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On David Mathews… a featured speaker at NCDD 2014

We are thrilled to have David Mathews, President and CEO of the Kettering Foundation, joining us at the National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation next month. David is our featured plenary speaker on the first day of the conference, Friday, October 17th. (See the full conference schedule here.)

Mathews-David-12-2009-248x300Many people in our field know David, and are familiar with his work at the Kettering Foundation. Under David’s leadership, Kettering plays a vital role in our field by advancing and funding leading edge democracy research. Because one of the key ways they conduct research is through in-person “learning exchanges,” Kettering also provides an important convening role in our field.

But I suspect fewer people are familiar with David’s work pre-Kettering, which is quite extraordinary.

Most prominently, David served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) during the Ford administration. We now know HEW as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

As HEW secretary, David was the youngest member of the cabinet and head of the agency with the largest budget. While there, he worked on restoring public confidence in government and reforming the regulatory system. At his swearing in, Gerald Ford said, “Mathews brings to this new mission the strength of youth, a sense of purpose, the skills of a scholar, and the trusted record of a successful leader and administrator. That is an impressive inventory by any standard.”


Born and raised in Grove Hill, Alabama, David studied history and classical Greek at the University of Alabama and earned a PhD in history from Columbia University. David returned to the University of Alabama to serve as president from 1969-1975 and then again from 1977–1980 after serving as HEW Secretary. This was an era of significant change and innovation, including the integration of the institution. At age 33, Mathews was the youngest president of a major university.

As mentioned above, David currently serves as President and CEO of the Kettering Foundation, a not-for-profit research foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is “What does it take to make democracy work as it should?” Charles F. Kettering, best known for inventing the automobile self-starter, created the foundation in 1927.

Over the years, the foundation expanded its focus to look beyond scientific solutions, recognizing that problems like world hunger are not technical problems, but rather political problems. In the 1970s, the foundation began to concentrate on democratic politics, particularly the role of citizens. Mathews was elected to the Kettering Foundation board of trustees in 1972, and in 1981, he became its president and CEO.

Ecology-coverDavid Mathews has written extensively on such subjects as education, political theory, southern history, public policy, and international problem solving. His books include Why Public Schools? Whose Public Schools? (NewSouth Books, 2003); For Communities to Work (Kettering Foundation, 2002); Politics for People: Finding a Responsible Public Voice (University of Illinois Press, 1999); Is There a Public for Public Schools? (1996); and Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy (Kettering Foundation Press, 2006).

His most recent book, The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future (Kettering Foundation Press, 2014), focuses on how the work of democracy might be done to put more control in the hands of citizens and help restore the legitimacy of our institutions. As you may recall, Kettering generously extended the offer of a free copy of The Ecology of Democracy in April to any NCDD member who was interested in receiving a copy — and I know many of you have been enjoying the book!

This will be David’s first NCDD conference, and we are thrilled he will be joining us. David thinks highly of the NCDD network, so let’s be sure to give him a warm welcome!

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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