Lessons In Leadership

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Changing the world from within.


By Amy Gutmann

This past fall, Penn hosted a remarkable array of leaders. On just one Tuesday in September, for example, we welcomed the 47th US Vice President and Penn Presidential Professor of Practice Joe Biden in conversation with former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Hours later, former UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor Susan Rice and General H.R. McMaster, another former National Security Advisor, engaged with some of the most pressing issues of our time. To top the day off, Vice President Biden and I made a surprise stop at a Penn Leads the Vote event, where Penn students mobilized to register to vote in record numbers. All of this occurred just after we announced that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush joined the Penn community as a Presidential Professor of Practice for 2018-2019.

The opportunity to learn from some of the world’s foremost experts, one Penn senior said to me that day, exceeded her wildest dreams. For me, it exemplified the many powerful ways Penn is leading across divides, changing lives, and making a global impact.

Three days earlier, Penn hosted another gathering of leaders. Over 100 presidents, provosts, and senior administrators traveled here to campus from a remarkable array of colleges and universities all across the country. They gathered to discuss not foreign relations or national security but the state of our efforts to grow inclusion and excellence in higher education.

To discuss these issues, especially right now, is to grapple with some of the most pressing challenges facing our society and world today. How and why we build a more inclusive, more diverse, more dynamic, and more equitable society is fundamental to how we approach just about everything we do as a nation and world. The great task of advancing equity and excellence within our institutions and throughout society could not be more urgent. From sustainable energy to global health, we see the enormous challenges our world faces. History also teaches us the essential importance of advancing knowledge and understanding across divides in tackling the greatest problems.

To solve the toughest of problems, we must be at our very best. We must be maximally creative. This means, perforce, that we must be at our most inclusive and diverse to tap the widest range of great talent. No less fundamental is the matter of justice and equity. Building an ever more diverse and inclusive university—and society—isn’t just the smart thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.

Our progress on some fronts has been frustratingly slow. But we have successfully increased the momentum toward a more welcoming academy. A large part of that success comes because—until now—widespread agreement existed across higher education, the federal government, and many state and local governments that this work serves the common good, spurring on both social and economic growth.

This once hard-won shared consensus has eroded. At a moment when demography is bringing our country together toward ever richer diversity, demagoguery threatens to pull us apart. Political opponents in a democracy—from whom we can learn and with whom we need to compromise—are too often treated as enemies. At the same time as we need to make more headway in addressing stubborn and longstanding structural inequities, public opinion and political action have increasingly dismissed the values of truth-telling and of robust and civil discourse across divides, values at the heart of higher education to which Penn and I are devoted. A significant segment of our nation no longer believes in our mission. Many more now distrust all institutions. Tribalism gains strength. Expertise and intellectualism are often distrusted, sometimes openly mocked. Coarseness and cruelty across divides are the new norms in large parts of public discourse and practice.

This constitutes an existential challenge for leadership in higher education. It’s also an existential challenge for the fundamental values of truth-telling, respect, and understanding across divides. Like so many others, I have a very personal connection to these issues. I experienced firsthand the transformative power of inclusion and opportunity. My Jewish father fled Nazi Germany. My parents could not go to college. My father did not live to see me go to college. My mother got by on Social Security benefits and a secretary’s salary. She could not pay for me to go to college. Just by chance, my family doctor advised me to apply to a great university and to apply for financial aid. When I did, a new world opened to me.

The defining moment of a truly great university is manifest when it brings opportunity to those who would otherwise be shut out. This is true for our students, faculty, and staff. It’s true for our communities and our society.

Reaffirming these values and championing them in every way possible has never been more important. Only recently, we were horrified and heartbroken by the very worst that exclusion and intolerance beget when a gunman massacred congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 innocent people and wounding six more, including police officers who confronted the criminal. Among the slain was College and School of Medicine alumnus Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz C’73 M’77. Jerry was a geriatrician, beloved by his patients, his family, and his neighbors. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, when so many others had turned our brethren away, they who suffered from AIDS remember the warm clasp of Jerry’s ungloved hand in theirs. That Saturday, facing unimaginable peril, Jerry turned his hand toward helping the wounded. His own life was stolen away as he struggled to preserve the lives of others. He was a healer to the very end, giving everything to the cause even in the face of murderous hatred, anti-Semitism, and intolerance.

Not long after my words in this column reach you, we will once again take time to commemorate another extraordinary leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We will reflect on Dr. King’s commitment to peace, to progress, and above all, to a future where all people are included and afforded equitable opportunity. He gave everything to the cause in the hopes that, one day at last, all people will truly be free.

As I sit down to write this today, Dr. Rabinowitz’s death is still so near and MLK Day is still some time off. In many ways, the bright future Dr. King envisioned seems much further still. Advancing inclusion and equity, truth-telling and tolerance, diversity and excellence is the task before all of us. Penn chooses neither fear nor division. We choose courage and community. What Penn does to strengthen diversity and inclusion in turn strengthens the world far beyond our campuses. Throughout our communities and our societies, all of us can partner in this work. We will continue doing that, and we will have every reason to look to the future with the greatest hope.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to support a scholarship at the Perelman School “for a graduating family medicine resident who embodies Dr. Rabinowitz’s selfless devotion to patient care and community outreach.”

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