Alan D. Solomont’s first visit to the Tufts University administration building wasn’t by invitation. It was the fall of 1969, and campuses across the country were roiled by student protests. At Tufts hundreds of students, including Mr. Solomont, orchestrated a peaceful sit-in at Ballou Hall to protest the lack of minority workers hired for a campus construction project.
The protest worked, he says. Construction was halted until the administration agreed to student demands to increase the number of minority workers. Mr. Solomont says the experience taught him a valuable lesson in civic engagement.
More than four decades later, he has returned to Tufts to lead the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service as dean. Mr. Solomont, who is 65, took the post in early January.
"Now I’ve been a guest in the president’s office on a more invited basis," he says.
Mr. Solomont has held numerous positions related to civic service since graduating from Tufts, in 1970. He served as U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra under President Obama, from 2010 until last summer. Before that, Mr. Solomont was chair of the Board of Directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that oversees service programs like AmeriCorps.
He spent much of his career in companies that invested in and provided health care and care for the elderly.
At Tufts, Mr. Solomont will lead a college that promotes civic engagement across the university, without directly enrolling any students.
Established in 2000, Tisch College has 44 affiliated professors, activities for students that complement their coursework, and a dedicated research organization, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or Circle.
Tisch recently rolled out its latest endeavor, the 1+4 program, which enables incoming students who wish to devote a "bridge" year to full-time national or international service before starting their undergraduate careers, regardless of financial need.
"We wanted to ensure that every student who comes to Tufts has the opportunity to have a transformational experience," Mr. Solomont says.
The former ambassador has his own long history of civic engagement. He has been a community organizer in Lowell, Mass., served on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations, and worked as a fund raiser for the Democrats.
Over his career, he has maintained ties to higher education. Mr. Solomont was chair of the Board of Trustees at the University of Lowell when it merged into the University of Massachusetts system, in 1991. Tufts later named him founding chair of the Tisch College’s Board of Advisers. He was also a university trustee.
"I think it was a long history of aiming in that direction," he says of higher education.
Before being stationed at the embassy in Madrid, Mr. Solomont taught a course on the U.S. presidency as a visiting professor at Tufts. "I just loved being on campus and interacting with students," he says.
In the midst of his ambassadorship, the Tufts administration went through extensive changes. Anthony P. Monaco became the university’s president in 2011, and David R. Harris its provost in 2012. Mr. Harris was immediately asked to lead a strategic-planning effort to shape Tufts’s future for the next decade.
He also had to find a new dean for Tisch College, which had been led on an interim basis since 2011. One name Mr. Harris kept hearing from people at the university: Alan Solomont.
Although Mr. Solomont did not follow the traditional path to academic administration, Mr. Harris says, "he’s connected to some key networks and individuals in a way he might not be otherwise."
Mr. Solomont, meanwhile, was hoping to return to a university setting without dissolving his ties to Spain. He called it a "fortunate coincidence" that Tisch needed a dean.
He plans to return to Spain at least once a year to teach a weeklong university seminar on American foreign policy and diplomacy.
As Tisch’s dean, Mr. Solomont will need to keep a new generation of students engaged.
"I was part of the baby-boom generation," he says. "We were very idealistic, but we had trouble getting things done. We were very divided."
Today’s young people are determined to solve problems and are more inclined to use civic institutions to do so, he says. "At the university, we want to provide opportunities for that."