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A past president’s rallying cry expresses the University’s continuing mission.

By Amy Gutmann | Spring came to Locust Walk like a jack-in-the-box this year, jumping up and surprising us in a flood of color only days after we were last fretting about snow. But as much as we met the return of warm weather joyfully, there was a bittersweet element to the turning of the season. Late in March, the Penn community gathered to celebrate and say farewell to our friend, colleague, and former president Sheldon Hackney Hon’93, who passed away last September at his home in Martha’s Vineyard [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2013].

Former colleagues and students, neighbors and leaders from the West Philadelphia community, family members and friends from near and far filled the seats in historic Irvine Auditorium. They came to honor an individual who played such a pivotal role in creating the broadly diverse, outward looking, intellectually engaging Penn we cherish today. It is telling that every speaker that afternoon in one way or another described the uniquely optimistic and forward-looking nature of Sheldon’s leadership. “He was a historian who never looked back,” is how one put it, while Sheldon’s son, Fain L’87, concluded the ceremony by quoting his father’s oft-spoken rallying cry and abiding belief: “Onward we all go!”

Leadership is one of those ineffable qualities that is difficult to define precisely. In higher education today, one of the greatest demands of leadership is the need always to be forward looking. Although universities are among the oldest continuously operating institutions in human society—more than three dozen universities around today were in operation when Columbus set sail—they remain relevant only by constantly reinventing themselves, while at the same time preserving the best of the past.

In part, this occurs naturally. Each spring, we say farewell to one generation of students at Commencement and in the fall welcome a new one at Convocation. A riptide of fresh faces, untested ideas, and new possibilities floods the campus every September. They bring such energy and enthusiasm that I have heard more than one faculty member comment that the greatest challenge is just keeping up with them.

Then there’s the kind of University reinvention that requires decisive action and focused leadership. When Penn’s Making History Campaign concluded last year, it was a natural occasion to take a good look at all we had accomplished [“Big Finish, Fresh Start,” Mar|Apr 2013]. One thing that particularly stood out was the enormous outpouring of alumni energy and enthusiasm. The Penn community showed such tremendous dedication and leadership that Making History did exactly that—by any standard, it was by far our most successful campaign since Penn’s founding. We were left with what can only be described as the conundrum of success: Can we sustain the excitement, energy and drive to move Penn even further on the path to preeminence?

I believe we can. I am convinced the way to build on Penn’s extraordinary momentum post-campaign is by focusing on the core elements of the Penn mission that best advance excellence in all we do. To that end, I announced Penn Compact 2020, an outline of future actions that will increase access to Penn’s exceptional intellectual resources; integrate knowledge across academic disciplines with emphasis on innovative understanding and discovery; and engage locally, nationally, and globally to bring the benefits of Penn’s research, teaching, and service to individuals and communities at home and around the world [“From College Hall,” Sep|Oct 2013].

Now, to help achieve those goals, we are launching the Penn Compact 2020 Presidential Initiatives, tailored efforts that will sharpen focus on our core priorities and help position Penn as a preeminent leader in higher education for this decade and beyond. These new initiatives include a significant expansion of the University’s undergraduate financial aid endowment; the creation of up to 50 new professorships; and the creation of new student engagement prizes, which will be formally announced later this year.

A core component of this effort will be the President’s Men and Women of Pennsylvania Challenge Fund. No other policy in the last decade has garnered Penn more attention or positioned us more strongly among our peers than our dedication to all-grant and no-loan financial aid for all eligible undergraduates. It is the cornerstone of Penn’s commitment to increasing access for the most talented and most diverse student body of any university. In fact, because Penn is the largest university in the US to be all-grant no-loan, fully12 percent of the incoming freshman Class of 2018 will be the very first in their families to attend college. That’s an incredible story that we are very proud to tell.

So that we may continue to meet this need, our new President’s Men and Women of Pennsylvania Challenge Fund will kick-start an effort to raise an additional $240 million for undergraduate financial aid. All told, we will then have raised a total of $600 million in this effort since the start of the Making History Campaign. Financial aid resources of that magnitude will enable Penn to fulfill what we consider a sacred trust: ensuring that a world-class Penn education is accessible for the best students, regardless of family finances.

Our second Presidential Initiative is the President’s Distinguished Professorship Fund. By their transformative teaching and groundbreaking research, Penn faculty are the backbone of our University. Fully supporting them with endowed professorships empowers our faculty to tackle new ideas, inspire their students, and make game-changing discoveries.

With the President’s Distinguished Professorship Fund, we are matching funds to create up to 50 new endowed professorships, including more of our signature Penn Integrates Knowledge, or PIK, Professorships. Here’s just one way these professorships are so profoundly important to what we seek to accomplish at Penn: in March, as part of Penn’s regular reaccreditation process, a team from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education visited campus to evaluate our academic programs and resources. At the end of their stay, the team enthusiastically reported that their “experience at Penn has been inspiring.” They pointed to our vibrant, interdisciplinary educational model and the central role our PIK Professors play. They emphasized that PIK Professors truly set the tone for collaboration and integrating knowledge on our campus.

The President’s Men and Women of Pennsylvania Challenge Fund and the President’s Distinguished Professorship Fund are big challenges that, when achieved, will speed Penn’s extraordinary momentum. They reaffirm our vision for the future of a truly great university. They are bold, they are audacious, and they capture in essence the only direction any truly great university would plan to go: Onward!

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