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A look back at an extraordinary decade for Penn, and the President who led the way.

By The Gazette Editors

Sidebar | A Passion for Penn

At the end of March, when jazz vocalist and alumni volunteer Lolita Jackson EAS’89 serenaded Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66 at a gala at Manhattan’s Gotham Hall to celebrate her tenure as Penn president, the song chosen for this tribute was “You’re the Top.” Earlier, in introducing Rodin, Penn trustee Leonard Lauder W’54 had proclaimed her Penn’s greatest president—to which the crowd of about 1,000 New York alumni responded with a roar of approval.

In Philadelphia in mid-April, Rodin was honored with a surprise Alumni Award of Merit, which credits her with bringing about “spectacular transformations” at Penn. (See page 63 for the full text.) It was presented by trustee Alvin Shoemaker W’60 Hon’95, who, while chairman of the board of trustees, headed the search committee that recommended Rodin 10 years ago. He recalled knowing from his first meeting with Yale’s then-provost that she would be Penn’s next chief executive, and called her presidency “one of, if not the most important in the distinguished history of the University, and the most successful we’ve ever had”—to a similarly enthusiastic response from the crowd packed into the Annenberg Center lobby.

These are just two examples of what Rodin gratefully calls the “tremendous reservoir of good will” she has experienced since she announced that she would step down from Penn’s presidency as of June 30, 2004. Given the demands on anyone running a major university, some measure of appreciation would surely be appropriate, but the intensity and enthusiasm of Rodin’s well-wishers at those events and in Washington (on April 20, after the Gazette went to press), as well as in dozens of other venues large and small in recent months, speak to a broad awareness that the past 10 years have been extraordinarily good and important ones for Penn—and that Rodin’s leadership has been essential to the University’s advances during this period.

Many of those advances can be quantified, in buildings built and renovated, major programs and research institutes launched, top-quality faculty and staff hired and retained, selectivity in admissions increased, neighborhood fences mended and new relationships forged—not to mention money raised to pay for it all. But as important, Rodin—the first woman president in the Ivy League—brought a new spirit and energy to College Hall and the task of raising Penn to the next level. Among her numerous other activities, she has been a tireless cheerleader for Penn, with a savvy sense of how to get the word out about the University.

Her administration has not been free of criticism—much of it revolving around a leadership style that some felt was too “corporate”—and has also confronted several significant challenges along the way. One was a sharp rise in crime in the Fall of 1996, of which more below. Another was the death of research subject Jesse Gelsinger in a gene-therapy trial, which prompted FDA sanctions against Penn’s Institute for Human Gene Therapy and its director, Dr. James Wilson, and a reexamination of protocols for informed-consent in research trials. And the accidental death of alumnus Michael Tobin C’94 at a fraternity party led to changes in the University’s campus policies on alcohol. Lawsuits against the University were filed by the families in both of those cases, and were ultimately settled out of court.

On the business side, a 1997 decision to outsource facilities-management functions, touted as a model for the future, was later reversed in large part. Perhaps the gravest threat, in terms of its potential impact on the institution, was a financial crisis at the University’s Health System, which a few years ago had amassed more than $300 million in deficits, leading to the ouster of Dr. William Kelley, then CEO of the Health System and dean of the medical school. Those losses have been reversed, and the system is currently profitable. After considering setting up a separate not-for-profit entity, the University created Penn Medicine, a new, unified governing board for the Health System and medical school that reports to Penn’s board of trustees [“Gazetteer,” January/February 2002]. Moody’s Investors Service recently upgraded Penn’s long-term rating, commenting favorably on the University’s integrated strategic and financial planning.

And as Rodin prepares to depart College Hall, Penn is engaged in a simmering dispute with some of its graduate students over their right to unionize.

However, virtually all observers concede the effectiveness of her administration in responding to these challenges and its determination to reach the ambitious goals set out for the University almost from the day she took office. As early as her inauguration, as the president herself notes in the interview that follows and in her farewell “From College Hall” column, the critical elements of her vision for Penn were present. Following extensive discussions among the University’s schools, centers, and other constituencies, these priorities were elaborated and codified in The Agenda for Excellence, the University’s strategic plan for 1995-2000. And, unlike many similar plans, they were largely carried out. 

