College, Wharton, and Law School alumnus succeeded David L. Cohen as Penn’s top volunteer leader.
Toward the end of a June interview on his being elected chair of the University’s board of trustees, Scott L. Bok C’81 W’81 L’84 touched briefly on the issue of presidential succession. “Obviously, Amy will be transitioning out at some point. It will be very sad to see her go,” he said, but added that it is “always exciting to see what new energy and skills somebody new might bring.”
At the time, that point was expected to be mid-2022, at the expiration of Penn President Amy Gutmann’s current contract. But it approached closer—by exactly how much was still uncertain as the Gazette went to press—with the announcement in July that President Joe Biden Hon’13 had nominated her to be the next US ambassador to Germany (see previous story).
“No one is more deserving of this recognition,” Bok said in a statement on July 2—one day after the formal start of his term as chair—calling her selection a “brilliant choice” on Biden’s part. “Amy has been a superb president for Penn, and we have total confidence that she will remain fully focused on advancing Penn’s agenda until the conclusion of her time at the University.”
He noted that transition planning had already begun on the assumption that Gutmann—who assumed the presidency on July 1, 2004—would be leaving office after 18 years in College Hall and promised more details to come. “As Amy has said many times herself, we have an exceptional leadership team at Penn, so we are confident that the transition will go smoothly.”
As chair, Bok succeeded the also-long-serving David L. Cohen L’81 Hon’21, who had held the post since 2009. At the June meeting where Bok’s election was formalized, the trustees also approved a resolution of appreciation for Cohen, the recipient of an honorary degree at this year’s Commencement [“Gazetteer,” Jul|Aug 2021]. “David has fostered progress on critical initiatives as varied as educational access, state-of-the-art facilities, world-changing discovery and innovation, and scholarly diversity,” the resolution stated. “In his tenure, the University has developed and grown exceptional life-changing efforts such as all-grant undergraduate financial aid, first-generation programs, and a two-year residential experience in tandem with expanded interdisciplinary academic opportunity. Even the distancing challenges of an extended pandemic did not hinder the University’s progress in path-breaking education, life-saving research, healing, and service, nor the spectacular success of its just-ending Power of Penn campaign.”
Bok echoed the plaudits for his predecessor, praising his legal and governance expertise, long involvement in the Philadelphia community, and deep knowledge of local, state, and federal politics. “He was a terrific chair for this period and a terrific supporter and advisor to Amy, and hopefully I’ll be able to fill his shoes—to some degree, anyway,” Bok said of Cohen.
Bok joined the board of trustees in 2005 and most recently served as vice chair. He has been a member of the investment board since 2016, and has served on the executive, audit and compliance, academic policy, compensation, development, and nominating committees. Other service has included membership on boards for the School of Arts and Sciences and the Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies, as well as on the steering committees for the Making History and Power of Penn campaigns. “I’ve been involved at Penn for a very long time in a lot of different ways, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he said.
The first person in his family to go to college, Bok picked Penn sight unseen from the Barron’s guide because it sounded like a great school and one that would lead to a good job, he said. “So, I applied, I got in, traveled with my parents from Michigan and moved into the Lower Quad—and on that first day met people who are still among my closest friends today.”
In addition to fulfilling the coursework for undergraduate majors in political science and economics, Bok was active on the Daily Pennsylvanian—he even considered pursuing journalism for a time—and served as the student liaison to the board of trustees. The position was largely ceremonial (“You’re not there for the really important inside discussions”), but it offered a “glimpse into how the University is governed, and I did find it fascinating,” he said.
Bok also met his wife—Roxanne Conisha Bok C’81, author of Horsekeeping: One Woman’s Tale of Barn and Country Life and currently a member of the Veterinary School’s board of advisors—when she moved in across the hall from him in High Rise North (now Rodin College House) as a transfer student. They married soon after graduation, “which was quite early, quite young back then.” The couple has two children, Elliot W’17 and Jane C’22.
