The American Assembly fosters public conversations that lead to more just, equitable, and democratic societies. It does so by bringing research to bear on public problems, by creating new resources for public understanding, and by strengthening the forms of trust and deliberation that make democracy work.
The American Assembly is located at Columbia University. In April 2019, the Assembly began a formal partnership with the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE)
The American Assembly was founded in 1950 by Dwight D. Eisenhower, during his tenure as the thirteenth president of Columbia University. Eisenhower envisioned a forum where leaders, professionals and experts would come together to discuss and address the increasingly complicated social and political problems of the mid-twentieth century. Calling for educational institutions to take on a more active role, Eisenhower believed such projects were crucial to protecting the fundamental pillars of the American democratic system, and to promoting the noblest ideals of the American polity.
The decades since the organization’s founding have seen this vision borne out—for nearly seventy years, The Assembly has fostered and informed public-policy discussions through convenings, research, and published collections and reports. Over one hundred ‘American Assemblies’ have been held on topics ranging from prison reform to nuclear disarmament to space exploration, each producing actionable conclusions with the weight of evidence, expertise and consensus behind them.
Born in the context of the Cold War, The American Assembly took democratic government as one of its foundational points of focus. Assemblies in the early decades dealt heavily with questions of federalism, political representation, political parties, electoral processes and campaigns, and the separation of powers. The overarching aim was to illuminate the workings of democracy and strengthen public trust in the American system, largely by working to ensure our institutions would be worthy of that trust.
Similarly, issues of global policy have been prominent throughout The Assembly’s history. Convenings in the 1950s and 1960s discussed America’s respective relationship to various parts of the world and its role within international institutions and networks. Later years saw The Assembly increasingly turn its attention toward problems confronting the globe as a whole—to population growth, technological change, world hunger, environmental preservation, and eventually to questions of world migration and U.S. immigration policy.
Meanwhile, domestic topics have frequently revolved around matters of equity. Several Assemblies throughout the years have centered on wages, unions, and the status of workers, while others tackled subjects of ethnic relations and racial inequality. Health and health policy were also a concern. As the Medicare and Medicaid programs of the Great Society matured and issues of financing and delivering health care grew more complicated and disputed, The Assembly brought experts together in an effort to deepen our understanding of public health challenges, to consider the future of the American medical care system, and to offer thoughts on the role of government and other forces in shaping that future.
Finally, The American Assembly has repeatedly explored questions relating to the roles, contributions, and importance of both higher education and the arts in American society. Several convenings explored broadly the relationship between the arts and public policy. Others considered more specific topics like museums or the performing arts. The Assembly’s attention to education extends from Eisenhower’s own beliefs about the vital function of universities, through reports like the 1979 diagnosis of “Disorders in Higher Education,” all the way to our current Open Syllabus project.
In April 2019, Peter Bearman, director of Columbia’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE), was selected as the new president of The American Assembly, establishing in the process an intellectual and administrative affiliation between The Assembly and INCITE. Through this alignment, The Assembly will seek to develop and apply innovative research to the pressing social and political problems of our time in order to change and deepen conversation around those issues.
Recognizing that issues of democratic legitimacy, social and economic equity, and scientific authority, are as vital now as ever before, The Assembly’s work will continue to reflect avenues of attention and investigation forged over the course of its history. Through our newly launched Democracy & Trust program, and other initiatives currently in development, we remain committed to Eisenhower’s vision that Columbia has an obligation to engage directly in the critical mission of building and sustaining more just and equitable societies. That The American Assembly represent action. Not just words.