Not that Penn can ever rest on its laurels. In her interview with the Gazette, the president emphasized that universities must continually reinvent themselves or go stale, warning: “That’s what’s happened to many of our peers, and that’s why we were able to surpass many of them.” Below, we take a look at the Rodin-era reinvention and some of the ways it has changed Penn.

Living and Learning, 24/7

“Each of you is exceptional in some way, or you wouldn’t be here,” Rodin assured the Class of 2007 at Convocation last fall. She wasn’t being charitable to the University’s newcomers. The admissions process has grown more selective over the past decade as the number of students angling to attend Penn has risen. This year there were 18,278 applicants—a 33 percent increase over the 13,739 students who applied in 1994. Penn accepted 36.3 percent of its applicants the year Rodin arrived and only 21 percent of them to fill the Class of 2008.

It may be tougher to get into Penn these days, but the students who do enroll here find many new academic paths awaiting them as well as opportunities for learning outside the classroom. One of the most notable changes has been the transformation of all campus living-spaces into a system of 11 College Houses based around communities of students and faculty. Dr. David Brownlee, the art-history professor who was the first director of the Office of College Houses and Academic Services, explained how quickly it came together under Rodin. “Starting in the mid-sixties, Penn produced a report recommending the establishment of a system of College Houses almost every other year,” he said. “President Rodin asked for just one report and then said, ‘Do it,’ and so we transformed the landscape of undergraduate education. [She] led us to accept our responsibility to build an academic community whose life and vitality stretched outside the classrooms and throughout the campus, and beyond the ordinary hours of teaching into every moment of our lives.” 

Campus housing now has more facilities such as game rooms, darkrooms, and music-practice rooms; more faculty in residence; and more cultural and social programs, including Wednesday with Morrie (free van service to the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and partly subsidized music lessons in the residences.

Another development, the 21st Century Wheel project, has brought a range of academic-support services—from computing and languages to math and writing—to students around-the-clock in the College Houses.

To strengthen community the houses are divided into smaller residential programs centered on interest in particular subjects, such as “Social Consciousness in Black Films” (new for fall 2004), “Healthy Living,” “Biosphere,” “Readers’ Corner,” and “Law and Society.” 

One of the keys to the system’s success has been the spirit of individuality allowed to grow in each house. “This isn’t a top-down process where you say, ‘You go out there and build a community using Formula 227 out of the handbook for community building,’” Brownlee explained in 1999, as the College House System was getting under way. “It is like gardening. You plant things and step back and watch to see what grows in a particular climate, where the soil is enriched by faculty and graduate students of a particular kind with students of a particular kind, in facilities of a particular kind.” 

The well-tended garden has flourished. More than 30 residential programs exist now, compared to half a dozen in 1994. For the fourth year in a row, on-campus housing has had nearly 100 percent occupancy, compared to 88 percent in 1994. According to Leslie Delauter, the current College House director, at least 85 percent of students who responded to a survey last year were “satisfied with the spirit of community and the types of programming in their [College] Houses.”

Brownlee predicted: “I think what we’ll be seeing in the future is lots of change within a system that was designed to be broad enough and strong enough to foster all kinds of innovation as smart people in different small communities figure out exciting and different ways to do things.”

Some key resources for students were gathered at four hubs across campus. Those eager to roll up their sleeves for neighborhood service worked on projects through the Civic House, while budding wordsmiths connected with each other and with more experienced writers and poets at the Kelly Writers House. With the creation of Weiss Tech House, young inventors found encouragement, technical resources, and entrepreneurial direction. 

Another hub, the Center for Under-graduate Research and Fellowships, has helped Penn students collect their fair share of prestigious fellowships for study and research since its creation four years ago. “These awards were scattered from place to place in the University [before],” says CURF director Dr. Art Casciato. With the creation of CURF, “It’s more or less one-stop shopping for fellowships.” 

