Inaugural Address: “Building Upon Penn’s Genetic Material”

Inaugural Address
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA
October 21, 1994

Today, it is my honor and privilege to take my place as the seventh president of the University of Pennsylvania, and formally to accept responsibility for its leadership.

Today I want to share with you my vision of Penn’s past, present and future.

As a biological and social psychologist, it was natural for me to prepare for this day by researching Penn’s genetic material. It begins, of course, with our founder Benjamin Franklin, the ultimate visionary and pragmatist. Every other college in the colonies rigidly adhered to the European model of teaching classics. Franklin pushed for a curriculum that gave equal stress to the scientific and the contemporary. He made English the language of college discourse, not Greek and Latin. He established Penn alone as non-sectarian among the eight pre-revolutionary colleges.

Franklin was an able theoretician but saw early the value of joining “theory” with “practice.” From its very start, he pushed for Penn to offer professional as well as scholarly studies. Earlier in today’s ceremony we heard the Academic Festive Anthem which includes Franklin’s famous statement of this mission: “Learn everything that is useful,” he said, “and everything that is ornamental.” Franklin thought education should be for the body as well as for the soul — that it should enable a graduate to be a breadwinner as well as a thinker, that it should produce socially-conscious citizens, as well as conscientious bankers and traders.  In all of these ideas, Franklin was very much a radical.

And so in a sense, the most central tradition that this university inherited from its founder is a certain disdain for tradition – a willingness to challenge orthodoxy and to think creatively and boldly.

It has been that spirit of daring, that willingness to experiment, which has enabled Penn to be “first” in so many areas. We are the incubator of professional schools in the country: the first medical school, the first business school. Indeed we are the first American “university.” It was at Penn that the world saw the first journalism curriculum, the first institute for the study of anatomy and biology, the first psychology clinic. And then there was the event at Penn that was to alter forever the way we process information, acquire knowledge, and conduct business: the invention in 1946 of ENIAC: the world’s first all-electronic digital computer.

This is all part of Penn’s genetic material: the links between “theory” and “practice,” the refusal to be fettered by tradition, the importance of education that is both intellectual and utilitarian, the deeply held desire to understand not only “why,” but also “how.”

As we celebrate today Penn’s heritage and glory, and consider how it should evolve into the next century, let us first ask ourselves “What is the essence of this institution?”

Of course, as with all universities, it is first of all a physical place.  Few urban campuses in America are as glorious as Penn. A morning stroll along Locust Walk. The afternoon sun illuminating the red bricks of the Fisher Fine Arts Library. The modern energies of the Annenberg Center, the power of Steinberg-Dietrich. Penn’s open spaces, common walks and architecture flow together to host the richness, dynamism, and creativity of our endeavors. The Penn experience begins with the majesty and excitement of this campus.

We fill this place and these spaces — from one end to the other — with a perpetual process of interaction — thousands upon thousands of daily contacts between faculty, students and staff. Like some magical chemical reaction, one never knows when the spark will ignite, what explosion or chain reaction will result. For me, as a student at Penn, it was the power of Henry Gleitman, Eliot Stellar and Richard Solomon.

Scholarship at Penn relies on faculty who inspire and provoke, confound and challenge, encourage and engage both their colleagues and their students. It relies as well as on students who increasingly do the same to professors and to each other.

Whatever else we do here, whether with new buildings, new technologies or new courses, we must never forget that human interaction is at the core of our purpose and our mission. The people of Penn are its essence.

Over the years, a set of rules has evolved to protect the sanctity of both these people and this place. They include:

* freedom of expression: the right to challenge the accepted, to attack the vogue, to explore the controversial, to embrace the forbidden;

* Another rule is uncompromising integrity: that all work, all data, all creations must be presented fully and honestly as the sole product of those who claim responsibility;

* Finally, mutual respect: that each individual be allowed to flourish based on the excellence of his or her work, with participation and advancement never denied because of race, religion or lifestyle.

