An Interview with Dr. Lia Howard: New Agora Director Dr. Lia Howard Shares Her Vision for the Program

      Dr. Lia Howard is the new Executive Director of the Agora Institute and a Professor of Political Science and Liberal Studies in the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University. Prior to Agora she taught American Politics in the Political Science Department at Saint Joseph’s University. Dr. Howard was a Critical Writing Fellow and taught in the Political Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. In this article, Templeton junior Anthony Barr interviews Dr. Howard about her vision for Agora, her dissertation work on public education, and her insights on the challenges and opportunities in our present political context.

      – You studied English as an undergrad and then transitioned into Political Science: tell us about that journey.

      Yes, my first love (true love?) is English literature and I loved every moment of my undergraduate studies.  I minored in French and studied abroad in France (Loire Valley) and in Mali (West Africa). 

       I always have fiction on my nightstand and have always been a voracious reader.  Both political science and English literature (and French and West African literature for that matter) all involve truth…whether as Dickinson says “telling the truth and telling it slant” or telling the truth with demographic information and analyzing voting patterns or political culture. I love argument and both fields thrive on argument and rhetoric.  Using words to persuade, to communicate, to get you to feel or to act.

       Originally I was pulled into political science because an English class I took at Penn had us teach African American literature in a public high school in Philadelphia two blocks from Penn. The high school does not exist any more (it was knocked down several years ago) but it was called University City High School.  It was just 13 miles from the high school I attended, Radnor High School but it was such a stark contrast in every way.  That experience and many others (I have stories for days) about going to school in West Philadelphia exposed me to inequality.

      When I was an undergrad, a professor named Dr. John DiIulio left the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton to come teach at Penn.  He was advising two presidential campaigns during the election of 2000 to start an office of faith based initiatives.  Basically an office that would allow soup kitchens and other religious non profits to be eligible for government benefits like food stamps etc the way secular organizations could be eligible.  He ended up working for the GW BUsh administration in the White House for 9 months.  The office opened up a host of issues around the first amendment that are deeply interesting and worth thinking about.  He published a report called “Unequal Playing Field” exposing the inequalities that religious non profits faced in applying for government support even though they were supplying the lion’s share of social service provision in the most challenging corners of the US (pariticularly urban environs). 

       This became very interesting to me so when I graduated undergrad in 2001, I spent a year working for Dr. DiIulio’s center called CRRUCS (meant to sound like CRUX when spoken) which stands for The Center for Research on Urban Civil Society. I worked for the director, Dr. Byron Johnson who is now the director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.  I am still affiliated though it has changed its name to PRRUCS (program for research on urban civil society) at Penn.  After working there a year, I entered Penn’s Phd program in political science working under John DiIulio.

       – If you were to give an elevator pitch of your vision for the Agora Institute moving forward, what would you say?

        The caveat for this question is that I am taking the first few months in my new role to think carefully about this question.  Two weeks in, here is where I am on it.  Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good (the Organization) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that was established in January, 2011, to nurture and sustain free and humane citizens and institutions in their service ot the common good.  The Organization’s purpose is to cultivate open and honest inquiry into the fundamental virtues, truths, values and habits required for human flourishing within a free and ordered society, while promoting quality interdisciplinary research and programs

       I want to focus in on several aspects of this mission– in particular how we can operationalize it around four important C words: Curate, Convene Connect, and Cultivate. These four Cs can help us to build social institutions.  If anything, the past few years of public life have shown us that civil society does not build itself.  We’ve taken that for granted I believe and have not put as much intentionality and care around how we nurture, sustain and build our life together as a society.

       We want to be selecting good ideas to bring into the Agora (Curate); bring good people together from around the Main Line and within the Eastern community (convene) ; bring different institutional affiliations together, people and ideas together (Connect) and finally develop skills and passion among our undergraduate Agora Fellows (cultivate) to do this good work and continue it into their future pursuits after graduation.

       – Who are your favorite political leaders from U.S. history and why? 

James Madison mixed with Harriet Beecher Stowe mixed with  Eleanor Roosevelt mixed with Horace Mann.  They each thought in complex ways about developing US ideals and US institutions.  They noted the paradoxes embedded in US ideals and wrote/argued effectively towards making US institutions better mirror US ideals.

       – If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?

       ITALY!!! I’ve been twice to Rome and all the cities north of Rome.  My ancestors are from Sicily and Naples so I want to go south. 

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