Q&A with Penn’s Provost

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Until he became Penn’s 28th provost, Ronald J. Daniels had served as dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto since 1995. In announcing the Canadian legal scholar’s selection this spring, Penn President Amy Gutmann described him as “a dynamic and judicious academic leader” who expanded his school’s faculty and increased its endowment “exponentially,” reformed financial aid and faculty research standards, “dramatically increased the law school’s engagement with the university,” and “internationalized his school’s perspectives and programs.”

On a campus visit before formally stepping into the post, Daniels sat down with Gazette associate editor Susan Frith for an interview.

What attracted you to Penn?

I was really impressed by the strength of the various faculties on campus. I was very moved by the trajectory of growth, in terms of how much momentum it’s enjoyed over the last decade or so. And, coming from a university which [is] very much rooted in its urban context, I liked how Penn has interpreted its role in the city of Philadelphia. At another level … I really had a sense of the devotion that people have to this institution. For me that was very stirring.

Are there any comparisons you can make between the educational systems here and in Canada?

Well, as [Penn athletics director] Steve Bilsky [W’71] has reminded me, we have varsity hockey in Canada—and Penn no longer has it. But so far the big difference between Penn and Toronto is really the role of the government. All of higher education in Canada is state funded and essentially state controlled. That has obvious benefits, but it also comes with some very significant costs. And you really are dealing with a significant outside stakeholder that has a lot of influence on the academic mission—and in some cases not in a way that’s entirely constructive. So it’s nice to be in an environment where one doesn’t have to have the same ongoing negotiations with the state as is true for Canada.

One of the challenges of the provost’s job is overseeing the academic mission of many different graduate and professional schools as well as the undergraduate College. How would your law background contribute to that task—and are there any particular challenges, such as getting a handle on all the research that’s happening in the sciences?

There’s no escaping the reality that there is a lot one has to get on top of if you want to be effective in these jobs. That’s an exciting change for me, after 10 years of running a law school, to be put in a broader environment. The best lawyers are people who are quick studies, and I’m hopeful that some of this training will rub off on me in terms of the way in which I approach this role. I guess the other thing that’s good about being dean of a law school is that, at least at Toronto, the law school was the most interdisciplinary of all faculties on campus. We enjoyed the highest percentage of cross appointments … and students pursuing joint degrees. So, in order to be effective as a law dean, one really had to be steeped in the university as a whole and to understand cognate disciplines of the university in a way that I think was not as true for other divisions. And I think that was very helpful. I’ve had lots of close collaborative relationships with arts and science, with social work, with management, and even with the medical school in terms of pursuing health law and policy.

Talk about your promotion of pro bono service at Toronto’s law school.

What was really striking to me when I started off as dean was this disjunction between the school’s intellectual commitment to public policy and to public ideas, and a lot of the choices that students were making while in law school and afterwards. That [observation] really spurred a number of different programs. From a starting point where only a small part of the student body was doing some kind of [legal] clinic or pro bono work 10 years ago, now virtually every student has ended up doing some kind of significant pro bono or clinic undertaking. The hope was not that every student who took on one of these commitments would necessarily go into poverty law, because I think that’s unrealistic. But rather what we were trying to instill in our students was the possibility of creating a professional life for themselves in which, although they may be focused in very traditional legal practices, there was always time for the community or for public works.

In recent years a number of graduate students have sought to unionize and pushed for better benefits and working conditions. Do you have any thoughts on how the graduate-student experience might be improved?

Making sure that you’re very proactive in your recruitment of students, that there are good financial-aid programs in place—all those things are the baseline on which a good graduate program is built. But then I think it goes beyond that. The quality of the graduate program is linked to the quality of the professoriate and to the strength of the various departments.

Why do some students languish in some programs and other students move more quickly? We’ve seen, at least in my own institution, that there are some divisions which have an unusually long time-to-[degree] completion, and those are the things we were very fruitfully able to address. It was a question of support and mentorship and appropriate guidance and expectations that, I think, constitute part of an ideal graduate student experience.

And of course I’m interested in being able to ensure that graduate students aren’t limited to disciplinary silos and, to the extent they’re interested in getting exposure to methodologies or problems or issues outside their own departments, that they have the ability to do so.

Describe your own research.

My research has been focused on the boundaries between the state and the market. I’ve thought a lot about those issues in terms of deregulation, privatization, the role of the welfare state, and … changing expectations of its role. By and large my work has been confined to the developed world, but the last several years I’ve spent thinking about these issues in the context of the developing world.

For me the really interesting issue is that there’s a growing recognition that law and legal institutions are critical determinants in whether countries succeed or not. Why [then] do so many developing countries fail to develop good laws and legal institutions? What accounts for this mismatch between what is ideal and proven to be ideal, and what these countries do on the ground?

Is it hard to move your family from Canada to the U.S.?

[Laughing] Each child has a different deal they have negotiated with me—of certain things they’re hoping to see from this move. So I’m hoping I can accommodate at least half the commitments I have made to each of them. In truth they’re really approaching this with a sense of gamely adventure, so as a family we’re excited about the move.

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