In Conversation with Danny Meyer

On May 15, 2014, Jonathan sat down with renowned New York City restauranteur, Danny Meyer, to discuss his life in and outside of the restaurant business. Jonathan’s introductory remarks are below and video of the event will be available shortly. The conversation lasts 40 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with members of the audience. 

In Conversation with Danny Meyer

May 15, 2014 

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening.  Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Bruce Katz’s Metropolitan Revolution or to hear global leaders like South African Constitutional Court justice Edwin Cameron.  Or attend major conferences like “John Lindsay, New York, and the American Dream,” a fresh look at lessons from his time as Mayor.

But tonight is different.  For the past few years I have had a series of public conversations at Roosevelt House with the most interesting people I know personally.  Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMa President Agnes Gund, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, Judy Collins, and most recently, Joseph Califano and former Columbia President Michael Sovern.

My guest tonight is Danny Meyer, New York’s leading restaurateur.  You know the names, Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Blue Smoke, Untitled at the Whitney and The Modern at MoMA and, of course, Shake Shack.  How many in the audience have eaten at one of Danny’s places?

Danny is from St. Louis, majored in Political Science at Trinity College, worked in Italy in his father’s tour business and opened his first restaurant at age 27, The Union Square Café.  And that is how we know each other – I was President of the New School and Chair of the Union Square – 14th Street Local Development Corporation at the time and Danny joined our Board.  He was one of the pioneers in the transformation of Union Square from “Needle Park” as it was known in the early 80’s, to the safe, clean, vibrant Park it is today.

He was the model of a responsible, engaged businessman taking an interest in the people, institutions and local businesses that called Union Square home.  And when I moved to Chicago to head the MacArthur Foundation, Danny was one of the key people who assumed leadership of the LDC.  Speaking of Chicago, we have another tie: his grandfather, Irving Harris was a friend of mine in Chicago as we shared so many interests from the Harris Public Policy School at the University of Chicago to the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which provides underserved communities with high quality early childhood care and education. I know Irving was very proud of Danny’s accomplishments.

Danny has written several books:  The Union Square Café Cookbook,  Second Helpings From Union Square Café, and the one I like the best, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business Setting the Table gives us an insight into Danny’s deep caring for humanity, his respect for his employees and the customer experience, his taste for risk, his dedication to quality.

That quality is reflected in numerous awards and prizes. Danny and the Union Square Hospitality Group account for 14 James Beard Awards, and 3 of New York City’s top 10 most popular restaurants according to Zagat’s 2014 Survey, a list that in the past has been topped by Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern 15 times.

But his recognition goes far beyond his restaurant work.  In 2010 Cooper Union recognized him with its Urban Citizenship Award, and NYU followed a year later with the Lewis Rudin Award of Exemplary Service for New York.  In addition to the Union Square LDC, Danny has served on the Boards of Share Our Strength, City Harvest and the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

So we have a lot to talk about.  Danny and I will chat for about 35-40 minutes and then open to your questions.  Our program will finish at 7:15.




Improving Immigrant Access to Justice: Innovative Approaches

On May 14, 2014, Roosevelt House hosted an event that looked  into the state of immigrant justice in America. Mirela Iverac of WNYC moderated a panel that consisted of Justice Robert KatzmannChief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Angela FernandezExecutive Director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights and co-founder of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, and Peter L. Markowitz, Interim Executive Director of the Immigrant Justice Corps. Jonathan provided introductory remarks, which are included below. Video will be made available shortly.

Improving Immigrant Access to Justice: Innovative Approaches

May 14, 2014

Good evening, I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. It is my pleasure to welcome you to a discussion on innovative approaches to improving immigrant access to justice.

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt would have been pleased that we gather in their home tonight to explore this topic so central to our values and national character. Hear Franklin’s words in his October 1940 radio address to the Herald Tribune Forum. He spoke of how immigrants contribute to our country when he said:

“…These varied Americans with varied backgrounds are all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. All of them are inheritors of the same stalwart tradition—a tradition of unusual enterprise, of adventurousness, of courage ‘to pull up stakes and git moving.’ That has been the great, compelling force in our history. Our continent, our hemisphere, has been populated by people who wanted a life better than the life they had previously known. They were willing to undergo all conceivable perils, all conceivable hardships, to achieve the better life. They were animated just as we are animated by this compelling force today. It is what makes us Americans…They built a system in which Government and people are one—a nation which is a partnership and can continue as a partnership. That is our strength today.” It is this sense of partnership and our panelists’ commitment to fairness and the rule of law that brings us together tonight.

But I think FDR would be troubled, as we are, by these startling facts:

  • In New York City, 60% of detained immigrants facing deportation do not have attorneys by the time their cases are completed.
  • It is estimated that 40% of undocumented children are eligible for legal status but only a few have legal counsel to help them secure that status.
  • And individuals not detained but who face deportation are successful in their case 74% of the time if they have legal counsel, but only 13% if they are unrepresented. Quite a difference.