There are times when political fashion brings into question some of these precepts. The result is invariably loss of purpose.

These principles must guide us, unify us and safeguard our community.  Upholding them is our common responsibility. Any threatened breach of these protective barriers must be rebuffed. There will be no higher priority for this university’s leadership.

Penn’s continued strength must be built on a recommitment to these precepts — just as it is built on a common clarity of purpose. And on that basis, we will set out a direction for our future that aspires to be as pragmatic and as visionary as it was over 250 years ago.

We must begin with an honest assessment of our strengths and deficiencies.  To me, they are one and the same. For it is Penn’s prodigious depth and reach which illuminates our needs. So many separate schools, so much talent and energy, such vast undertakings of teaching, scholarship and research.

Our great professional and graduate schools must continue to strive for pre-eminence, each in its own way, with a fierce independence and individuality. But we must at the same time come together to ensure that the full Penn undergraduate experience is also in the forefront with its energy, intensity and creativity. Think of the kind of intellectual feast we could give our students if the faculty in all of our distinguished graduate and professional schools were actively involved in undergraduate education in a dialogue that spanned the arts, the sciences and the professions.

Focusing forcefully on undergraduate education is not a new idea at Penn.  It has been studied and analyzed, and studied again over the years. Many superb school-based innovations have been made.

Now is the time for even more and bolder action. Led by the Provost and the eight responsible academic deans, we will design a new Penn undergraduate experience. It will involve not only curriculum, but new types of housing, student services and mentoring, to create a seamless experience between the classroom and the residence, from the playing field to the laboratory.

I am committed to having this in place for students entering Penn in the Fall of 1997. That class — the Class of 2001 — will be our first class to have an entirely new experience — the Penn Education of the Twenty-First Century.

This must be the next great challenge for Penn. It will be a paramount priority of my stewardship.

Indeed, as we proceed, Franklin’s legacy has fresh relevance today. The structure of our national economy continues to change dramatically.  Historic employment patterns are being radically altered. There is a disturbing disconnect in the traditional paths from college to career. Across the country, families are asking why invest all those years and all that money if many of our children are forced to work in jobs that undervalue these hard-earned diplomas, that waste their talent and creativity.

There are no easy answers. But few are as well prepared as Penn to respond. Franklin taught us not to be embarrassed by these concerns. That the best available “theoretical” education could be combined with “practical” elements to their mutual benefit.

We will build on that proud legacy.

* First we will ensure that Penn students continue to get that blended experience that comes from the interaction of all our schools.

We will encourage even more interdisciplinary courses and programs that link areas ranging from biology to engineering, economics to fine arts, languages to management. Those with theoretical skills will learn how best to apply them practically. New basic theories will flourish in the interdisciplinary mix.

* Second, we will expand the ground-breaking efforts begun by the Lauder Institute, and change international studies from a single program to a fully integrated process of learning. We will send Penn graduates out into the world with a global perspective and a self-confident global facility.

* Third, we will maintain our historic engagement with technology. It is a tool for education that broadens the reach of our classrooms. It is also a critical area of inquiry because technological change is impacting virtually every aspect of life around the globe.

These are the types of initiatives to give future Penn graduates the best mix of “theory” and “practice.” Penn will also develop new forms of teaching and learning.

What makes sense for this new Sega Genesis Generation? It doesn’t mean replacing professors with computers. It doesn’t mean turning French literature into a video game. But it does mean recognizing that the fascination young people have with computers comes from the fact that these machines provide tools for inventing worlds, exploring hypotheses, and stretching imaginations. They encourage students to be active explorers rather than passive recipients of information.

We already have examples of this potential. Last spring, in our Classics Department, Professor James O’Donnell taught a seminar on St. Augustine to ten students in Williams Hall, and to 375 others all over the world, from Hong Kong to Istanbul, who participated on the Internet. Professor O’Donnell reports that the core classroom experience was far more active and self-directed as his students interacted with invisible participants around the world.

