At the December 9, 2021 meeting, the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) elected four new members to the NIFI board of directors. The incoming members are Hollie Cost, Assistant Vice President of Auburn University Outreach and Public Service; Sara Mehltretter Drury, Associate Professor and Chair of Rhetoric at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana; Jon Gant, professor and dean at the School of Library and Information Sciences at North Carolina Central University; and Robert Richards, assistant professor of communication at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
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Hollie Cost serves as the Assistant Vice President of Auburn University Outreach and Public Service. Her personal and professional passion is working collaboratively with community members to develop a shared vision and implement needed change. An Auburn University graduate, she joined the University of Montevallo faculty in 2000 after serving on the faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University for two years. She began her public service as a Montevallo City Council member in 2004, completing two terms before being elected mayor in 2012. In her capacity as a university professor, she established four special education degree tracks, multiple outreach programs, and the Office of Service Learning and Community Engagement. Her community enhancement initiatives have focused on arts, sustainability, and education with an emphasis on youth engagement. She has demonstrated her commitment to empowering youth through initiatives such as the Kettering Foundation Community Politics Exchange, the establishment of the Montevallo Junior City Council, spearheading the David Mathews Center for Civic Life Students’ Institute, and collaboratively founding the Montevallo Sister City Commission. Cost’s past leadership roles in these areas include the development of ValloCycle, the first citywide bike share in Alabama, the nationally recognized Montevallo Parks Trail, Montevallo Artwalk, Montevallo’s Main Street revitalization, and launching a citywide recycling program.
Notably in 2018, the City of Montevallo successfully passed the second nondiscrimination ordinance in the State of Alabama after a series of numerous public forums and dialogue and deliberation sessions. In 2019, Mayor Cost supported the Community Remembrance Project’s proposal to install a historic marker on Main Street to memorialize victims of lynchings in Montevallo’s distant history in conjunction with the Equal Justice Initiative. Cost steadfastly believes in the importance of giving victims a voice and advocating for equity and social justice. She led the development of a 2-Generation Hub in Shelby County that empowers single women with children to progress from poverty to full family stability by interconnecting services and fulfilling needed service gaps.
While her engagement opportunities are numerous, Cost underscores that all projects were accomplished in collaboration with other deeply committed citizens and public servants.
Her honors include Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Humanitarian of the Year, the Jean O’Connor Snyder Award, Vulcan Spear - Game Changer Award, Outstanding Service-Learning Collaboration in Higher Education Award, UM Commitment to Service Award, Academy for Civic Professionalism Award, Outstanding ACE Mayor Award, and she is a graduate of Leadership Alabama XXVIII. Additionally, under her role as advisor, the Montevallo Junior City Council was presented with the National Conference on Citizenship Civvy Award in October 2018.
Sara Mehltretter Drury
Sara Mehltretter Drury is Associate Professor and Chair of Rhetoric at Wabash College, in Crawfordsville, Indiana. She also serves as Director of Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse, an interdisciplinary initiative that partners with campuses and communities to foster dialogue and deliberation on a range of topics. In this program, Drury trains undergraduate students at Wabash College to research and facilitate public dialogues and deliberations. Drury teaches a course focusing on deliberation and democracy each year.
Drury’s research and practice focus on the intersections of rhetoric and deliberative democracy, with particular attention to deliberative pedagogy, argumentation, and political communication. She also collaborates with colleagues to focus on deliberative pedagogy in the natural and hard sciences, including a recent National Science Foundation grant focusing on deliberation in the chemistry curriculum.
Drury has given workshops for a variety of nonprofits and higher education organizations on deliberative democracy, including the Indiana State Bar Association and the Council of Independent Colleges. She frequently serves as a consultant to a range of higher education institutions as they implement deliberative pedagogy across their curriculum and campus.
Drury has been a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (2017-2018) and an Indiana Humanities Action Fellow (2019-2021). From 2018 to 2020, she was part of the Indiana Humanities Speakers’ Bureau, giving workshops and talks around the theme of “Transcending Divides through Creative Conversations.” Drury has been connected to the Kettering Foundation’s research networks for more than a decade; in 2010-2011, she served as a Research Associate at the foundation, and while she was in graduate school, she took her first National Issues Forum training and served as a forum moderator. Drury received her PhD and MA from The Pennsylvania State University in communication arts and sciences. She graduated summa cum laude with a BA from Boston College in communication studies and political science.
Jon Gant is a leader in higher education who helps to make information and digital technologies accessible for everyone. He has published numerous research studies on the disparities in broadband adoption, the future of work and information technology, and advances in digital government. Most recently, his research and public engagement has focused on improving digital equity and inclusion in urban and rural communities worldwide, particularly to support human development and achievement, democratic engagement, and the transformation of communities and community anchor institutions.
As professor and dean of the School of Library and Information Sciences at North Carolina Central University, Gant has helped to double enrollment to over 330 graduate students. This 80-year-old school is the only accredited graduate program in the field offered by a historically Black college and university.
A member of the 2019-2021 Kettering Foundation Whisenton Fellows class, Gant used his fellowship to study new approaches in democratic engagement to help universities work in their communities to address digital equity disparities.
Gant served as the founding director of the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI) at the School of Information at the University of Illinois, where he and his team helped underserved households located in internet deserts in Champaign-Urbana connect to state-of-the-art high-speed internet services. He also served as the Research Director of the evaluation study of the federal Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP). Gant served previously on the Board of Directors for the Telecommunication Policy Research Conference (TPRC) on communications, information, and internet policy. Gant was appointed recently to the Federal Communication Commission's Communication Equity and Diversity Council which advances equity in the provision of and access to digital communication services and products for all people of the United States. He has served on advisory boards to the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to address the digital divide and broadband adoption.
Gant earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and received MS and PhD degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, where he trained in public policy, information systems, and strategy. He has held faculty positions previously at the University of Illinois, Syracuse University, and Indiana University. He and his wife Tracie A. Gant live in Durham, NC, where they are members of Union Baptist Church and participate in various ministries.
Robert C. Richards, Jr. is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, where he teaches courses in communication and public engagement and legal and ethical dimensions of public service. He is also an interdisciplinary affiliate at the Center for Communication Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and a co-investigator on the Participedia Project, which studies citizen participation in governance around the world.
Richards’ research focuses on democratic deliberation, participatory democracy, and online dialogue and discussion. He works with colleagues at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute of the University of Arkansas and the Central Arkansas Library System in the Partnership for Democratic Practices in Arkansas, under the auspices of the Kettering Foundation and in collaboration with the National Issues Forums Institute, to conduct public deliberations about issues of importance to Arkansas residents. His forthcoming article, with Michael Neblo, in the Journal of Deliberative Democracy, explains how deliberative practices and norms emerge from citizens’ everyday political conversations. With Michael Morrell, Justin Reedy, and David Brinker, he is co-editor of a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Deliberative Democracy on psychological aspects of democratic deliberation. His other sole- or co-authored work has been published in Policy & Politics, International Journal of Communication, PS: Political Science & Politics, Politics & Society, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Journal of Public Deliberation, and Policy & Internet. His research has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Democracy Fund, and the Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society.
Richards holds a PhD in communication arts and sciences from Penn State University, a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law, an MS in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an MA in communication studies from the University of Iowa, and a BA in English from Yale University.
Click here to read more about all of the NIFI directors and officers.