One of our panelists tonight, Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Robert Katzmann, has taken the lead in addressing this shocking situation. In 2007 he gave the Marden Lecture at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York about the unmet needs of the immigrant poor. It was rich in evidence of how badly immigrants facing deportation were treated by both administrative and judicial arms of our government. And it was a clarion call for reform. “We are a nation of immigrants, whose contributions have been vital to who we are and hope to be. All too often immigrants are deprived of adequate legal representation, essential if they and their families are to live openly and with security. This failure should be a concern for all of us committed to the fair and efficient administration of justice.”

A year later, Judge Katzmann convened a study group on immigrant deportation made up of 50 leading lawyers in private practice, leaders of immigrant service organizations, government officials and more. It commissioned a New York Immigrant Population Study which documented the statistics I cited earlier. Its work lead to the establishment of two important projects we will discuss this evening.   Starting this year, the Immigrant Justice Corps-spearheaded by Justice Katzmann’s efforts – began its work of providing New York’s immigrant population with high-quality legal assistance.  The I.J.C. recruits from a pool of talented young lawyers and law students around the country, partnering them with non-profits that specialize in immigration assistance.  The founding of the Corps marks the largest expansion of immigration legal services in New York’s City’s history.

We have a distinguished moderator today who will help to facilitate what I know will be a thoughtful and lively discussion. I am delighted to introduce Mirela Iverac, a reporter for WNYC, where she covers topics on poverty and immigration. In 2013, Mirela won a Gracie award for Outstanding Reporter for her coverage of those issues.  Prior to joining WNYC, she was a freelance contributor to the New York Times. Mirela holds master’s degrees in journalism from Columbia University and in international affairs from the University of Cambridge, U.K.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mirela Iverac from WNYC who will introduce the other panelists this evening.


Making the Emergent City: A Panel Discussion

On May 12, 2014, the Roosevelt House welcomed a panel discussion exploring the city of the future, co-hosted by the World Policy Institute. The panelists included Jill S. Gross, Associate Professor in Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, Marc Norman, Director of UPSTATE: Center for Design, Research and Real Estate, and Emeka Okafor, Co-Founder and Curator at Maker Faire Africa. Kavitha Rajagopalan, Senior Fellow and Director of the Emergent Cities Project at the WPI moderated the event. Jonathan provided introductory remarks, which are provided here. Video of the event may be viewed below.

Making the Emergent City: A Panel Discussion

May 12, 2014

Good evening, I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.  It is my pleasure to welcome you to a program we are doing in partnership with the World Policy Institute, a panel discussion on “Making the Emergent City.”  As more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, a number expected to grow to 6.3 billion by 2050, the future of the cities is a topic to which Roosevelt House will devote considerable attention.

Earlier this academic year, Bruce Katz of Brookings came to discuss his new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, in which he argues for a New Hanseatic League of international cities which will learn from one another.  Tonight’s program will deepen our exploration of the future of cities worldwide.

I am very glad Roosevelt House and the World Policy Institute are making common cause on this program.  When I was President of the New School, then WPI Director Arch Gillies and I merged the WPI into the New School and we were proud to have it and The World Policy Journal as part of our University.  Its longtime editors, James Chace and Karl Meyer, and WPI leaders like Sherle Schwenniger and Fellow Walter Russell Mead added to the University’s intellectual vitality.

When I was doing our due diligence before the merger, I talked with Les Gelb, then head of the Council on Foreign Relations.  He praised the WPI for its fresh thinking, for getting ahead of the issues, for bringing a different perspective, for example, understanding the changes in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and the shift in the balance between economic and military concerns.

After my time, the New School made the mistake of encouraging the WPI to become an independent institution again, but many New School trustees like Henry Arnhold and Michael Gellert remain vitally interested in it as do I.

Tonight’s program we think will stimulate complex and creative thinking around the contradictory fate of the 21st century city – the exploding megacities of the Global South and the shrinking Rust Belt cities of the Global North.  Tonight’s conversation will help us understand the challenges facing cities and some of the lessons that New York and other US cities might learn from emerging mega-cities around the world.

We gather in the homes of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin’s mother, Sara.  I think FDR would be pleased with our topic tonight.  “Making the Emergent City,” will look at what the informal sector, citizens themselves, can do to build cities that are decent places to live and work, resilient, and avenues of opportunity for people of all backgrounds to improve their lives.

FDR understood that government could not fix every problem, that local initiative was important.  Hear his words speaking to his neighbors in Poughkeepsie in 1933,

“More men and more women are taking an individual, a personal, interest in all the problems – the social relations and economic and political problems – than ever before in the history of the Nation, and I hope that that interest will be extended to the problems of the local government as well.”

And he understood that business as usual would not do.   Like the World Policy Institute, he challenged us to see our problems in all their complexity and be bold in thinking about future solutions.  Giving a commencement address at Oglethorpe University in 1932, he said,

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation… We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely.  We need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer.  We need the courage of the young.  Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you.”

