A Penn Beginning
I am in awe of the capacities and resources that make this University so special.
By Liz Magill
I had a sweet start to my arrival at Penn. The day after the July 4th holiday, we set up tables on College Green and served up free scoops of ice cream. Five days into my brand-new job as Penn’s ninth president, I was standing out in front of my office in a Penn apron helping to scoop from a selection of chocolate, vanilla, or coffee (yes, coffee ice cream, a personal favorite of mine). Thankfully, I had some help. Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein EAS’93, Senior Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli W’85, some of the President’s Office staff, and a handful of terrific professional caterers all pitched in. Which was a good thing, and even a lucky thing.
When I first suggested hosting an ice cream social on my first full day in the office, there was a little bit of skepticism. Fresh off the July 4th holiday and at the start of the dog days of July, who would be around to eat ice cream? Would anyone even show up?
But show up they did, in numbers. By the end of the hour-and-a-half event, we’d served more than 2,000 cups of ice cream, demonstrating that if you scoop it, they will come. It even earned its own hashtag, #ChillwithMagill. The success of that event also affirmed one of my long-standing, if uncontroversial, beliefs: ice cream is a joy.
Even more than that, the long lines of smiling faculty, staff, deans, coaches, and (especially exciting) a great turnout of both graduate and undergraduate students showed that at every time of the year, something exciting is always happening at Penn. Sitting on a bench close to the familiar Benjamin Franklin statue while enjoying a vanilla ice cream that I had scooped for her, School of Nursing admissions officer Sylvia English exactly captured the mood of the moment. Looking out over the crowd who were enjoying their ice cream in the sun or waiting patiently in line for their own, she declared, “This campus never sleeps.”
She’s right, and it didn’t take an ice cream social to prove the point. I learned just how dynamic a place Penn is during the months of preparation I spent prior to my first day on the job. What the ice cream social did do, on the other hand, was to give me an opportunity to spend a sunny afternoon meeting and hearing from students, from staff, and from faculty at work in nearly every corner of the University. And I loved it.
One of the things I have always done as a dean, then provost, and I will continue now as president has been to learn from others by asking questions. You are about to graduate; what was the defining moment of being a student here? You have been researching in the lab and teaching in the classroom for more than a decade; where do we need to invest additional resources? Behind the scenes, you have quietly been keeping this University running for your whole career; what worries do you have for our future and what opportunities should we be seizing? The ice cream social was a wonderful opportunity to pose these kinds of questions to a host of different Penn people.
I have been asking questions of a similar sort ever since I was first elected president, all in an effort to get to know Penn better. By now, I have listened to hundreds of students and staff, faculty and alumni, community members and friends of Penn from far and near. It has been a great chorus of voices, but actually across it all I have heard a fairly consistent message. There is an underlying conviction that defines the Penn experience. We do so many things, and we do them so well. Yet in talking with people across the University, one core idea prevails. At some basic level, it animates all we do. It’s a simple, but powerful idea: knowledge solves problems.
Here at Penn, a sense of purpose-driven optimism lies at the core of all our efforts. It is Franklinian in its conviction that by knowing more, and understanding more deeply, solutions can be postulated, tested, and confirmed. Society, and the human experience, can be made better. That belief is deep in the Penn DNA. And while the people here celebrate Penn’s past successes, they are also always looking forward. It is a place where one researcher can say: I wonder what the role of inflammation is in cancer? Another can question assumptions about Medieval social norms. While a third can seek a solution for storing solar energy. This is an environment that fosters collaboration between students and faculty offering legal help to immigrants. It encourages the dreamer who thinks there might be a way to monetize recycling in one of the poorest nations on earth and facilitates the determination of another to spend hours at the new innovation center perfecting vegan ice cream. Penn is a place where programs promote civil discourse. Ensure accuracy in the media. Infuse the arts throughout the curriculum. Mentor local public school students. Where students who are the first in their family to attend college earn not only degrees, but an entirely new understanding of what’s possible.
A defining moment in my own life occurred when I was an undergraduate. Fifteen hundred miles from the high plains of my hometown of Fargo, I sat in undergraduate classrooms in New Haven, and came alive with excitement about the study of history. It is there that I realized that learning, knowledge, and discovery mattered deeply to me. Knowledge does indeed solve problems. My belief in and passion for the power of knowledge has persisted unabated ever since. Great teachers in a great academic environment did that for me, as they have done for generations of students before and since.
The pursuit of knowledge, the quest for discovery, the thirst for understanding, these are, together, an unalloyed good—a joy—as wonderful as scoops of free ice cream on a hot summer’s day. I arrive at Penn in awe of the capacities and resources that make this University so special. The tradition here is of exceptional work, amplified by Penn’s innate disposition to always look forward to the next challenge and opportunity. It is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to lead, and I look forward to joining with you on this journey.