An Interview with Sharon Davies, President and CEO of the Kettering Foundation

Back to Spring 2023: Volume 112, Number 1

The Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit research organization that for the past 40 years has focused on the idea of democracy and how it works, or rather, what it takes to make it work as it should. Working collaboratively with an international network of researchers, the foundation has played in important role in expanding our knowledge about the process of public deliberation and the role of citizens, institutions, and communities in addressing public problems. In August 2021, David Mathews, a frequent contributor to the National Civic Review, announced that he was stepping down from his role as president and CEO of the foundation, a position he had held since 1981. His successor is Sharon Davies, a former provost and vice president at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta.

A graduate of Columbia Law School, Davies worked as assistant U.S. Attorney with the Southern District of New York before joining the faculty of the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University. She later served as an associate dean at the law school and a vice provost and chief diversity officer at Ohio State. From 2012 until 2017, she was executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. She was interviewed by National Civic Review editor Mike McGrath in November 2022.

Question: I looked at your résumé, all the different things you’ve done—Assistant U.S. attorney, law professor, et cetera. Tell us a little bit about how you decided to pursue the career path you chose.

Answer: I sometimes tell my students that if I had been asked when I was in law school what my career would look like. I would have gotten it all wrong because I really imagined myself a litigator, a trial attorney for the long haul. That turned out to be only a small portion of my career. I was in a Wall Street firm for a while before going to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, traditional career choices for a law school graduate.

But then I shifted back towards the academy, and it was really that move that had the greatest impact on my career path. Once I was teaching law at Ohio State, I enjoyed the joys and responsibilities of helping students develop into careful, disciplined thinkers who could reason contextually, and who could deploy the law to do good in the world.

Later I was chosen to direct the Kirwan Institute, an engaged research institute at Ohio State that drew not just from the talents of professors at the law school, but from colleges and departments across the university. During my years in that position, I learned more about what takes to set a strategic vision, to attract funding, to lead a diverse and talented staff, and to measure one’s impact.

I went on from there to become the vice provost for diversity and inclusion at Ohio State, and later the provost of Spelman College, an outstanding women’s college in Atlanta and a shining star among the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Through the sum of those experiences, I witnessed the important role institutions of learning play in helping to understand and solve our most complex social problems.

As the new president of the Kettering Foundation—a research organization that lifts up the collective power of citizens in a democracy to address issues of common concern and to shape their communities—I will be able to draw on many of those past professional experiences at a critical moment for democracies around the globe.

Question: It was this idea of how democracy can be used to solve problems in society that appealed to you about the job offer at the Kettering Foundation?

Answer: That, and the fact that we are presently navigating a critical moment for democracies around the world.  For the last four decades, my predecessor, David Mathews has had the Kettering Foundation focused on the question of what it takes to make democracy work. When we began that work democracies were in the ascendance.  Now they are threatened.  I am very interested in the work that the foundation can do to help understand those threats and identify tools to defend and preserve democracy.

Question: You refer to threats to democracy. Other people have talked about a crisis of a democracy. Some have even suggested an end to democracy. How would you perceive or describe these threats, these problems, these challenges to democracy as we see them today?

Answer: We take very seriously the warnings of major democracy indexes, such as Freedom House, which monitor the health of democracies around the world. It is a great concern to the Foundation that the United States’ ranking has been declining for some years, and that authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide.

Over the last forty years, the Kettering Foundation has made significant contributions to the field of deliberative democracy. With a national and international network of partners and associates, we have documented the ability of people in a democracy to talk through issues of common concern, despite disagreements and cultural differences, and to agree upon trade-offs and a course forward. It is important work and we are proud of our contributions to it.

We have spent less time working to understand the generators of growing threats to democracy and what is needed to defend and preserve democracy.

One of the books we are thinking about a lot recently is by Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman, titled Four Threats—The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. The basic thesis of this book is that four threats—polarization,  economic inequality, executive aggrandizement, and contests over who belongs and who doesn’t—have jeopardized our democracy at various moments since the founding.  What’s different now, the authors say, is that all four threats are present at the same time. With some external partners, the foundation is thinking about democracy’s most urgent threats, and the role that we might play to help the public understand and take steps to reduce those threats.

Question: Have you come to any conclusions or any preliminary conclusions about what the foundation’s particular role in trying to ameliorate those threats might look like?

Answer: It is still early and we will have to prioritize, but I am able to say that we understand the importance of expanding our aperture and identifying new strategies to be a part of that work, and that we look forward to working with other respected peers in the field.

Question: In the past, the foundation has done a lot of people meeting in person to discuss various issues related to democracy. Do you see the research going in a different direction, maybe a more formal use of research papers and things like that, or will it be similar to what Kettering has done in the past?

Answer: I think it will be different for a couple of reasons. For one, the Kettering Foundation was one of the early entrants to the field of deliberative democracy. We seeded a lot of the research around it and funded issue forums nationwide. Decades later it is a much more populated field. Many organizations and communities have experience framing issues and hosting successful citizen-to-citizen dialogue forums themselves. This should enable us to redirect some of our resources to today’s threats to democracy without disrupting the field.  We also see the need to be more public-facing with some of our work.

Question: We talked about the threats to democracy. Are there bright spots or hopeful signs or trends that you’ve noticed or might be interested to explore?

Interviewee:  I think it is hopeful that the public appears concerned about democracy. Just think about the nightly news, the health of our democracy is often the focus. After the victories in the civil rights era, most Americans have taken the strength of our democracy for granted.  Now the public’s confidence has been shaken. That may not seem like a strength, but it is important to be clear-eyed that democracy can be lost, even in the United States. I see signs that the public is both aware and concerned about that.

I think that we can be positive about the midterm elections. There was record turnout. That high level of participation reveals the public’s desire to register their preferences and the belief that they have the power to influence political outcomes. Although high turnout may also be a sign of a polarized public.

I’ve also been traveling internationally as the new president of the foundation and it is clear to me that what happens to our democratic system in the United States is very important to individuals in other democratic nations. It really matters that we succeed in defending our democracy.

Question: Thank you very much again for agreeing to do this interview. I think you’ve raised some intriguing questions, and we’ll be interested to see what the foundation does in the future.

Answer: It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.

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