And that leads to our topic tonight.  How citizens from Detroit to Lagos to Katmandu can remake their cities.

To introduce and moderate our panel tonight, I will now call on Kavitha Rajagopalan, Senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and co-leader of the Institute’s Emergent Cities Program.  The program develops and pilots new ways to “activate” resilient urban spaces in the economically troubled and shrinking cities of the West, using lessons from cities in the developing world characterized by high rates of migration and informality, i.e. “emergent” cities.  Kavitha is the author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West, a narrative nonfiction examination of migration, integration and identity formation in three Muslin immigrant families – a Palestinian family from Jerusalem to London, a Kurdish family from Turkey to Berlin, a Bangladeshi family from Dhaka to New York City.  Her projects include research and advocacy on the causes and consequences of undocumented migration, urban informality, and minority access to mainstream financial systems.  She writes widely on global migration and diversity and has taught related courses at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.

After the panel talks for about 40 minutes, we will open the conversation for your questions and conclude by 7:15 pm.

SSRC at Roosevelt House: “Anxieties of Democracy”

On May 6, 2014 Roosevelt House hosted the final installment of the series, “Anxieties of Democracy,” in partnership with the Social Science Research Council. Titled, “Are the people the problem?” the event brought together two distinguished panelists: Jane Mansbridge of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of Beyond Adversary Democracy, and Paul StarrProfessor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. In a stimulating discussion, moderated by Jonathan,  the two scholars examined the role of human behavior in the political process–how it can both facilitate and hinder political and economic development. These are Jonathan’s introductory remarks. Video of the event can be viewed below.


SSRC, Anxieties of Democracy

“Are the people the problem?”

May 6, 2014

Good evening, I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.

It is a particular pleasure to welcome to you to the third in a series of Roosevelt House-Social Science Research Council events on the pressing subject of ‘Anxieties of Democracy.’  Roosevelt House is devoted to public discussion of just such fundamental issues, so this partnership with the SSRC is based on deep affinities for the deployment of rigorous research and knowledge in the social sciences in the public interest.  Likewise, the Social Science Research Council, now entering its tenth decade, is devoted to advancing scholarship on the most critical issues of the day, and to promoting conservations within the academy and well beyond.  Together, both organizations are committed to an informed public sphere and to a robust civic culture.

The SSRC’s program on democracy asks how representative democracies can be strengthened to govern more effectively.  It is motivated by the sense that the core institutions of our democracy that connect citizens to the political system–institutions that include elections, mass media, political parties, interest groups, and social movements–are not working terribly well, and that the American people, both in particular groups and the citizenry as a whole, have lost a significant degree of faith in whether our democracy can address large problems such as  climate change, poverty, and personal and national security effectively, legitimately, and accountably.

Within the coming week, the SSRC’s work on ‘Anxieties of Democracy’ will launch its website on This digital resource will open the posting of think pieces on democratic dilemmas written by thirty leading scholars and journalists who participated in formulating the scope and direction of the program during the past year.

The prior two sessions in the current series conducted in this House–a home where Eleanor and Franklin thought hard about the role of government and its abilities to solve big problems–examined the causes and significance of ideological polarization in our political life, and why Congress has recently had so much difficulty in governing effectively.  The focus on polarization and the discussion of Congress largely concentrated on the beliefs, actions, and shortcomings of political leaders.  Tonight, we shift gears.  We are asking, to what extent are the people the problem?  Intentionally provocative, the question invites us to think about what citizens know, how they think, what they prefer, the ways they are informed, the character of public voices, the manner in which citizens act, and how each of these dimensions of civic participation shape the character and prospects of our democracy.

FDR would be pleased we are having this discussion in his home tonight. Hear his reflections on the state of our democracy in a 1938 Fireside Chat:

“We in America know that our own democratic institutions can be preserved and made to work. But in order to preserve them we need to act together, to meet the problems of the Nation boldly, and to prove that the practical operation of democratic government is equal to the task of protecting the security of the people.”

Then as now we face big, vexing issues.  It is my hunch that our two distinguished speakers believe that it is less the people who are the problem than the ways the media, the parties, and money in political life shape what citizens know and believe and affect how they behave.  But as theirs are rich and sometimes surprising voices, I, like you, keenly look forward to hearing from these two distinguished scholars and public intellectuals.

Jane Mansbridge, recently president of the American Political Science Association, is Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.  Her current work includes studies of representation, democratic deliberation, everyday activism, and the public understanding of collective action problems. She is the author of Beyond Adversary Democracy, an empirical and normative study of face-to-face democracy, and the award-winning Why We Lost the ERA, a study of social movements based on organizing for an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Paul Starr, the holder of a Pulitzer Prize, is Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. His current interests concern the sociology of knowledge, patterns of technology, and information, especially as they bear on democracy. With Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich, he co-founded the influential magazine The American Prospect.  He recently published Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform.

