Dialogue in the Seat of Democracy

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Big issues, ideas, and opportunities lie ahead.

By Liz Magill

At the end of June, I experienced one of those moments that serves as a reminder of just what a great university like Penn is all about. At the start of a busy and event-filled weekend, I had the opportunity to sit in a circle with a half-dozen or so newly minted Penn graduates for a relaxed but freewheeling discussion about the big issues, ideas, and opportunities that lie ahead as, collectively, we look to the future.

The setting could not have been more appropriate or conducive to our conversation. We were in Athens, in the National Library of Greece, located within the stunning Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center overlooking the Aegean Sea. Our chairs were drawn in a loose circle—a handful of Penn faculty and staff along with the students who had the distinction of forming the inaugural cohort of Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Fellows and who had graduated only a month earlier in May.

Appropriately, our conversation occurred within the aptly named “book castle” of the National Library, a square tower measuring 20 meters on each side that extends the height of the soaring building, with open shelves holding some of the most important volumes in the library’s million-plus book collection. Just the day before, CNN Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour had sat in the same space to conduct a wide-ranging discussion about world affairs with former US president Barack Obama. In our own way, we were having the same conversation, but with the leaders of tomorrow.

This was a very special group of students who had come to Athens. They had flown in to attend an annual conference and festival of arts the Stavros Niarchos Foundation hosts in support of its mission to promote access to art, education, healthcare, and life’s other essentials across the globe. Less than five years ago, the foundation made an important investment in the future of undergraduate education at Penn by funding the SNF Paideia Program, designed to advance and promote civic dialogue in undergraduate education. The word paideia comes to us from ancient Greek and conveys the concept of educating the whole person—morally, intellectually, and physically. It is rooted in the concept of a complete education, combining active learning with synthesis of diverse types of knowledge to create well-rounded citizens and future leaders. In recognition of the importance the foundation places on Penn’s program, we were joined in our discussion by our host and friend Andreas Dracopoulos W’86, the copresident of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and original patron of Penn’s Paideia Program.

In true Penn fashion, our SNF Paideia Program has gone from idea to effective implementation in a remarkably brief time. Since the program was announced in March of 2019, it has welcomed three separate cohorts of Paideia Fellows from among our undergraduate classes, sponsored or cosponsored more than 100 events, and helped identify and promote over 30 Paideia-designated courses in the undergraduate curriculum. Fellows, participants, and casual visitors to any of the program’s events are exposed to the skills and knowledge useful to engage in dialogue across lines of difference. Underlying the effort is the belief that democracy doesn’t work without citizens committed to the core democratic values of free thought, robust and respectful exchange of ideas, and the commitment of each to the good of all.

This last value is what came across most clearly in our discussion on that day in Athens. Each one of the Paideia Fellows spoke about how they intended to use their Penn education and the opportunities they were afforded by the Paideia Program to make their own individual marks as champions of civil society. It was a discussion, not a presentation, which lent the get together a wonderful sense of optimism and excitement at what lies ahead. For these newest Penn graduates, the world was all before them and was an energizing prospect.

That discussion sticks with me because it offers insight into two questions I have been exploring since I arrived at Penn last summer. What does the world need from Penn and how do we best cultivate a community that will rise to that challenge? These questions guided our Red and Blue Advisory Committee’s work for the Tomorrow, Together strategic planning process, which I’ve described in previous columns.

The committee has since fulfilled its charge. They held more than 40 focused meetings with the University community; facilitated three open forums for students, faculty, and staff; closely read hundreds of comments submitted online; and engaged deeply with all 12 Schools. Led by Provost John L. Jackson Jr., the committee then collated and condensed all they heard from our Penn community and earlier this summer reported their findings to me.

At their core, their findings centered on how to advance Penn’s excellence across the board: from the transformative Penn student experience to our world-class teaching, research, and clinical care, from our cross-disciplinary strengths to our partnerships both local and global.

Major themes that emerged included furthering Penn’s interdisciplinary teaching and research; our uncommon combination of excellence in both the liberal arts and professional education and how each can support and enhance the other; the opportunities at hand to build on Penn’s signature strengths to address pressing challenges such as climate change and global health; and continuing to ensure that we undertake Penn’s academic missions with a clear eye toward improving lives and communities in our great city and across the globe.

As I write this, I’m considering the committee’s findings as well as reflecting on my own observations and taking into account the many sources of input I have received in the past year. All with the goal of soon sharing next steps for shaping a vision for this remarkable institution.

For now, I’m deeply grateful for the work and dedication of the faculty, staff, and students of the Red and Blue Advisory Committee. These University citizens took on a considerable task, and they have been unfailingly wise, collaborative, and singularly focused on fulfilling their charge. No less, I want to thank and applaud everyone involved with the SNF Paideia Program, from our hosts in Athens to the faculty, staff, and student fellows of the program.

What does the world need from Penn, and how do we cultivate a community that will meet that challenge? As we continue to explore these big questions, I am grateful that so many people across our great University—even all the way to Athens—tirelessly pursue their own answers every day.

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