After graduating from Penn Law, Bok practiced mergers and acquisitions and securities law for two years and then joined Morgan Stanley, where he worked from 1986 to 1997, before joining the independent investment bank Greenhill & Company where he is currently chairman and CEO.
For five of his years at Morgan Stanley, the Boks lived in London, during which time they, “didn’t get back to the US that often, let alone Philadelphia,” he said. The couple reconnected with the University as alumni first through their shared interest in writing, meeting Paul Kelly C’62 WG’64 and becoming involved with Kelly Writers House as it was getting started in the mid-1990s. Bok called Kelly, a fellow trustee who died due to complications from COVID-19 this past year [“Obituaries,” May|Jun 2021], “just a wonderful human being” who “thought I had the potential to maybe play some roles at Penn, and he helped introduce me to various people as well.”
Much of their involvement has been focused on the School of Arts and Sciences, including establishing the Bok Family Foundation Professorship in the Humanities at SAS and the Bok Endowed Visiting Writers Series Fund at the Kelly Writers House. “The undergraduate liberal arts education is just so central to any university and certainly to the success of Penn,” Bok said.
Outside the University, Bok chaired the board of the educational support group Prep for Prep in New York (until recently stepping away to take on his current role at Penn). The organization “finds high potential young people of color about 10 years old across the New York City public school system, gives them kind of an intensive extra educational program, and then it places them in the top schools throughout the Northeast,” including private schools in New York, and boarding schools like Lawrenceville, Andover, and Exeter. “And the kids go there, and they thrive.”
He said that Penn is among the top handful of schools accepting graduates of the program, recalling that a few years ago the cover of its annual report showed “Amy Gutmann standing next to the Ben Franklin statue surrounded by all the people then on campus who were Prep alumni” and noting a broader connection between the goals of Prep for Prep and the University’s goals “in terms of diversity and inclusion.”
Increasing resources for financial aid is one of the main strands of the University’s Power of Penn fundraising campaign, which concluded on June 30. “We’ll find out the final numbers soon, but they’re going to be extraordinary,” Bok said, adding that the results will be especially impressive for being achieved “even with the pandemic intervening and all the problems of going out to connect with alumni and solicit donations.” There was some initial concern that the disruptions to people’s lives could cause them to pull back from participation, “but Penn alumni did not do that.”
Overall, in terms of the pandemic, Bok said the “University did a fabulous job,” reacting with necessary speed and decisiveness to close campus and move instruction online. Now, as the campus returns to mostly normal operations this fall, Penn is well positioned to continue to advance its mission, he said. “I’m sure there will be challenges that we can’t foresee today, but at least as we sit here now, I think most of the issues have been identified and it’s a matter of just doing the best we can on those.”
That includes making Penn “more accessible than ever,” he said. “We want to have a more diverse and interesting student body from all over the country and the world, of all different types of people with all different interests.” Building endowment will be a continuing focus as well, “because we want to be able to fund more research, more faculty, more student aid,” he added.
“One of the challenges of a university with Penn’s qualities is that you have a lot of local responsibilities. You’ve got to fit into the local community and be a good community member, but you also are trying to impact the whole world,” Bok said. “Penn’s got alumni that stretch across the globe, it’s got alumni running all kinds of organizations of different types and playing big roles in all aspects of society, so Penn has a big role across the world, which is in many ways equally important to that local role.
“So, we’ll try to balance all those things and just continue to inch forward in terms of the quality of the University, but frankly it’s been an extraordinary 17 years under Amy Gutmann’s leadership. I’m sure there are ways we can improve from here, and we’re absolutely going to be committed to doing that,” he said.
“I think what makes Penn great is the breadth and depth of people who are committed to its success,” from his fellow trustees to the University’s senior administrators and staff to the “tens of thousands” of alumni involved as volunteers, Bok added. “I am grateful to be part of that team and very excited at what the future holds for Penn.” —JP