One further introductory remark:  I am substituting this evening for Ira Katznelson, president of the SSRC.  Ira has been awarded the Sidney Hillman Book Prize for his recently published Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.  At just this moment, the award is being conferred at The New York Times.  Ira, who sends apologies for his absence, asked me to step in to moderate the conversation that will follow the presentations by Professors Mansbridge and Starr.  They will each speak for about 15 minutes.  The three of us then will proceed to a conversation, followed by a period of questions.  Our program concludes about 7:20.  We begin with Professor Mansbridge.


“So Much To Do,” a discussion with Richard Ravitch

On May 1, 2014, Jonathan sat down with former Lieutenant Governor of New York, Richard Ravitch, to discuss his lifelong engagement in New York politics and commitment to public service. After introductory remarks by Hunter College President, Jennifer Raab, Mr. Ravitch spoke for 15 minutes before he was joined by Jonathan. Their discussion was then followed by a Q&A session with members of the audience. 

In Conversation with Michael I. Sovern

On April 23, 2014, Jonathan sat down with President Emeritus of Columbia University, Michael I. Sovern, to discuss his life and the 60 years he spent at Columbia. Below are Jonathan’s opening remarks. Video of the event can be viewed hereThe conversation lasts 50 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with members of the audience. 

Michael I. Sovern

April 23, 2014

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening.  Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Jeffery Sachs’ To Move the World or to hear global leaders like UNDP head Helen Clark.  Or attend major conferences like “John Lindsay, New York, and the American Dream,” a fresh look at lessons from his time as Mayor.

But tonight is different.  For a long time I wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally.  Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMa President Agnes Gund, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, Judy Collins, and most recently, Joseph Califano and Elizabeth McCormack.

Tonight my guest is Michael Sovern, who was President of Columbia when I was president of the New School.  I sought him out when I came to the New School because Columbia was the old school from which the founders of the New School, mainly Columbia professors, split in 1919 in protest of Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler, who would brook no opposition to America’s entry into World War I.  I wanted to understand the institution that gave the New School its reason for being.  Mike and I hit it off right away.  I liked his clear and strategic thinking, admired his political ­­­astuteness and found his vision for Columbia and private higher education compelling.

We made common cause in Albany advocating for New York State support for private universities.  And I turned to him for advice on challenges at the New School, how to handle labor disputes, explore alternatives to tenure, and how to reduce budgets while moving the university forward. His most valuable advice came in the Spring of 1997 when there was a season of student discontent at the New School: sit ins, hostage taking, and a hunger strike.

He had seen it all at Columbia and our frequent conversations were a source of comfort, perspective, and practical wisdom.  I will never forget his comments on the hunger strike, “The students will cheat and you will know it, but don’t expose them because the challenge might encourage high strung students to put themselves at risk.”  Well that difficult Spring came to an end with no terrible consequence and campus life returned to normal in the Fall with no scars because I had kept my cool with Mike’s help.

Mike Sovern is Columbia through and through earning his BA and Law degrees and teaching there ever since with only one interruption when he started his teaching career at the University of Minnesota Law School for 2 years.  When he returned to the Law Faculty, he taught Evidence and Administrative Law, and published his research in several books among them Legal Restraints on Racial Discrimination in Employment,  Cases and Materials on Law and Poverty, and  Of Boundless Domains.

Turning our attention to his leadership abilities, we look to the quarter century Mike spent in a leadership position at Columbia.  In the turbulent late 60’s he chaired the Executive Committee of the Columbia faculty, which led the University’s efforts to ease tensions between protesting students and President Grayson Kirk’s embattled administration.  Appointed Dean of the Law School in 1970, he became Provost in 1978 and then president of Columbia two years later, a post he held until 1992.

As president he quadrupled Columbia’s endowment, recruited many outstanding faculty, opened Columbia College to women, and put Columbia on a firm financial footing.

His success at bringing peace to a contentious campus drew on his experiences in arbitrating disputes, for example, mediating between the Transit Authority and the Transport Workers Union, and later mediating between the city and the police and firefighters.  He also chaired The New York City Charter Revision Commission and The State-City Commission on Integrity in Government.

He has had an active civic life, helping start and serving on the board of organizations, like Mobilization for Youth Legal Services, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Asian Cultural Council, Channel 13, the American Academy in Rome.  All have benefitted from his wisdom, as have the Shubert Foundation and Sotheby’s of which he was chair.

Bridging the public, not for profit and private sectors is a specialty of Mike’s given his service on the ATT, Pfizer, Chase, and Comcast Boards.

So Michael Sovern has seen a lot and has just published a memoir, An Improbable Life. Let’s get to it.  He and I will have a conversation for about 50 minutes, and then open to your questions, and be done by 7:20. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Michael Sovern.

