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Don’t Look Back (Yet): Penn President Judith Rodin CW’66 announced her decision to step down a year in advance to help assure a smooth transition and give Penn the pick of the presidential talent pool, but she plans to be on the job until June 30, 2004: “I want to be confident and have the community be confident that everything we’ve achieved is systematized and doesn’t need me in place.”

“It is both the right decision for me and the right decision for Penn,” says Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66 of her June 20th announcement that she will step down as the University’s president as of June 30, 2004, after having served 10 years in the office. A great believer in the value of long-range planning—with the manifold successes of the Agenda for Excellence to prove her case [“The Agenda for Excellence, 1995-2000,” September/October 2001]—the president chose to end her term at the decade mark based on the fact that she couldn’t commit to staying on long enough to carry out Penn’s next strategic plan.

But that doesn’t mean she’s ready to pack up her office quite yet. In the (relative) hush of summer on campus, two things became clear: President Rodin intends to make her last year as president as full of activity and accomplishment as the preceding nine. And trustee chairman James Riepe W’65 WG’67, who will be heading the presidential search committee, is determined that the University will have a new leader in place and ready to take over when her term ends. With Penn having surged ahead under Rodin in virtually all academic measures—from rankings, to selectivity in admissions, to research funding—and with campus and neighborhood initiatives in full swing, the goal is to achieve a seamless transition in order to keep that momentum going strong.

Penn Provost Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73, who calls working with Rodin a “wonderful experience” and praises her interpersonal skills, intelligence, vision and “ability to direct from a distance—to let the people working for her have their head and run with a project when they’re on the right course,” also singles out the president’s “courage.” Not many people could make the decision “to leave at the very pinnacle of their success—and that certainly characterizes Judy at this point in her career,” he says. 

Barchi adds that Rodin is owed a debt of gratitude for the “great shape” in which she is leaving the University, given the achievements of her tenure and a clear plan in place for the future. “It’s the ideal situation to make a change in leadership with the least possible impact on the momentum that the University has gained,” he says.

In the meantime, “She will be continuing to function full-bore as president,” he adds. “I don’t see any suggestion that she will back off, or that she will coast, or that she will do anything but be as fully engaged and as aggressive in her presidency as she has been for nine years.”

Reflecting on her decision in an interview in her College Hall office, Rodin calls herself “very privileged” to have led the University through an “extraordinary time,” in which “we’ve exceeded even our dreams about where to go and how to get there.”

The University is now “doing what we ought to be doing, which is planning in eight to 10 year horizons,” she says. As work on the new strategic plan—Building on Excellence: The Leadership Agenda—approached completion, “it was very clear to me that [that] was probably too much.” And, she adds, if an institution is to be well served, length of service “ought to be based on the strategic plans and ambitions of the institution and not on the personal needs and goals of the president. 

“I finished the first strategic plan. We are in a terrific place. The next strategic plan will take us to the next place, and I would expect the trustees to look for somebody who is willing and able to make another 10-year commitment,” because that’s what will be needed, she says.

The fact that some other leading institutions were engaged in presidential searches also entered into the timing of the announcement. “I don’t think there is a massive talent pool” for university presidents, Rodin explains. “I think that we have both terrific internal candidates and some strong people externally—but it’s not infinite. I wanted to make sure that Penn had first pick, and I thought that everything I had worked for had made us deserve to be in that position. So, again it seemed like the right time.”

One change since her announcement is that Rodin will not, as was initially reported, take on a newly created part-time position of chancellor, focusing on fundraising efforts, following her presidency. Concerned that it might provoke confusion in the higher-education community—in some institutions, chancellor denotes the chief executive—Rodin has decided to forego the title. “I think both the trustees and I were going through separation anxiety,” she says with a laugh, adding that she was “very honored and flattered” by their wish to “indicate with some title an involvement that I will have” in any case.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Penn raised $465 million in gifts and pledges —the largest total ever, despite the weak economy. Rodin vows to do “whatever I can do to help the trustees and [new] president to make sure that we keep that pace, because we desperately need it—although it’s a fortune of money, and we’re grateful that our alumni and friends are so generous,” she says. “In order to keep that momentum going, I will stay involved as long as I’m needed.”

(The position of Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations, which has been vacant since Virginia B. Clark resigned last July, will now go unfilled until a new president is selected, Rodin adds, at which point “the new president and I will seek that individual together.” Medha Narvekar WG’86, who has been serving as interim VP—“and doing an extraordinary job, as those numbers indicate,” Rodin says—will continue in that role.)

In the coming year, Barchi says, the administration will begin to “fine-tune the specific elements of the new strategic plan, identify the areas in which we want to focus early and those that we might be looking at a little later on in this eight-year cycle,” as well as examine how to best communicate the themes and goals of the plan to alumni, friends, and other constituencies. “It’s been a very well-orchestrated and carefully thought-through process over the last 18 months, and we still have a lot of work to do,” says Barchi, adding that he expects that work to continue “with the same level of intensity that we have [had] in the last few years.” (The plan text is online at plan.html.)

