Sparks of Connection

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When good people come together to do good work,
great things can happen.

By Judith Rodin

Describing momentous events in history, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough noted at a recent lecture at Penn that “nothing had to happen the way it happened.”

As I near the end of my days in College Hall, I realize that all of the phenomenal transformation and growth we have experienced at Penn over the past decade happened primarily because we had battalions of men and women who dared to believe we could do the impossible. We could energize undergraduate education and bring it to the forefront of intellectual excitement. We could forge innovative connections across boundaries of school and discipline to catapult Penn to the top ranks of the world’s great research universities. We could beautify the campus while equipping our faculty and students with the latest technology and finest resources. We could even build bridges to our neighbors and spark an urban renaissance in West Philadelphia. 

The ranks of believers in this future for Penn were unstoppable: courageous trustees who were willing to support a daring vision; a great leadership team capable of executing strategic plans; extraordinary faculty driven to reach loftier heights in a more dynamic environment; dedicated staff eager to exercise their own innovative impulses; talented students poised to thrive in a more exciting and challenging setting; and enthusiastic alumni raring to join the revolution. 

And we had our location in the city of Philadelphia. 

For my farewell column, I thought it would be interesting to revisit passages from my inaugural address—which drew so much of its vigor and agenda from the many conversations I had throughout the Penn and Philadelphia communities in my early days as President—to see how we made out after all. 

Our great professional and graduate schools must continue to strive for pre-eminence … But we must at the same time come together to ensure that the full Penn undergraduate experience is also in the forefront with its energy, intensity, and creativity … Led by the Provost and the eight responsible academic deans, we will design a new Penn undergraduate experience. It will involve not only curriculum, but new types of housing, student services, and mentoring, to create a seamless experience between the classroom and the residence, from the playing field to the laboratory.

The undergraduate landscape at Penn is radically different today. Not only do students have more control over their education, but we have developed some unique mechanisms and resources that empower undergraduates to pursue self-directed learning. Academically based service learning, which was invented at Penn, has encompassed more than 150 rigorous courses that enable students and faculty to translate and transfer what they learn in the classroom to real-world application. 

Two striking innovations that have transformed the undergraduate experience at Penn over the past decade have been the development of a comprehensive College House System, which has transformed the traditional college dormitory into a vibrant, 24/7 learning community, and the creation of four hubs that have allowed students to cross the boundaries of their individual schools to cultivate their shared interests and talents in writing, community service, undergraduate research, and technological innovation. 

Before, dorm life at Penn was mostly detached from the academic world, and students who lived in the dorms by and large felt no sense of belonging to a community of scholars. Many Penn undergrads did not derive meaningful attachments or identity from their place of residence. Dorms were just places to hang one’s hat, pull all-nighters, and occasionally get some sleep. 

The College Houses injected intense intellectual engagement into the undergraduate living experience, fostering a stronger sense of community among our students by weaving a seamless fabric across academic life, housing, advising, and extracurricular activities. 

It’s been six years since we introduced the College House System, and it’s been especially thrilling to see students taking charge to turn each college house into a hub of culture, innovative programming, and intellectual exploration. 

The four University-wide hubs at Penn geographically and thematically form the spine of Penn’s co-curricular nerve center. Visit Civic House, and you will see students becoming leading agents of social change as tutors, as community activists, and volunteers. Visit Kelly Writers House or Weiss Tech House, day or night, and more than likely you will find students drawing creative and entrepreneurial energy from one another. 

I am especially proud of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. Until recently, research universities granted undergraduates limited access into the world of advanced research. The climb was steep, encouragement was scant, and the pipeline to academic careers was narrow. 

CURF has created gentler slopes and friendlier pathways to research opportunities. Now, Penn students engaged in undergraduate research end up mastering skills that are valued and transferable anywhere: how to formulate a question or hypothesis; how to gather evidence; how to answer that question or test a hypothesis. 

CURF is but one example of the many new vehicles that encourage many of our brightest students to pursue rigorous, self-directed, independent research—whether as a member of one of our hundreds of labs throughout campus, or as an eager apprentice to a faculty mentor.

We will encourage even more interdisciplinary courses and programs that link areas ranging from biology to engineering, economics to fine arts, languages to management. Those with theoretical skills will learn how best to apply them practically. New basic theories will flourish in the interdisciplinary mix.

By their very nature, many of society’s more pressing problems pose unique challenges to researchers, activists, and policymakers. Their complexity, interconnectedness, diffuseness, and scale make them especially difficult to define, analyze, and address. Successfully addressing these problems requires more comprehensive and integrative approaches and strategies that merge the sciences and humanities. 

Through exciting multidisciplinary degree programs like Digital Media Design and institutes and centers spanning the whole campus in areas such as genomics, cancer, bioengineering, and urbanism, Penn is truly realizing its potential as an urban research university. 

I have no doubt that [Philadelphia], despite its problems, is one of Penn’s greatest blessings. It is central to the Penn experience—not a world apart. I intend to work every day that I am here, as both a personal and an institutional mission, with community leaders and public officials, with our schools and health clinics, on things both large and small, to enhance the relationship in ways that will enrich both Penn and Philadelphia. We are, and must be, truly one.

I am proud of all Penn accomplishments in science and technology, in medicine, in business, in arts and culture, and in public life. But I believe that the work we’ve done to repair our relationships with our neighbors in West Philadelphia, and the investments we’ve made to transform a distressed and dangerous neighborhood into a vibrant urban oasis may represent this University’s finest hour. 

And far from robbing Penn’s academic future to pay for this progress, our engagement has played a critical role in enhancing Penn’s academic reputation. All the markers of academic success—our rankings, faculty awards, student applications, selectivity, growth in endowment and sponsored research—have soared to record levels.

Yet, for all the pride we can take in Penn’s progress, we recognize that our work is never done, and that even our most notable achievements remain works in progress that require constant attention and rethinking. 

A column 10 times longer could neither begin to convey the scope and magnitude of Penn’s transformation, nor adequately express my gratitude for the opportunity to give back to the university and the city that helped to shape me as a scholar, a leader, a citizen, and a human being. 

Sometimes the challenges have been daunting. I’ve had my share of frustrations and disappointments. But I have awakened each morning joyful and thankful for the privilege of leading this great institution.

I have also learned a valuable truth: When good people come together to do good work, sparks of connection fly, and great things can happen. Lewis Carroll expresses my sense of wonder even better in the opening chapter in Alice in Wonderland: “For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.” 

Thanks to our great leadership team, our brilliant faculty, our talented students, and our loyal alumni, Penn has gone out of its way to become a greater force for progress and good at home and abroad—and one of the hottest schools in the nation. 

As I become, so to speak, a private Penn citizen again, I look forward to continuing my connections with you, and offering my support to President-elect Gutmann to make sure that the future keeps happening at the University of Pennsylvania.

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