Scholars At Risk Global Congress: Presentation of the “Courage to Think” award to Dean Habib Kazdaghli

From April 9-10, 2014, Jonathan attended the Scholars at Risk Network 2014 Global Congress: Courage to Think, Responsibility to Act. The conference convened in Amsterdam and was co-hosted by Scholars at Risk, the Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF), University of Amsterdam (UvA), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU), and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA). For more information on Scholars At Risk, follow them on Twitter (@ScholarsAtRisk) or visit their website at Below are the remarks Jonathan delivered at the “Courage to Think” Celebration.


Courage to Think Celebration

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Thank you and good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, and I am very pleased to be here tonight in my capacity as the Chair of the Board of Scholars at Risk, to announce the recipient of the “2014 Scholars at Risk Network Courage to Think Award.”

Scholars at Risk inaugurated the award in 2011 to recognize individuals, groups or institutions that have demonstrated exemplary courage and commitment to protecting scholars and promoting academic freedom through the impact of their professional work or community service, or by withstanding physical, emotional, professional or other risks.

The inaugural award was presented in 2011 to Aryeh Neier in recognition of his leadership during a career dedicated to promoting intellectual freedom and human rights as the national Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the founding Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and later President of the Open Society Foundation.

Tonight, we honor an individual in the category of a “defender award,” which is reserved for individuals or organizations which have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the protection of scholars, universities and higher education values, especially academic freedom and institutional autonomy, despite grave professional, personal and physical risks.

Tonight’s honoree exemplifies all of these.

The receipient of the 2014 Scholars at Risk ‘Courage to Think” Defender Award is:

Dean Habib Kazdaghli of the University of Manouba in Tunisia

            As an educator, the Dean has demonstrated respect, patience and tolerance for the views of all students, even when such virtues were not returned to him in the same measure.

As a higher education leader, he did not hide from the responsibility to defend his university, and the values it stands for, including autonomy, academic freedom, tolerance and inclusivity.  As a human being, he continues to demonstrate, extraordinary courage in facing down physical intimidation, risk of imprisonment, and death threats.

Dean Kazdaghli is a historian with a particular interest in contemporary minority rights, including Tunisia’s Jewish minority.  His academic work is deeply rooted in issues of equity and fair access, which are central to the open, merit-based ideal of the modern university.  For this reason, the Dean was already a target for extreme elements in Tunisia, who do not wish to see a Tunisian society that includes diverse communities and perspectives, let alone a university which studies, discusses and even celebrates different backgrounds and views.

So it is not surprising that the Dean’s campus was targeted by those people from outside the university community, who wanted to use the university to make their point. Implicitly their actions showed that they know what we all know– the value and power of the university to shape society.  Indeed, their actions reveal that they feared the university as a free space, and therefore wanted to control it.

In post-revolutionary Tunisia, the people of Tunisia have a chance for the first time in decades to openly debate what kind of a state and society they want to live in, to raise their families in.  The university plays a vital role in that discussion, and these demonstrators from outside the university community know that.  They know that the university represents one vision for society—one that is inclusive; one that respects all members of society; one that respects learning and promotes knowledge as a bridge to a brighter future for the whole society.

So they blocked access to the campus and tried to force the entire university community to adopt their vision of a less open university.  They even tore down the Tunisian flag and replaced it with the jihadist banner—an incident which became famous when a young, female student tried to defend the national flag and the values of the university, only to be physically pushed aside by the mob of demonstrators.  The Dean led his faculty in resisting this threat, a threat not only to the autonomy of the university but to the role of the university in society and to society itself.

It is worth noting that the context—around the same time as the University of Manouba was under pressure, free expression was under wider attack in Tunisia.  Journalists and a television producer were being threatened and prosecuted.  An art exhibit was violently disrupted and an offending painting set on fire.  Instead of prosecuting those resorting to violence, the state prosecuted the curator of the exhibit.

In this context, it would have been understandable had the Dean closed his ears to the demonstrators.  But he did not.  He reached out to the few students among them, who were members of the university community.  He attempted dialogue and appropriate accommodation of their personal views with the overall well-being of the campus community.  He exhibited patience with them, even tolerating the occupation of his office and administration building.  But he did not yield to the outside interference seeking control of the university.

Even when he, his faculty and other members of the campus community were physically threatened by this angry mob at the campus entrance, he did not give in nor did he return their violence.  He stood face to face with the aggressors, without returning their aggression.

Yet when he sought help to protect his campus, little came.  He reached out to the police, but they did not come.   He reached out to the Ministry of Education, but help did not come.   Instead, the Dean found himself charged with a crime.  The students occupying his office, after the university brought a complaint against them for destroying property and papers, filed false charges against the Dean.  Rather than come to his aid, the State elevated the charges.  If convicted he would face years of imprisonment.  Still, he did not quietly relent.  He fought the charges, appearing regularly in court while his accusers repeatedly failed to appear.  Finally, he was vindicated.  The court not only dismissed the charges against him, but convicted the students of filing false charges.

