A New Year of New Opportunities

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A turn of the calendar offers us the welcome hope and soulful inspiration to reconnect and reengage.

By Amy Gutmann

On one particularly dark day, famed University of California system president Clark Kerr quipped in exasperation that universities are merely “a series of individual entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance about parking.” My own experiences of 16 years leading Penn puts the lie to that myth of the atomistic academic community. I would call Penn anything but atomistic! Over and over at Penn, I have witnessed the power of the possible: “Here is the opportunity—what can we make of it?”

A small but meaningful example comes from our beautiful campus that so many have missed and dreamed of returning to during the long months of 2020. Periodically and very carefully over the years, the University has added to the outdoor art collection permanently displayed here. Two advisory committees review proposed gifts, purchases, commissions, and public art at the University. New sculptures are chosen and placed with the utmost care, following a deliberate protocol in which experts assess where individual pieces best fit and belong within the overall aesthetic of the campus. Their job—which they perform magnificently—is to advise me on the right place and context for great art to reside. Once the sculpture resides on campus, the Penn community decides what to make of this new opportunity, which so often they do through some unknowable but emphatically assured collective intelligence. No one person decides. Everyone does.

We all know, for instance, that the Button—the iconic sculpture Split Button by husband-and-wife team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen—is the place for children to play and people to meet before getting lunch or grabbing coffee. Nearby, John Boyle’s 1899 bronze sculpture of a seated Ben Franklin is where overseas visitors stop for group portraits, and Kite and Key Society campus tour leaders jump up on the lower pedestal to give starry-eyed high school students and their families the real inside scoop about what is truly most special about Penn. Further up Locust Walk, George Lundeen’s 1987 bronze Benjamin Franklin—that we all know simply as “Ben on the Bench”—is the spot for post-graduation portraiture, preferably in full academic regalia. While in the small, grassy triangle fronting Cohen Hall, Robert Indiana’s world-renowned LOVE sculpture is where Penn graduates, newlyweds, and the newly engaged snap selfies, and the entire Penn community also gathers to find solace in one another in times of tragedy. It is, in a sense, the heart of Penn’s campus, manifesting love in its many dimensions.

This inner unscripted beat of Penn’s campus was very much with me in November, when I donned a mask and went to view the installation of the newest addition to the University’s public sculpture collection. Brick House, a nearly three-ton, 16-foot-high bronze sculpture by contemporary American artist Simone Leigh, now stands sentinel at the corner of 34th and Walnut Streets, the gateway to College Green and the welcoming entrance to so many of Penn’s visitors [“Arts,” this issue]. For this we owe special thanks to Penn alums Glenn Fuhrman W’87 WG’88 and Amanda Fuhrman C’95, who advocated for bringing it to our campus. This sculpture needs to be experienced first-hand to be fully appreciated. A stunning Black woman’s head atop a domed form that suggests a skirt or possibly a building, Leigh’s sculpture brings to a central crossroad of our campus a striking presence of strength, grace, and beauty—along with an ineffable sense of mystery, agency, and resilience.

Brick House is the perfect symbol of Penn’s academic Year of Civic Engagement. We mark this year through extensive programming and activity meant to encourage us all to consider what community engagement is and how we can foster it. The events of 2020, and in particular the spontaneous power of civic protest through the Black Lives Matter movement, made clear the need for us to redouble our collective efforts to confront issues of racial justice.

Recognizing our community-wide challenge, Provost Wendell Pritchett Gr’97 and I announced in June the creation of Penn Projects for Progress, a set of collaborative and innovative projects that will be initiated and led by our students, faculty, and staff to propel progress in our University, city, and society toward a more engaged and inclusive university community. We begin with an initial fund of $2 million that may be augmented by raising additional resources.

Penn Projects for Progress is one important new civic engagement initiative among many Penn has undertaken recently. Before the pandemic, Philadelphia suffered a healthcare blow with the closure of Hahnemann University Hospital. When we learned that Mercy Hospital may soon follow, Penn Medicine led an area partnership in saving it, keeping urgently-needed beds and frontline healthcare heroes working at the moment Philadelphians need them most. Soon after, we celebrated Penn Dental’s new Care Center for Persons with Disabilities, the only such resource in a region where 16 percent of our local family, friends, and neighbors face barriers to good dental care due to a disability.

From millions of dollars in grants to support local businesses in the pandemic to inviting Philadelphia high school students to participate online in Professor Angela Duckworth Gr’06’s Grit Lab this spring, Penn proves that to effect positive change, resources count, but funding alone is never sufficient. Real change comes only when you add dedicated and visionary leadership.

In this, Penn is fortunate to have the enormous depth of talent and willing advocacy of so many to call upon. Less than two weeks after initiating the Projects for Progress effort, we were delighted to make the additional announcement that our University chaplain, Charles L. “Chaz” Howard C’00, would assume the role of Penn’s first Vice President for Social Equity and Community [“Gazetteer,” Sep|Oct 2020]. Since assuming this title August 1, Chaz has been hard at work organizing initiatives that promote communication, support collaboration, and foster research and innovative programming within the Penn community. His focus serves to deepen awareness and help advance the University’s mission of fostering social equity, diversity, and inclusion while helping to overcome historical and structural barriers to advancing that vitally important mission.

I was thinking about the positive civic impact of such changes and programmatic initiatives—past, present, and future—as I watched a mobile crane and skilled crew carefully hoist Brick House into place on her specially constructed concrete platform. Significantly, she looks not inward toward the Penn campus, but outward to our neighbors and community members in a vibrant and confident West Philadelphia. “We see you,” she says, “and we know we are one.”

A week later, I was thrilled to join Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, School Board President Joyce Wilkerson, and Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia William R. Hite Jr., in unveiling Penn’s $100 million pledge to the School District of Philadelphia, an unprecedented commitment to the city and its public schoolchildren and the largest private contribution to the School District in its history [“Gazetteer,” this issue]. Penn will contribute $10 million annually for the next 10 years to the School District to help remediate environmental hazards in the city’s school buildings. This major commitment to our city seemed like the perfect christening—far better than any bottle of champagne—to launch Brick House on its future course in the life of Penn.

How then will Simone Leigh’s magnificent sculpture come to be woven into the fabric of campus life? In the midst of a devastating pandemic, this new year of 2021 offers us the welcome hope and soulful inspiration to reconnect and reengage. My fondest wish for us all is that this new decade marks the renaissance of our national spirit of connecting and engaging across divides. May the presence of Penn’s newest woman—this towering, magnificent woman who is Brick House—keep this foremost question in all our minds: Here is the opportunity—what will we make of it?

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