We will break down the notion that students can only learn by listening to lectures and reading textbooks.

We will break down the notion that teaching is a mission apart from research.

That is the direction in which we must move–developing more and different kinds of experiential learning. We will do these things to enhance, not replace, that core educational ingredient — the faculty-student contact.  That is why students come to Penn. That is what will continue to draw them here.

As Penn moves forward with these initiatives we must also continue our commitment to diversity among students, faculty and staff. We will keep Penn open to all. We will be current with the changing aspirations and values of our population. We will expand our many linkages with universities and institutions around the globe. We will solidify our position as a world leader in the sharing of knowledge, research and teaching and the exchange of cultural and intellectual heritages.

Theory joined to practice, research fused with teaching, the advancement of knowledge linked to real world dilemmas: this is the Penn we will lead into the 21st Century.

Universities are popularly called “ivory towers.” This wonderful image goes back to the French poet Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. In 1837, in a poem called August Thoughts, he referred to the isolated life of the poet Alfred de Vigny, as “more secret, as if in his tower of ivory, retired before noon.”

Our towers at Penn are anything but ivory and isolated. They are real and gritty, from the green serpentine stone of College Hall to these glorious gothic massings of Irvine and the red brick everywhere — from Franklin Field to the Quad. But we do not stop there. By water and highway, by train and bus, and by thousands of intangible ties of the lives of so many of us, Penn’s towers extend to all of Philadelphia. For more than 250 years, Philadelphia has rooted these halls with a relevance — yes, a sense of the “practical” if you will, to inform our often theoretical deliberations.

Philadelphia is my home town. I first came to Penn three decades ago, wide-eyed, only because of a precious scholarship for local students.  Returning here, I find special meaning and emotion in so many of each day’s rituals and experiences — not the least of which was recently joining my Penn contemporary Ed Rendell in presenting this year’s equally proud, determined and wide-eyed Mayor’s Scholars.

I have no doubt that this city, despite its problems, is one of Penn’s greatest blessings. It is central to the Penn experience — not a world apart. I intend to work every day that I am here, as both a personal and an institutional mission, with community leaders and public officials, with our schools and health clinics, on things both large and small, to enhance the relationship in ways that will enrich both Penn and Philadelphia. We are, and must be, truly one.

These days there is much talk that cynicism is sweeping over the American spirit, that people are losing faith in institutions, that they are coming to believe that action and involvement are futile. That change is impossible. I have heard the cynics. But that is not all I have heard across this campus since my return:

I have heard students speak with compassion about the plight of kids in Philadelphia’s ghettos, as well as Bosnia and Somalia. I have watched them do something in response.

I have heard faculty explain their research with passion and their constant search for new ways to make teaching a more magical experience.

I have heard the loyal dedication of staff members to both the ideals of education and the care of “their” students and faculty.

I have heard and been moved by neighbors reaching out for our partnership in this great community.

And I have heard with gratitude the steadfast support of alumni who believe that if anything can make a difference in this world, it is the advancement of knowledge.

Penn’s trustees have provided me with an awe-inspiring challenge. I come to it with a passion for education, a reverence for this institution, and an excitement about how we can seize the future. I am committed to creating a process of change at Penn, a process that will enable major new initiatives in our educational programs and in the scholarly pursuits of our faculty. I am determined that Penn can and will meet the forces of uncertainty head-on — with our own clarity of purpose and our own focused mission.

But we can do this only if all of us recommit ourselves to Penn. Together we can and must create the vision, the passion, the energy to move Penn forward — despite the critics, naysayers, and second-guessers.

Together, let us feel the glory and power of this place and its history;

Together, let us be advocates for Penn’s needs, Penn’s mission and Penn’s common good.

Together, let us celebrate Penn’s special legacy and unique gifts, and proudly hold our rightful place among America’s and the world’s leading academic institutions.

Penn deserves no less.

Together, let us move ahead.