Apprizing the Penn Ethos

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The President’s Engagement Prize will fuel students’ fire for social service.


By Amy Gutmann | The guns had scarcely fallen silent on the Siege of Yorktown when Benjamin Franklin—living in Paris as America’s ambassador to France—began work on a pamphlet describing what sort of individual would most prosper by coming to his soon-to-be independent nation. America was a place, he wrote, “where people do not inquire concerning a Stranger, What is he? but, What can he do?”

Franklin wanted Europe’s aristocrats to know that individual distinction in America would be marked not by pedigree but by purposefulness. Ben knew whereof he spoke: this same focus on achievement as opposed to ancestry helped to define the graduates of the university he had founded several decades earlier. To this day, the distinctive ethos of the University of Pennsylvania reflects our founder’s ideal of an education that rewards talent and tenacity, honors drive and determination, and celebrates caring and concern for all humanity. We must never lose sight of our founder’s vision of a university dedicated to improving the world through knowledge. This engagement with communities here at home, across our country, and throughout our world—civic engagement, for short—is at the heart of the Penn Compact 2020, our coordinated effort to increase access, integrate knowledge, and engage locally, nationally, and globally to benefit all.

I have been giving special consideration recently to elevating the importance of civic engagement at Penn. Using knowledge as a force for good in the world is core to Penn’s strength and key to our staying power. We have every reason to celebrate the concern and caring for the broader community that so many of our faculty, students, and staff demonstrate so well. While the value Penn places on civic engagement is as firmly established in our ethos as the University itself, what has been missing has been some highly visible marker of this value as an integral and important component of a Penn education. Missing, that is, until now.

In August, I announced the creation of the President’s Engagement Prizes, awards that each year will highlight and support the most extraordinary efforts in serving the community planned by graduating Penn seniors. The Engagement Prizes will be competitively awarded annually to Penn seniors to undertake fully funded local, national, or global engagement projects during the first year after they graduate from Penn. Up to three prize recipients (either individuals or teams of up to three students each) will receive a generous living allowance for one year after graduation and up to $100,000 in project expenses. We hope to award one each for local, national, and global projects proposed.

The President’s Engagement Prize will be a unique and unprecedented way of putting Penn knowledge into Penn practice. Any undergraduate student in the College, Wharton, Nursing, or Engineering who will graduate in May, August, or December of the award year may apply. I like to think of it as a start-up fund for full-time civic engagement, enabling exceptional Penn students to bring purpose and passion together to work for the betterment of humankind beginning just as soon as they graduate.

There’s an incredible culture and history of civic engagement at Penn that is vibrantly alive in our classrooms, in our clinics, and in our community. Our students are distinguished by their drive not just to do their best, but to do so in ways that have a strong positive impact on people’s lives and circumstances. Students come to Penn and thrive here because we believe—as Franklin so admirably demonstrated throughout his long life—that our smarts and hard work are most meaningful when we use them to improve our society and help bring about a better world. These prizes are created specifically to publicly express these educational beliefs and to strengthen the Penn ethos. They will provide our graduating seniors with a highly prestigious prize tied to notably hard and good work in communities here at home and around the world. The prize represents a well-informed and ambitious opportunity for graduating Penn seniors to make a difference in our world.

Nobody else that we know of offers prizes of this magnitude for student projects focused exclusively on local, national, and global engagement. They are unique in scale and, yes, also maximally ambitious by design. Being a President’s Engagement Prize winner will be a badge of the highest level of post-baccalaureate civic imagination and action. It is a big prize because we are committed to having Penn graduates do big things in the world. It is a big prize as well because what an institution—or a society for that matter—publicly recognizes and rewards speaks loud and clear to its highest values. These prizes will give our students the profound opportunity to embark on their professional lives by working to transform the lives of others.

While any time would be a good time to create an award for civic engagement, I think it is especially appropriate to launch this initiative at this time. Increasingly in recent years, the national discussion about higher education has come to take an extremely narrow and atomistic view of the utility of attending college. “Value” in higher education in these discussions is measured primarily in metrics focused on the individual’s post-graduation economic experience—typically by the average or modal salary range for alumni five years out—with little or no attention to the enormous value society gains by going through the time, effort, and expense to richly educate each new generation of graduates. The focus today on the economic gain to college graduates is almost a complete inversion of the tradition and expectation that girded the founding of Penn, as is evidenced by Benjamin Franklin’s own assertion at that time that an educated youth is “the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths.” A university is, first and foremost, a social undertaking to create social good, he argued, that had as its chief aim the cultivation of educated individuals “qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.” Yes, educated people do well, but they do so by doing good.

Considering the time, effort, and expense that students must commit in order to earn a college degree, it is reasonable to assume that the return on investment of toil, tears, and treasure for the individual must be significant. But we do the greatest disservice to both the needs of our societies and the caring and creative capacity of our graduates when we fail to encourage and support the most laudable desire of our students to do good by using what they have learned to help others, instead of merely doing well by what they earn. In my 10 years as Penn’s president, I have seen this again and again: students want our encouragement to engage in public service. They seek institutional help in resisting the siren song of maximizing income, a song that gets amplified by everything from the highly publicized college rankings that focus on post-graduation income to the totally understandable job anxiety that attends a tight post-recession economy.

Despite all the pressures to the contrary, the Penn ethos of civic engagement is strongly enough embedded in our institutional mission that I frequently hear from students who avidly want to apply their Penn education to making a better world. In just the last couple of years—without the motivating focus of a prize—Penn students have embarked on some extraordinary self-initiated projects ranging from creating an institutional food recovery program to aid local Philadelphia food banks; to a public-policy initiative to reduce Medicaid expenses and improve patient health; to empowering youth in Southern Sudan. The President’s Engagement Prize will fuel this fire for social service. The prize will give all students, including those who might otherwise think they couldn’t afford it, an added reason to put their minds to work at creating a yearlong service project. The scope and scale of President’s Engagement Prize projects will be limited only by the creativity and resourcefulness of our students—which means, I am sure from experience, they will astound us and do Penn proud!

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