Commitment to Community

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It’s the surest way that we all move forward.

By Wendell Pritchett

If you’ve ever laced up a pair of skates and wobbled onto an ice rink for the very first time, it’s a feeling you never forget. Knees unsteady, hands in a strong grip on that low wall, the first freezing tumble, laughing as you get back up on your skates and try again—no matter how much time passes, it still feels like only yesterday.

I learned to skate at Penn, at the Class of 1923 Ice Rink, and I’ll never forget those sensations and moments. But what shines clearest are the people who were there, especially my friends. They encouraged, taught, teased, and laughed right along with me. I grew steadier on my skates, picked up speed, and reduced—though never eliminated—the frequency of my falls. As I slowly got the hang of it, I had people around me for support and to spur me on, as I supported and spurred on others.

Distilled to its simplest form, isn’t that the beginning of community?

From an early age, the power of communities and the intricate ecosystems that grow within and around them have fascinated me and shaped the person, scholar, teacher, and leader I’ve become. I was raised in Philly, in Center City and West Philadelphia, by two schoolteachers and a host of other family members. My dad, a classical pianist, taught music, and my mom taught English. And Penn figured prominently throughout my formative years. Not only did I lace up ice skates for the first time here, I also picked up my first racket at the Levy tennis courts, learned to play basketball at what used to be Gimbel Gym, and sat for my SATs and GREs at DRL (David Rittenhouse Laboratory). Later, I trained as a historian at Penn and went on to join the faculty, to teach and research, and eventually serve as interim dean of the Law School, provost, and now interim president.

So, I’ve seen firsthand just how much positive impact the University has had and continues to have on the city and region. Of course, Penn, like all old universities, has a complex history of community interaction. I know this from personal experience, too. My mother grew up in West Philadelphia, and the house she lived in as a child was acquired by the city through eminent domain for an urban renewal project. Now that property is part of the Penn campus.

Yes, there’s no denying that communities such as ours are complex, just as there’s no denying the outsized force for good Penn has been and can continue to be for our neighbors, the city and region, the nation and the world. Our work serves as an example of everything a global urban research university can do and should do to lift and strengthen communities near and far. Some recent milestones attest to the depth and breadth of Penn’s community engagement today.

At the start of the spring semester, Penn and our Graduate School of Education (GSE) announced an even stronger partnership with the Lea School, a K–8 public school in West Philadelphia. This initiative expands on half a century of Penn–Lea connections with a new commitment to contribute more than $4 million over the next five years. It also comes on the heels of Penn’s historic $100 million gift to the School District of Philadelphia for environmental remediation in our public schools.

Working together with the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Penn’s latest support will contribute to the Lea School’s most important priorities. At Penn, the new partnership will be led by our phenomenal GSE dean, Pam Grossman.

Soon after we announced the Lea School partnership, news broke on another community-changing gift, this time to Penn Nursing. In February, Penn celebrated a spectacular $125 million gift from alumnus and trustee emeritus Leonard Lauder W’54. The largest gift ever for an American nursing school, the funds will launch the Leonard A. Lauder Community Care Nurse Practitioner Program [“Gazetteer,” this issue]. Access to high-quality primary healthcare is a crisis in this country, especially for people in underserved communities. Leonard’s transformational gift addresses this need with funding for future generations of Penn-trained nurse practitioners, essential community partnerships, and an endowed professorship. We are enormously grateful for Leonard’s leadership on this critical challenge.

As I put the finishing touches on this column, we are busy preparing for another historic community-affirming event, one of surpassing importance not only for this year’s graduates but for another Penn class as well. For the very first time in our long history, Penn is hosting two back-to-back weekends of Commencement: one for the Class of 2022 and one, long awaited, for the Class of 2020, which had to forego in-person ceremonies due to the pandemic.

Few communities anywhere on the planet enjoy stronger ties than the Penn alumni community. (As a member myself, I know this well.) A huge milestone for all Penn alums is their Commencement, and the Class of 2020 endured a pandemic and waited so patiently for theirs. That day fast approaches. We will joyfully reunite and celebrate the extraordinary achievements of the Classes of both 2022 and 2020 and reaffirm all the amazing ties that bind us together as one Penn community.

Over the past couple of years, our world and our lives have been in many ways upended. Like that first time ice skating, all of us have felt off-balance, our path more precarious, unsure if or when each new moment will knock us off our feet. But that’s the thing about committing to community: We do it not only to make life better and to grow opportunity for as many people as possible, especially those who have been historically underserved. We commit because when times get tough, when the world goes wobbly, when we encounter unfamiliar challenges and endure setbacks, when we slide out on that ice, it’s community we all lean on. It’s community that lifts us back up and spurs us on.

Growing up the way I did in this city, with the parents I had, and especially with Penn, this lesson always holds true: Commitment to community is the surest way that we all move forward. And with its phenomenal, broad-ranging commitment, Penn is leading the way.

Wendell Pritchett Gr’97 was named Penn’s interim president in February and will serve in that role until M. Elizabeth Magill begins her tenure on July 1.

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