But even that was not the end of the Dean’s ordeal.  He has been asked to bear even more in defense of the values of the university.  Because of his courageous defense of the university, the Dean’s name appeared on an extremist website on a list of those to be killed for obstructing the extremists takeover of society. This would be disturbing to any of us under the best of circumstances, but remember this was a time when violence was in the air, and the State was not responding.   Then a colleague, a prominent political figure in Tunisia’s transformation, was assassinated.  The government has still not solved that case.  Then a second public figure on the same list was also assassinated. Again, the case remains unsolved.

How many of us would keep going, when our name is on a death list?  How many of us would have the courage to speak the truth, as we see it?  I hope none of you ever have to find out.   But we know this—like so many of the courageous scholars we have the honor to work with– Dean Kazdaghli was not silenced.  He continues to speak openly about the importance of the values of the university, to the university itself, and to the emerging society in which education and educated young people will play a critical part.  In fact, he invited the world to come and discuss and share these values with him. In response, Scholars at Risk and our partners held an international conference on the “University and the Nation”, in Tunisia last year.  And he held a follow-up event earlier this year.

Forced to live his life under the protection of bodyguards simply because of the ideas he articulates and the values he represents, he has carried on.  He has traveled and talked about the importance of the university and its values, especially to the Arab Spring countries, at events in the region, in North America, and here in Europe. By his example and his courage, he has become Tunisia’s unofficial ambassador of intellectual freedom.

It is my great pleasure to present the 2014 Scholars at Risk Network Courage to Think Award to Dean Habib Kazdaghli of the University of Manouba, “for his courage and dedication to academic freedom and university autonomy.”

Scholars At Risk Network 2014 Global Congress

From April 9-10, 2014, Jonathan attended the Scholars at Risk Network 2014 Global Congress: Courage to Think, Responsibility to Act. The conference convened in Amsterdam and was co-hosted by Scholars at Risk, the Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF), University of Amsterdam (UvA), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU), and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA). For more information on Scholars At Risk, follow them on Twitter (@ScholarsAtRisk) or visit their website at Below are the remarks Jonathan delivered at the opening session of the Global Congress.


Scholars At Risk Network Congress Opening Session

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Thank you.  My thanks to the Rector and to everyone at VU Amsterdam, our hosts for today; to the University of Amsterdam, who will host us tomorrow; to Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences or co-organizing these event; to all of the co-sponsors; to UAF, SAR’s long-time and valued partner, for taking on so much of the work not only in this event but in building up Scholars at Risk activities in the Netherlands and beyond; to all the members of the UAF-SAR Netherlands Section; to the many other members and partners present here; and to all of you who have traveled, from near or from far to be with us we look forward to a robust discussion of our work and future goals.

Imagine a world where new ideas are not allowed.  Where it is illegal to think about ways to end poverty, build peace or spread opportunity.  Where talking or writing or teaching about how to improve the quality of life for millions could get you arrested, or even killed.

As we all know too well, in some places it’s like that today.

Now imagine a world where ideas are valued.  Where thinking of ways to end poverty, build peace and spread opportunity is encouraged.  Where talking and writing and teaching about how to improve the lives of billions is welcomed, listened to, even honored.

We are here today because we want to build that world together.  We want to protect the courageous women and men who risk their lives to improve the lives of others; the researchers, writers, teachers who are persecuted for thinking about difficult issues and training others to be strong, creative, thoughtful contributors to society.  We want to nurture a culture of respect for university values—academic freedom, autonomy, and social responsibility—and build a world where knowledge and education are set free to solve problems and improve lives.

It was 2 ½ years ago that many of us here today met in New York for the last Scholars at Risk Network Congress.  I am delighted to reconnect with you again and to share our experience with new colleagues here to make common cause with us.

In New York we were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Network, and I repeated what I said in my opening remarks at the very first meeting in Chicago that launched our network in June 2000:  we are “present at the creation of something very important for the building and sustenance of healthy democratic societies throughout the world.”

I feel that even more today.  Events in every part of the world continue to highlight the essential role that higher education communities play in establishing, maintaining and growing healthy, prosperous, just societies.  In the last few months we see urgent challenges—in Egypt, Ukraine, Venezuela, in the continuing crises in Syria and Iraq and ongoing situations in the Congo, China, Iran and Zimbabwe.  We will have a chance to participate in dialogues with colleagues from some of these and other places, in what will be one of the highlights of our two days together.

At our earlier gatherings I posed a simple question that I ask again today:


“Do you know of a free and democratic society that does not respect academic freedom? Put another way, do you know of an authoritarian regime that dares to allow widespread artistic and intellectual freedom?”

The answer of course, is no.  “[A]cademic freedom and democracy go together as indispensable partners.  The abridgement of academic freedom is an early warning sign that democracy is in peril. Courageous intellectuals are often first targets of anti-democratic crackdowns…Some give their lives in defense of free expression, others languish in jail and some escape to work in exile against repressive regimes at home. Their voices are essential to keeping hope alive, rallying world opinion, and mobilizing pressure for change.”

