keys were the recruitment of Donnell Butler ’95 to evaluate student success as the initiative unfolded, and board secretary and chief of staff Robyn Piggott to lead its strategic development.
The president says the admission team has played a huge role, creating enduring pipelines to talent from schools, scholarship programs and enrichment programs of all types. Meanwhile, Advancement has set records with donations to financial aid, led by two donations of more than $6 million each from Arthur Clark Jr. and Richard ’57 and Fay Gelhard, as well as a seven-figure gift from Trustee Susan Klehr ’73 and Lenny Klehr ’72.
That work has made F&M a national model, leading to honors for the College and numerous stories in the national media. Porterfield is proud that the College’s work prompted Bloomberg Philanthropies to create the American Talent Initiative—on whose steering committee Porterfield sits—which has the national goal of enrolling 50,000 additional high-achieving, low-income students in top colleges by 2025. The entire Ivy League and 99 other institutions have followed F&M’s lead by committing to the initiative.
“Heady company,” Porterfield says. “And it shows that an agile college can lead the pack, as we’ve also done with our STEM Posse program, and with our leadership of the Pennsylvania College Advising Corps, with Squash ACES, and with F&M Works in Lancaster.”
He speaks with the confidence of a person who loves his work. “There’s talent all across this country, talent that can thrive at top schools. For me, that’s not just a strategic concept. It’s personal. We have extraordinary students. They inspire me.”
“Dan has been a hero of mine for a long time. His work at Franklin & Marshall, to ensure access for low-income students and students of color, is, I think, a national model.”
“Dr. P says I was one of his top recruits,” says Charisma Lambert ’18, “but I didn’t really know about the talent strategy until I got to F&M.”
When Lambert was one of the rising stars at North Star Academy in Newark, N.J., she eagerly participated in F&M College Prep—a college immersion experience for high-achieving high school students from underserved backgrounds. She noticed that Porterfield was very involved in the program, always talking to the students and popping into classes.
“It didn’t seem like something a typical president would do,” she says. “He would tell us, ‘Come by my office and have some ice cream.’ He’d be having meetings, but you could still walk in.”
When she emailed Porterfield to let him know she had been accepted into F&M, he emailed her right back. “I just screamed in my living room!” he wrote. “I’m so excited you got in!”
“But I didn’t say I was coming,” Lambert says, “just that I got in. When I finally committed to F&M he emailed again and said, ‘Wow, you’re making me scream in my living room again!’”
Lambert would go on to be a peer mentor for F&M College Prep. “Talking to those kids about how they value education,” she says, “and just generally being around all of them and their creativity and their intelligence—it was being in that program from that perspective that basically changed my life.”
Now, Lambert’s ultimate goal would be to work for the government in some regard, such as a local board of education, for instance, or a state department of education—or even a secretary of education. But what sticks in her mind most from her college career is what those students from perennially underserved populations have done since coming to campus.
“When I see the impact these students are making on this campus, it’s amazing,” she says. “They are the leaders of the Black Student Union and Mi Gente Latina, they are the student government presidents, they’re members of the honors fraternities, they’re winning Fulbrights, they’re pushing for conversations about diversity, about what it means to be a first-generation person on campus, what it means to be low-income.”
Lambert has made her own impact on the F&M community. Along with fellow College Prepsters Jasmin Wright ’19 and Sheldon Ruby ’17, she founded First Gen Diplomats, a peer-to-peer support and mentorship group on campus.
“I feel like the end goal of Dr. P’s talent strategy is: These students are talented in multiple ways, so once they get here, I know they’re going to shake it up and make it better, not just here but in the world.”
Tolly Taylor ’12 has been shaking things up as a sports and politics journalist in Ann Arbor, Mich. He’s covered an NFL game in London, interviewed national political figures, and broken a story for USA Today at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
He had an inkling he wanted to go into journalism when he was a student at F&M, but his goals crystallized when he met Porterfield in the fall of his senior year. During their conversation, Taylor learned that the president would be teaching an English course the following semester titled “The Poetry of American Prisoners.” The course focused on the writing of people who were incarcerated, some of whom Porterfield taught during his years in graduate school.
“It was my favorite class at F&M,” Taylor says. “President Porterfield did a great job fostering discussion and helped me figure out things I hadn’t previously thought about. He really tapped my interest in journalism.”
Porterfield wrote several recommendations to journalism schools for Taylor, who ended up earning his master’s degree at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
“I sought President Porterfield’s advice on which school would be the best fit, and he spoke to me for 40 minutes while he was in the car,” Taylor says. “We still talk when I have major job or life decisions to make. Regardless of how busy he is, when he turns his attention to you, he makes sure you feel like you’re the only person in the room. That’s an important trait in a leader.”
Porterfield saw leadership traits in many F&M students through the years, including Akbar Hossain ’13, who was born in Bangladesh. The president encouraged Hossain to apply for prestigious national fellowships, to push himself toward lofty goals—goals that were once unimaginable to the student.
In the early 2000s, after Hossain and his family immigrated to Norristown, Pa. Hossain had no intention of going to college. He started working at a Sunoco—and, later, a 7-Eleven—helping to support his family, just as his father had before he died unexpectedly in 2004.