Noting that, this past year, she had chaired the faculty committee on the Urban Community —one of the five academic priorities in the new plan, designed to differentiate Penn from peers—Rodin says she wants “to help to actually implement that” this year. “I want to make sure that I consolidate Penn’s gains in West Philadelphia, integrate our academic activities in urbanism with our institutional activities in West Philadelphia.”

Overall, her goal is to make sure that “we really have in place clearly and solidly the foundational elements for the next strategic plan,” she says. “I want to be confident and have the community be confident that everything we’ve achieved is systematized and doesn’t need me in place to make that happen going forward. And that’s just going to take some work and some attention because some of these things have been built on relationships.”

While her focus is still squarely on the future, Rodin does note that there are three achievements in which she takes particular satisfaction: “The extraordinary academic gains that we have made; what has happened in West Philadelphia—in schooling, and housing, and retail development, and building the economic capacity back into the neighborhood,” she says. “And third is the turnaround of the Health System,” which a few years ago had racked up losses totaling some $350 million. “It was a very difficult episode for Penn generally and for me personally, and we are in such wonderful shape, and we have such great leadership and such incredible strategic aspirations—just seeing where we are now compared to where we were is phenomenal.”

Last year, the president visited several cities to report to alumni on the results of the Agenda for Excellence. While she is leery of anything that smacks of a “goodbye tour,” which she regards as “self-indulgent,” she hopes to work with alumni relations and others to “figure out a framework and a format that really will work for the alumni and give me a chance in my last year to see as many people as possible.

“But remember,” she adds, “I am and always will be a Penn alum, so I’m never going to give up my involvement with Penn as an alum in whatever roles I can play in that regard.”

As for her post-presidential plans, Rodin insists that, so far, she doesn’t have any. “I am so still deeply engaged in what we’re doing here, and I am after all a member of the faculty—a Fox Leadership Professor,” she says. “I’m thinking already about a couple of books that I want to write, so I don’t feel any urgency to make any decisions beyond that.”

As trustee chair James Riepe tells it, the response of his colleagues to Rodin’s announcement was a mixture of regret, understanding, and gratitude. “I think the reaction was, ‘We’re sorry you’re leaving, but what a tremendous nine and soon to be 10 years you’ve had.’” he says.

Riepe agrees that now—in the interim between the conclusion of one strategic plan and the implementation of the next—is the best time for a transition, if one needs to be made, especially given the other presidential searches under way. “It’s a good time for a successor to come in and put his or her mark on [the new] plan,” he says.

A presidential search committee composed of trustees, faculty, and students starts work in September. Riepe’s decision to head the committee himself was modeled on that of Al Shoemaker W’60 Hon’95, who was the trustee chair when then-Yale Provost Judith Rodin was picked as president in 1994. “I remembered him saying, ‘There’s no more important decision that the trustees make than the new leader, and I want to be in charge of the search,’” Riepe recalls. “My attitude is exactly the same.”

Riepe has set a fast-track schedule for the process, with the aim of having the search committee develop a short list of candidates by December. That will then go to the executive committee of the trustees, which by statute actually recommends the candidate. Their choice would be presented to the full board of trustees for approval in early 2004. Unlike at public universities, the process is designed to remain confidential until that person is chosen—an advantage for private universities when considering candidates who may be reluctant to have their home institutions know they are interviewing.

One of the first things on the committee’s “to do” list, Riepe says, will be to work out the challenges the University faces in the next 5-10 years and the leadership characteristics needed in that context. “People ask me, ‘How are you going to replace Judy?’ but the real issue is not to replace [her] but to do what we did nine years ago, and that is to [ask] what kind of person do we need going forward to lead Penn? That’s the discussion that you want to have,” Riepe says. (Rodin will meet with the committee, but neither she nor Provost Barchi will be involved in its deliberations.)

While Rodin’s successor will be coming on board with a plan of action already in place, “there will always be an opportunity for a new leader to make modifications and introduce some novel aspects,” Barchi says. The broad outlines are likely to stay, however, given that the planning process has involved “most of the elements of the University at various times and at various levels of intensity,” he says. “It really does represent a plan that we all have taken part in creating.” With such a strong consensus, “you don’t want to scrap it and start over and lose momentum.”

“I’ve been incredibly impressed with the outpouring of support and appreciation for Judy” since her announcement, says Riepe. “I think that reflects well not just on her but on the whole institution. We think that this is going to make the presidency of Penn a very attractive position for people, so I’m quite encouraged. We’re in a wonderful place right now, and our challenge is to get the kind of leadership that can keep us in that position.” —J.P.

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