That is why Scholars at Risk exists:  to build a global movement to protect scholars and promote academic freedom and the values of the university.  To protect the space to think, to ask questions, provoke critical discussions, to share ideas, freely and safely.

Together, we are making a difference.  We have arranged over 500 positions of safety for scholars from over 30 countries, and assisted over 500 hundred more in other ways.  They come from all over, including Syria, Iran, China, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

Many have already gone home, to Ethiopia, Indonesia, Mexico and Uzbekistan, where they have continued their academic and policy work, often despite on-going pressures.

Others unable to return safely have continued to contribute their ideas and talents, securing short-term and long-term contracts, and even tenure-track positions in their new universities.  Some of these scholars are with us here today from their new homes at VU University Amsterdam,  Leiden University, Utrecht University, University of Amsterdam, and the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, among others.

Still others bridge both worlds, unable to return safely but actively engaged with their colleagues back home. Some supervise students from afar; others are active in movements for social and political change.

All are vital links to the outside world, beacons of hope for change that will push back authoritarian rule, replace repression with freedom and unleash the creative energies of people ready to build open and just societies at peace.  So while our numbers are modest, our network emboldens thousands of other intellectuals in repressive societies, and in our own, to take risks speaking truth to power.  While they may never actually need our help, they have wide impact as they critique government policies, oppose censorship, advocate free elections, and mobilize unions, youth, environmental and human rights groups.

In the end, our objective is to promote free and open societies through protection of academic and artistic freedom, by pushing back on repressive regimes one episode at a time, by defending one idea and one scholar at a time.  The cumulative effect of our work will build a culture of respect for academic and intellectual freedom that knows no boundaries. As our network grows, with more sections in every region of the world, our impact increases exponentially.

So let us use this gathering to rededicate ourselves to our core mission of helping scholars at risk across the globe.  As an organization, as a community, we are at an inflection point, poised to do more: to increase the numbers of scholars assisted directly but also to strengthen our role in advocating for changes in policy and behavior so that scholars never have to flee in the first place. Protection, Prevention, and Promotion are the three pillars of our work.

We know that positive change is possible.  A good example is Tunisia, which in January of this year adopted a new constitution which explicitly protects academic freedom, the first in the Arab world to do so.  Scholars at Risk had reached out two years earlier to partners in Tunisia to see how we might be helpful.  Among the requests taken was to prepare a report on comparative constitutional protection for academic freedom, which we delivered in person to the constitutional drafting committee in Tunis. We later held an international conference on university values at the embattled University of Manouba.

We did not cause the drafters to adopt the academic freedom provision, but we know that providing this comparative international experience and demonstrating international solidarity with local higher education leaders helped those who were arguing for this protection.  And every little bit helps.  We are joined today by the Dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Manouba, Habib Kazdaghli, who has been steadfast and courageous in his defense of the university and its autonomy.  We are delighted to have him with us and look forward to hearing from him later this afternoon. The Tunisian example challenges us to look for similar opportunities on every continent where the solidarity and strength in our growing network can secure greater protection for higher education and its values.  And we should seek opportunities to demonstrate that these values are what enable higher education to thrive and develop its fullest capacity, for the good of the state and the whole society.  Great nations need great universities, and great universities need security, autonomy and the freedom to do their work.

The continuing growth of our network, and partner sections, like the vibrant project with UAF here in the Netherlands, and so many key partners in countries like Norway, the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland and beyond, promises to bring more universities and individuals into this vital work.

I am delighted to be here with you, and look forward to building this movement together, sharing stories and experiences and hearing your ideas on the strategic choices ahead as we strengthen Scholars at Risk and deepen the culture of academic freedom and autonomous universities as our best hope for a more just, humane and peaceful world with opportunity for all.

Thank you.

In Conversation with Elizabeth McCormack

On March 12, 2014, Jonathan sat down with Elizabeth McCormack to discuss her long career as both an academic administrator and as philanthropic adviser to the Rockefeller family. The conversation lasts 55 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with members of the audience. Video of the event can be viewed here.

Elizabeth McCormack

March 12, 2014

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening.  Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Jeffery Sachs’ To Move the World or to hear world leaders like UNDP head Helen Clark.  And next week we encourage you to attend our conference on “John Lindsay, New York, and the American Dream,” a fresh look at lessons from his time as Mayor.

But tonight is different.  I have long wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally.  Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMa President Agnes Gund, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, Judy Collins, and most recently, Joseph Califano.

My guest tonight is my good friend and mentor Elizabeth McCormack.  We first met when she was working for John D. Rockefeller and I for Yale President Kingman Brewster.   As our two bosses talked about establishing a center at Yale for the study of the not-for-profit sector, Elizabeth and I chatted in her office in Room 5600 at 30 Rock.  We clicked immediately; the chemistry was magic.  And years later when I returned to New York as President of the New School, she tutored me on the art of being a college President.

