Welcoming Dr. Lia Howard

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 joining Agora she taught American Politics in the Political Science Department at Saint Joseph’s University. Prior to this 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 away. 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 (particularly 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 you say it) 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.  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 to 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.  I believe we’ve taken that for granted 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, 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.

What are some of the political conflicts plaguing our nation that you hope Agora can help address?

I think that at present there are certain toxins present in US society that erode common ground in the electorate.  There are studies that back each of these claims (happy to share them): but a few of the toxins are:

  1. The majority of the American electorate is voting to oppose the other party rather than to affirm their own beliefs.
  2. TV Media sources increasingly rely upon strategies that evoke high emotional responses among viewership—making it harder for viewers to turn away but leaving an association of anger and distaste towards political discourse.  Social media has its own set of toxic effects (among them using algorithms to expose people only to information that they agree with creating silos that become ever more durable).  Which leads to…
  3. Political information being disseminated and consumed differently based on political party.  Which means information becomes suspect and tainted and people cannot have discourse becausethey do not agree on the same set of information (or even, sometimes, the same words which have been colonized by different parties)
  4. Political polarization mirrors economic polarization.  We are growing ever more economically stratified and our political stratification matches this economic stratification
  5.  Campaign spending influences leadership (politicians are in a constant campaign and this keeps them from the mindset of coming to a place of common ground with a political opponent, which is a skill necessary for governance).

Agora, concerned with civic virtue and the common good, wants to facilitate face-to-face conversations around issues our speakers discuss (through many different types of programs but one idea is over dinners).  We will lean hard on the Jesuit principles of Dialogue (taken from my time at Saint Joseph’s University).

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.

You wrote your dissertation on public education: what was your focus and what are some of the most interesting things you found as part of your research?

I focused on the historic development of Compulsory Schooling Laws in 5 states (that approximates the differences in all 50 states). Compulsory schooling laws took nearly 80 years to pass in all 50 states and they were very contentious in some and easy sells in others based on the unique political culture (attitudes, history, approaches to politics) in each of these states.  This becomes important when it comes to understanding how other types of social policies might be viewed in states today (say health care policy) and certain states being more predisposed to providing policy for their citizens and certain states being highly resistant to it (with all sorts of gradations in between). A states’ level of immigration influenced whether they were early to pass or late to pass Compulsory Schooling Laws.Finally this was a moment where the US built something…a HUGE piece of social infrastructure.  We tried in the early building of this social infrastructure to ensure that every citizen in our country had access to a school and we poured resources and attention into making that education universal (not stratified based on class (like the UK) or aptitude (like Germany etc).

Tell us about your family! How did you meet your husband? What do your kids enjoy doing?

I met my husband at Penn during his last semester (he was a senior) I was a junior.  All the Christian fellowships got together to plan a corporate week of community service, joint worship/fellowship etc.  He was representing his fellowship and I was representing mine.  He is African American so they asked us to lead a discussion around unity and diversity in the church using the verses from John 17; We also co-emceed the coffee House (where people said he sounded like a late night radio host –his voice is very deep and I sounded like a character from Veggie Tales).  We became very good friends.  He went off to seminary in Boston and I finished Penn and we were still good friends.  Two and a half years after we met we were engaged.  He is Penn’s University Chaplain with nearly 60 different religious groups of all different faiths under his office.  He has written a bunch of books and has his PhD in Theology.  He is over a foot taller than me and has a DEEP voice.

My oldest daughter, Charissa Faith (we call her Rissa) is 13 and is an 8th grader at Bala Cynwyd Middle School in the Lower Merion School District.  She is already maybe 6-7 inches taller than me.  She loves to read and bake.  She runs XC and is in musicals at her middle  school at Summer Stage through Upper Darby Performing Arts Center.  She plays the violin. We are in a mother daughter book club together which we have done since she was in 4th grade.  She also loves church youth group.

My middle daughter, Annalise Hope (Anna) is 11 and is a 6th grader at Bala Cynwyd Middle School.  She is almost as tall as I am.  She loves to play soccer and basketball (on travel teams for both).  She also loves musicals and plays and had a starring role in the Fall play, The Little Princess.  She loves making beats (calls herself “DJ Tookie”) and is a magician (“the Great Tookini”) . She loves fashion and her room is the most organized in the house.  She also loves to read.  I was her soccer coach for 2 years and then she got too good for me and had to go to a travel team…  She also loves church youth group.

My youngest daughter, Evangeline Love (Evie) is 3 years old and goes to preschool 3 mornings a week at Penn Wynne Presbyterian Nursery school.  She is a force.  When she is in the room, she makes sure you are aware she is there.  She is hilarious and has been trying to catch up with her sisters since the moment she was born.  She does not realize she is 8 and 10 years younger than them and acts more like a teen than they do.  She loves to dance to music.  Sadly we have an “Ok Google” which she commands to no end.  Her claim to fame is that she was baby Jesus one year at Church of the Good Samaritan before our family moved too far away to attend.  

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.  


Anthony Barr ’19 is a Templeton scholar double-majoring in English Literature and History and minoring in Orthodox Thought and Culture. He is a homeschool grad with several years of experience working for two publishing companies. He is interested in the ways in which literature and spirituality inform one another. 

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