Lightning in a Bottle

At a historic moment, Penn, as always, looks to the future.

By Liz Magill

October 21 was a historic moment for Penn. It was also unforgettable for me.

Historic for Penn because we conducted the University’s first presidential inauguration in 18 years. It was a celebration of Penn’s rich history, traditions, and ties with Philadelphia, the extraordinary achievements of our present, and what our bright future holds.

Unforgettable for me because it’s not every day you ceremonially link arms with a university whose family tree stems from Benjamin Franklin himself. As part of the ceremony, the chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees, Scott Bok, placed around my shoulders the official presidential chain and seal—a particularly hefty symbol of office. So, when I say I really felt the weight of history that morning, I’m not just talking in metaphors.

More than anything, what I felt was a profound sense of Penn pride and excitement, shared with countless others on campus and around the world. You could feel that energy in Irvine Auditorium, rippling among the honored guests and delegates from institutions across higher education. You could hear it at the picnic and concert on Shoemaker Green in front of the Palestra, with thousands of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends enjoying food, live music, and one another’s company. You could see it at our academic symposium with US Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, reflected in the faces of a packed and rapt Penn audience. And the buzz and sense of momentum were contagious at the Penn Relays 5K and football game on Franklin Field the following day.

It’s that crackling dynamism you get whenever and wherever Penn people not only meet the moment but make the moment.

In preparing for my inaugural address, I endeavored to capture and channel some of that limitless Penn energy—a tall order for any speech. There’s an old expression about attempting a difficult feat. People call it catching lightning in a bottle. This expression comes to us from, you guessed it, references to Benjamin Franklin’s own experiments with electricity and storing it in what’s called a Leyden jar. So, for a handy how-to guide on capturing and channeling nearly unlimited energy and potential, naturally I looked to our founder. His letters and notes led me to the image, the idea, and the call to action central to my inaugural speech and Penn’s path forward: drawing down the lightning.

If you had an opportunity to watch the inauguration or read some of my remarks, you know that for Penn to draw down the lightning, we will use Opportunity and Truth as our conductors, as our kite and key. Great universities such as Penn have long been unique drivers of opportunity and truth for individuals and all people. Now and for the future, Penn is called upon to redouble our historic and forward-looking commitment to these twin principles.

We must and we will do this because the common thread of Penn’s history and present is our focus on Tomorrow, on a future made that much better for even more people thanks to Penn’s teaching, research, clinical care, and service. Franklin sometimes regretted being born too soon. He wanted to know what would be known 100 years down the road. Today, he would recognize that same intrepid spirit—what I have called virtuous impatience—in the university he founded. And we are hard at work envisioning Penn’s future path.

A few months ago, we initiated a University-wide strategic planning process called Tomorrow, Together. It is guided by a Red and Blue Advisory Committee of faculty, student, and staff leaders who are charged with conferring as widely as possible and offering recommendations for potential areas of strategic priority. I have called upon and will continue to encourage everyone with Penn ties to share their ideas during this process and so have a voice in our strategic planning for the future. It’s especially important that our global alumni community weigh in, which you can do by visiting and submitting your comments online. With your participation and support, we will be that much better prepared to answer the big question before our University: What does the world need from Penn?

Whatever great answers we might find, whatever bright future we help usher in, one thing I know is certain. The limitless energy on display at the inaugural festivities—the same dynamism I have seen every day since I arrived at Penn—flows from our people learning, discovering, caring, and serving together, on campus and all around the world.

Together—that is how we will draw down the lightning.

October 21 was historically important for Penn and a milestone I will cherish for the rest of my life. I am deeply grateful to the small army of people who made the inaugural ceremony and festivities possible, just as I am humbled and energized by this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with and for the Penn community.

For many places and people, the expression capturing lightning in a bottle means a feat nearly too impossible to attempt. I have quickly learned that here, at Franklin’s University, drawing down and channeling such limitless energy and potential isn’t just possible. It’s practically in Penn’s DNA.

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