Fast forward 17 years when she was on the search committee for a new President of the MacArthur Foundation.  She was my advocate.  No surprise I was offered the job.  For nearly four decades she has been my most trusted advisor.  I never consider an important move without seeking her advice.  And we continue to make common cause on the Board of the Asian Cultural Council.  Together with my wife Cynthia, and Elizabeth’s late husband Jerry Aron, we have had a wonderful and deep friendship.

She earned her B.A. at Manhattanville College and a Ph.D in philosophy at Fordham.  In her senior year at Manhattanville, Elizabeth joined the Order of the Sacred Heart and soon began teaching at its schools, Kenwood in Albany and later in Greenwich.  In 1962, she became Dean at Manhattanville.  Appointed President in 1966, she led its transformation from an elite Catholic women’s institution into a non-denominational co-ed college.  After Manhattanville, she became Director of the Rockefeller Philanthropy offices and remains a philanthropic advisor to members of the family.

She has had about as active of a civic life as anyone I know.  She chaired the Asian Cultural Council for 20 years; was vice chair of the MacArthur Board; a key member of the Board of the Atlantic Philanthropies; a member of the  boards of Manhattanville, Spellman, Marlboro and Hamilton Colleges, as well as the Juilliard School.  She has also been on the boards of the Population Council, The Trust for Mutual Understanding, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and recently she started the Partnership for Palliative Care which is her current major interest.

Bill Moyers described her life beautifully when he said, Elizabeth McCormack “reminds us of the things that last, that transcend the tumult of the hour and the news of the day.  Her life is about connections and continuities between past and present, between now and future, between the natural world and the world we make together.”

Those qualities I saw close up at the MacArthur Foundation where she has the surest instinct for philanthropy, a laser insight into people, an ability to visualize a grant strategy in fields like population, conservation and education.

I said this at the conclusion of her term at MacArthur:

“She loves to build institutions, strengthen their governance, clarify their purpose, improve their quality and extend their influence in pursuit of a more just and humane world at peace.  We have benefitted from her deep experience in how things really work.  Her impatience with fuzzy thinking have lifted our standards, saved us from not a few mis-steps and made this a better foundation.”

Elizabeth and I will have a conversation for 40 minutes or so, then open up to your questions and end about 7:15.  Please welcome Elizabeth McCormack.

In Conversation with Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

On February 11, 2014, Jonathan sat down with Joseph A. Califano, Jr. to discuss his long career in public service.

Click on this link to view video of the event.


Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

February 11, 2014


Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening.  Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, hear world leaders like former Prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno Ocampo, or talk presidential politics during our conference entitled Ike Reconsidered: Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century.

Tonight is different.  I have long wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally.  Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMa President Agnes Gund, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, Harvard Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, and most recently, Judy Collins.

My guest tonight is my good friend, Joseph Califano, who is an active member of our Roosevelt House Board and was the driving force behind our conference on Lyndon Johnson’s domestic record two years ago.  When he was appointed H.E.W. Secretary by Jimmy Carter, he asked two friends, Kingman Brewster, President of Yale and McGeorge Bundy, President of the Ford Foundation to loan him people to assist in recruiting senior H.E.W. staff.  I came from Yale where I had been President Brewster’s Chief of Staff and Peter Bell came from Ford.  I worked on finding candidates for jobs like Director of the Center for Disease Control and the Assistant Secretary for Health.  I learned a lot from Joe in my three month tour and was privileged to watch Joe blend principled policies with practical politics for the benefit of the President and the nation.

We reconnected when I was President of the New School whose remarkable chair, Dorothy Hirshon was the mother of Joe’s wife Hillary.  Hillary and Joe have been our dear friends both here and in Connecticut.

In between my work for Joe at H.E.W. and our reconnection in New York through Hillary, I was teaching 20th Century American History at the University of Chicago.  The very best book on how government works was Joe’s The Triumph as Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson a sympathetic but honest look at The Great Society and the impact of war. My students loved it.

Somehow in his busy life Joe has found time to author a dozen books including a memoir Inside: A Public and Private Life,  A Presidential Nation, America’s Health Care Revolution: Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Pays? Some of my questions tonight will be drawn from these books.

As background for our conversation here is a video describing a remarkable life.  After the video, Joe and I will have a conversation for 40 minutes or so and then open up to your questions and wrap up around 7:15.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt would be pleased that we are having this conversation in their house this evening with a person who understands –and has tried to implement – FDR’s vision for a national health program.  Hear the President’s words first in a letter to the nation on July 1938 and then a message to Congress on The National Health Program in January 1939.

“Nothing is more important to a nation than the health of its people…The economic loss due to sickness is a very serious matter not only for many families with and without incomes but for the nation as a whole…We cannot do all at once everything that we should do. But we can advance more surely if we have before us a comprehensive, long-range program, providing for the most efficient cooperation of Federal, state, and local governments, voluntary agencies, professional groups, media of public information, and individual citizens.”