Hossain enrolled at F&M after participating in the Collegiate Leadership Summit, a two-day program for high school students with diverse backgrounds and strong histories of leadership. With support from Porterfield, Cable and others in the F&M community, he became F&M’s first winner of the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship. He also served as an intern for the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, and as a Truman-Albright Fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He founded the first Muslim student association at F&M.
It was because of Porterfield’s encouragement that Akbar applied for and won the Paul & Daisy Soros fellowship, which provides $90,000 toward graduate school—in Hossain’s case, the University of Pennsylvania.
“Dr. P has a way of encouraging growth among people in doing what they really want to do,” Hossain says, “and also utilizing that opportunity to make a name for the school, too.”
One way the College is supporting students such as Hossain is through the Mehlman Talent Initiative. Launched in 2017 by Porterfield and Trustee Ken Mehlman ’88, who donated $1 million, the initiative supports financial aid and deepens the College’s understanding of students’ abilities to translate perseverance, optimism and a passion for learning into high academic achievement and lifetime success. It is designed to identify teaching and mentoring techniques and approaches that can help those students empowered by having prevailed over challenging life circumstances continue to thrive in and beyond college.
“Young men and women who have already overcome adversity bring different life experiences and are well positioned for 21st century success, but they need practical tools to flourish,” Mehlman said. “This initiative will support these students and provide a framework for the rest of us to learn from them.”
The faculty leader of the Mehlman Talent Initiative is Michael Penn, professor and associate chair of psychology at F&M. He believes Porterfield can speak with those who occupy different social spaces, whether students or faculty or Board members, because he doesn’t simply interact with people according to their social addresses.
He also notes Porterfield’s impact on what he considers the two dimensions of the academic life of an institution—the first having to do with its broad vision of the role of the institution in the life of society.
“Dan Porterfield has a profound awareness of the needs of society at this time, both the needs of the population that constitute the society and the challenges that the American society and the general world population has to face,” Penn says.
He also has the ability to influence the spirit of the place, the second category in Penn’s institutional taxonomy.
“The authenticity of Dan’s character provides a model for what it might be like to be a human being endowed with honor and dignity. As the students and the faculty observe him carry out his work, it raises our consciousness of what’s possible,” Penn says.
Because he has been with F&M for almost three decades, Penn knows it has always been an outstanding institution—and that what it means to be an outstanding institution evolves as the culture evolves, and as humanity itself evolves. He believes that Porterfield has put the College in the position of being a leading liberal arts institution in the 21st century.
Compose the place. Claim the future.
Porterfield insists it’s all about collaboration, but, as the recipient of recognitions like the 2016 White House Champion for Change Award, it has also been his own singular talent.
“Dan’s ability to read the situation, to have his finger on the pulse of a moment, empowers him to say the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason, at the right time—almost any time he’s asked to say anything,” Penn says. “And yet he doesn’t carry this wisdom in a lofty way that alienates him from others. He’s very down to earth, very accessible.”
“A big part of Franklin & Marshall’s significance in this country,” Porterfield says, “is that it was founded by an American original, Ben Franklin, with the idea that a democracy serves the one and the many, the individual and the society. So the community together, in the last seven years, has worked to make impacts on the national stage.”
And that won’t stop, he says with enthusiasm, pointing out three bodies of broadly collaborative work that will compose F&M’s place for generations to come.
Just south of Porterfield’s Old Main office, the College recently broke ground for the construction of the Susan & Benjamin Winter Visual Arts Center. A $10 million commitment—the largest gift from an alumnus in the College’s history—from Trustee Ben Winter ’67 and his wife, Susan, provided the catalyzing investment for the project, and Trustee Colleen Ross Weis ’85 and her husband, Martin Laiks, made a seven-figure gift to add even more momentum. The College retained world-renowned Steven Holl Architects to design the facility, which both Porterfield and Winter believe will give vitality to the study and making of art at F&M.
“A national liberal arts college, competing with its peers, must think and operate on a different level than it did even 20 years ago,” Winter said. “We’re pleased with the thought that the new visual arts building might help the College community see in new ways, think in new ways, and reach together for that next level of greatness.”
The Winter Visual Arts Center is just one part of the College’s effort to foster innovation. Porterfield points to the annual Creativity & Innovation Symposium inspired by Trustee Joan Fallon ’79, CEO of Curemark, whose purpose is to spark creative thinking and innovation in and out of the curriculum.
A third initiative that will shape the College’s future is the upcoming capital campaign, Porterfield says. The public phase of the campaign will launch later this year. “Our alumni, parents, friends and foundation partners have already donated more than $120 million through the quiet phase of the campaign, and the best may be before us,” he says.
Porterfield and his wife, Karen Herrling, have created an endowed financial aid fund with their own donation. “There’s nothing more important than giving back. The future of F&M, the future of higher education, and the future of America depend upon it. Whether we teach here, whether we work here, whether we studied here, all of us have been enriched and expanded by this community of learning and freedom.”
Supporting students through an endowed scholarship is just one way Porterfield hopes to stay close to F&M.
“I know I’ll bring to my future advocacy for the young and for education countless friendships, insights and moments of inspiration,” Porterfield says. “Karen and our daughters Lizzie, Caroline and Sarah thank Franklin & Marshall College for every kindness that has been extended to us.”
“Dan is one of the few true innovators and visionaries in education today. By democratizing who can get into higher education and showing that it can work at a truly great school…I think everyone is watching Franklin & Marshall.”