Ruth Wooden, who served as President of Public Agenda from 2004-2010 and Board Member from 2010-2021, reflects on her legacy at Public Agenda and the organization’s history as a leader in public engagement, higher education, and research.
Q: What did Public Agenda look like when you were president from 2003 to 2010? What were the priorities and the projects of the organization at that time?
A: Our priority was really higher education. We were doing a lot of engagement around community colleges—their offerings on completion, improving graduation rates, trying to understand why people didn’t finish—and we did a lot of good research on that front.
I really think our work helped expose some of the big issues in higher education. The value proposition of higher ed is in serious question, both the value proposition of getting the degree and the cost of the degree. In addition, the states are going to have to reconsider their commitment to their land grant colleges—this is where 80 to 85% of kids go.
Q: When you were president of Public Agenda, how did that fit with your sort of your overall vision of what you were trying to accomplish?
A: My biggest challenge, and my biggest mission, was to build public engagement. I think the issues around higher ed and the issues around polarization are most likely going to be addressed by public engagement work and community conversation in the model we use at Public Agenda.
Q: You briefly talked about this, but when you were President, what were some of the bigger projects that were going on at that moment?
A: Community college work was a very big part of our work, both in research and in public engagement. And a lot of it was really around those who didn’t finish. Why weren’t they finishing? What was getting in the way? Solving that crisis. Because what you had then was kids who had debt, but no degree to show for it. And that’s the worst possible outcome. So that was certainly one of the biggest ones.
Q: What did you learn from that? What were some of the findings?
A: The crisis in the classroom had very little to do with the classroom. It had to do with their students’ life issues. It had to do with raising children. It had to do with a broken car. It had to do with the cost of living in an expensive city. Transportation, housing, health issues, family issues. That is what got in the way of student success. The other secret is that there is no set price for the cost of college. It always depends.
Q: What has changed in the field of research and engagement? What has stayed the same?
A: The world is much more contentious, and there is so much more news. We’ve lived through a really dispiriting time of public dialogue and conversation. So that shows up in opinion research, and it shows up in how people talk to each other in community conversations. To be able to hang on to a nonpartisan position is really hard. Dan Yankelovich was really legendary in helping us think through a theory of how to have productive conversations in the midst of great contentiousness. He taught us to talk about where there was common ground and to park differences in a parking lot.
Q: Does Dan Yankelovich’s philosophy work now?
A: I think you have to try. We know it’s the right thing to do. If there’s a big change in the climate, it’s that we’ve gone for a very long time where our government was not governing. They were there yelling at each other and talking, but they weren’t legislating or governing. So we’ve got a lot of stalled problems. Infrastructure is a really good proxy—the bridges that are unsafe are a good proxy for other things that didn’t get attended to through government governing. But now, there’s a real movement to stop things from going forward on both sides. I don’t know if it’s as philosophical as it is cultural. It’s like we’re in a boxing match, not a team building a winning score. We’re not trying to get touchdowns. We’re just trying not to lose. We’ve come to accept it as a norm that you don’t have a whole lot of laws passed. If you look at the productivity of Congress, they go less and less and less in terms of actual legislation passed except renaming post offices. That’s the only thing they can agree on.
Q: What did you sort of understand to be your role on the Public Agenda Board of Directors when you joined after your time as President?
A: I wanted to grow the public engagement work even further. Dan Yankelovich always wanted Public Agenda to be more of a public engagement organization than research. Public engagement was at the heart of Dan, not research. He hated being called a pollster. And he really liked the theory of public engagement work, community conversations, choice work, and how to strengthen the quality of democratic engagement. He was a really democratic scholar. He was a public intellectual about democracy.
Q: What three words would you use to describe your time as President and your time on the Board?
A: Democracy would certainly be one of them. The second would actually be compromise. And the third one is comity. And I don’t mean goodness and kindness—I mean a combination of respect and maturity for living together. We’re missing that.