Campus development is much more than bricks and mortar.
By Amy Gutmann | Consider for a moment a single neuron. It is a conduit for electrical impulses, perfectly designed to relay signals. Combine it with other neurons via synapses, and those electric signals take flight resulting in movement, in reaction, even in thought. Gather roughly 800, and you would have a system capable of controlling a jellyfish; with just under 800 million the brain of a cat can take shape; at around 86 billion neurons, the adult human brain comes to life.
As any of Penn’s neuroscientists can tell us, we know what neurons are. We have an ever-growing understanding of how they physically work. Yet what still flummoxes even our best understanding is this: Out of the 100 trillion neural connections that compose a human brain, how does a human mind come to be? Personality and purpose, strengths and shortcomings, identity and ideas—we’re only beginning to delve into how these things grow from—and have an effect on—the physical structures from which they originate.
This race to understand the three-pound gray organ between our ears carries some of the highest stakes for human health and happiness. President Barack Obama declared neuroscience research among the nation’s greatest priorities by introducing the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. As part of BRAIN, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which I chair, has been working on some of the most pressing questions at the intersection of neuroscience, ethics, and society. And here at Penn, we very recently announced our latest Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor appointment: the James S. Riepe University Professor Michael Platt, who holds appointments in neuroscience at the Perelman School, in psychology at the School of Arts and Sciences, and in marketing at the Wharton School. Here, he joins one of the world’s greatest interdisciplinary assemblies of faculty and clinician researchers in hot pursuit of knowledge about the brain.
With these events in mind lately, I’ve begun to see similarities that extend beyond questions of mere physiology into the life of the University itself. In particular, I have been thinking about Penn’s campus and how we have renewed and transformed Penn’s physical home over the past decade, first with our Penn Connects plan and now with Penn Connects 2.0. This momentum continues with a wide range of fantastic projects now underway. But beyond new buildings and renovated spaces, what is it exactly that we are attempting to do? What is this amalgamation of bricks and labs and beds all about?
I propose that Penn’s campus, too, is a kind of a brain. It is a physical organization comprised of many structures designed for the amplification and transmission of signals. It gives life and function and direction to a body—in this case, the University itself. Recall the Medieval understanding of the word “university” was a body of teachers and students; later, as an organized body of schools. From those earliest days, it has been often noted that there is a mystery in exactly how a university’s “mind”—its personality, purposes, and passions—emerges, while it has been universally agreed that no two universities, no matter how similar in form and function, are quite alike. Universities have personalities, as surely as living things. And those personalities far outlast the lives of the students, professors, provosts, and presidents who come and go over the generations. Surely some measure of the “mind” of a university can be had from the physical spaces that make up, and exert influence on, a university’s “brain.”
When we look at campus in this way, we elevate our thinking about campus development far beyond bricks and mortar. We come to think as well about connections, and interactions, and the myriad ways in which proximity, location, accessibility, and other physical attributes can encourage or dissuade good thinking. Thoughtfully designed classrooms and labs become neurons; sustainably beautiful sidewalks and study commons become synapses; and a well-placed library coffee shop or a lush park becomes the birthplace of the next groundbreaking creative spark. These are conduits for the many possible connections among our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and neighbors. When done well, they beautifully knit together a world-class research and teaching university and make it ideal for generating creative ideas and life transforming innovations.
To achieve this integrated ideal with Penn Connects and Penn Connects 2.0, we focused on four synergistic themes: Teaching and Scholarship; Research and Clinical Care; Living and Learning; and Campus and Community. Through all our projects—from our award-winning Singh Center for Nanotechnology to Penn Park to the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine—we’re maximizing collaboration and creativity among Penn’s 12 Schools. We are attracting and empowering the world’s leading researchers and clinicians. And we’re extending learning beyond the classroom in meaningful ways. What’s more, we’re building vital gateways to Penn’s community and the world. Major projects soon to be complete—including the New College House, Perry World House, the Neural Behavioral Science Center, the Pennovation Center, and the Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics—are poised to advance us even further toward the ideal.
If we look at our progress simply by the numbers, Penn has added 3.5 million square feet of new construction and 1.5 million square feet of renovation since we began a decade ago. Those are some staggering figures. But with numbers only, it can be hard to grasp just how much has been accomplished simply by way of new and renovated campus space over the past decade. So, here’s the brain game I invite you to play with me: picture in your mind the Empire State Building. There it is, towering over Manhattan, one of the largest and most iconic office buildings in the world. Now, imagine the Empire State Building transported, instead, to Locust Walk on Penn’s campus. That gets us part way to our 5 million square feet of new and renovated space realized by our Penn Connects master plan. But only part way. So now picture with me the Chrysler Building on Locust Walk as well, right next to the Empire State. That’s a pictorial representation of how dramatically Penn Connects has transformed our campus. Yet those towering skyscrapers plunked into the middle of Penn’s campus would leave roughly 200,000 square feet to spare before we captured in its entirety how much new and renovated space is energizing Penn’s campus over the past decade alone!
The true success of our campus development plan cannot be measured fully in these staggering numbers or the slew of impressive architectural awards and environmentally sustainable contributions (and LEED certifications) that Penn Connects has produced. We know it rather by how well our neurons fire, by how connective our synapses prove to be. Our socially generative success is measured by the truly transformational ways that this beautiful brain—the Penn campus writ large—creates and shares ideas with the world. By these measures, Penn Connects and Penn Connects 2.0 have proven successful far beyond our first imaginings. Indeed, what is occurring on the Penn campus today has to be seen and experienced in the flesh to be truly understood. Whether you visited Penn’s campus last year or 20 years ago, I encourage all Penn alumni to come home and witness this transformation for yourselves. For the essence of a well-built university campus is this: In the adult human brain, there are 100 trillion neural connections. In the well-designed world-class research university campus, the possibilities for connection are limitless.