As Mathews moves to a new role, reflecting on 40 years of collaboration with Public Agenda.
Kettering Foundation President and CEO David Mathews recently announced that he will be passing the leadership torch after 40 years to focus on research and writing. Across the decades, Mathews worked closely with Public Agenda founder, social scientist and pioneer of public opinion research Daniel Yankelovich. Under Mathews’ leadership, the Kettering Foundation has been a powerful advocate for giving voice to Americans’ views on public problems and has advanced our shared understanding of how to do that. For Public Agenda, Mathews has also been an essential partner, leader, and friend.
“David has really been a driving force for the mission of Public Agenda since the beginning,” says Mitchel Wallerstein, president emeritus of Baruch College and vice-chair of the Public Agenda board of directors, “Together with Dan Yankelovich, he recognized the gap between what politicians were focusing on and what was actually important to the American people, and he has worked tirelessly to bridge that gap.”
With his typical prescience, Mathews was one of the early voices calling attention to the cultural shifts in recent years that have made the work of nonpartisan public engagement far more challenging. He has also remained true to his conviction that ordinary people have it in our power to come together to make democracy work for everyone. In a USA TODAY op-ed in 2020, Matthews restated his core beliefs—that Americans have more in common than our political rhetoric often indicates and that the way forward is to build on that common ground.
Recognizing that everyone is motivated by the same basic imperatives removes barriers to listening to others who may not be like us or even like us. Even if people disagree, they become aware of greater complexity. They explore the tradeoffs inherent in difficult decisions. That opens the door to understanding the experiences and concerns of others.
Prior to his work with Kettering, Mathews served as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in President Gerald Ford’s administration. He also taught history at the University of Alabama and served as that institution’s president from 1969 to 1980. He has written extensively on southern American history, public policy, education, and international relations. His published works include Politics for People: Finding a Responsible Public Voice and The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping our Future.
The board and staff of Public Agenda congratulate David Mathews on an inspiring and successful tenure at the helm of the Kettering Foundation. We thank him for his service to and support of Public Agenda. And we look forward to continuing our work together in his role as a researcher, writer, and as a member of Public Agenda’s board of directors.