He emphasized the importance of encouraging more students to apply for them in the first place: “We’ve only won five Marshall Scholarships in [the past] 50 years, but we’ve won two of them in CURF’s four years. It shows we can do it if we have someone focusing on it, and the reason we have someone focusing on it is because of Dr. Rodin.” Along the same lines, Penn garnered 15 Rhodes Scholarships in the century before CURF was created; since that time, it has won two more. Last year Penn students were awarded 18 Fulbright grants—a record in the University’s history.

In addition to breaking down the walls of the classroom, Penn has broken down barriers between schools and disciplines with the creation of numerous academic programs and centers during Rodin’s tenure.

Launched by the School of Arts and Sciences in 1999, the Penn Humanities Forum has promoted dialogue within the University community and between Penn and the city with a series of events on a different topic every year, from “human nature” and “style” to “the book” and “belief.”

Research centers sprang up across campus, combining faculty expertise across the disciplines to better tackle such issues as child-welfare reform (the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research), crime (the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology), and terrorism (the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response).

Penn also lured high-profile faculty to teach here, including. Dr. John DiIulio, professor of political science and a national advocate for faith-based initiatives; Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities and professor of religious studies; Dr. Lawrence Sherman, director of the Fels Institute of Government and the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology and the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations; and Dr. Caryn Lerman, professor of psychology and director of the new Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center. As one indicator of the burgeoning productivity of Penn’s faculty, the University brought in $706 million in grants and contracts to support research and other educational activities in the last fiscal year, compared to $280 million in fiscal 1994.

Penn has introduced interdisciplinary minors in legal studies and history, and health communication, as well as joint-degree programs in computer and cognitive science; international studies and business; and environment and technology. One of the newest interdisciplinary undergraduate majors is Digital Media Design, which, as program founder and computer-and-information-science professor Norman Badler told the Gazette [“The Cult of DMD,” Sept/Oct 2003], “gives [students] a chance to get a good grounding in computer science—yet let their inner artist flourish.”

Rodin touched upon the active learning environment she has supported at Penn—and all the opportunities that come with it—in her final Convocation speech last September. “We expect each of you to spend your time [at Penn], at least figuratively, writing the first drafts of your own stories based on experiences here that will surely change your lives and more than likely enrich the community and world in ways that you cannot possibly foresee tonight,” she told students. “I eagerly await your first drafts.”—S.F.

A “Destination” Campus

A cartoon in the May 1966 Gazette featuring Professor Quagmire—then a regular in our pages—has the befuddled academic, pictured against a backdrop of construction cranes and steel-building frames, commenting that former students returning for Alumni Weekend “may not recognize the campus, but they know me!”

As an undergraduate student here from 1962-66, the young woman then known as Judy Seitz lived through a part of the University’s previous construction boom that lasted into the early 1970s. One way to look at the burst of construction and renovation projects during her Penn presidency (besides a nostalgia for the sound of jackhammers) is as a project to repair some of the damage dating from that era—by filling in gaps in the campus architectural fabric and transforming a campus that turned in on itself to one that faces the surrounding streets and community: A kind of physical manifestation of the concurrent effort to engage with the city and Penn’s West Philadelphia neighbors. Overall spending on construction and renovation in the years 1994-2004 has totaled about $1 billion, and has included retail, residential, and academic space in all sectors of campus.

One signature project of the Rodin years was surely Sansom Common (now University Square), at 36th and Walnut Streets, made up of the Inn at Penn; the Penn Bookstore; and an assortment of retail stores and restaurants. Built on land that for the previous 30 years had been a parking lot, the project effectively reclaimed Walnut Street as a thriving part of Penn’s campus and has become the anchor to making University City a “destination” for visitors and Philadelphia residents, along with the shops and restaurants along Sansom Row between 34th and 36th streets.

For the fitness-minded, the main destination on Walnut Street these days is the David Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, which features the latest in exercise equipment; plus practice-rooms for dance, aerobics, and martial arts; a rock-climbing wall; and a golf-simulator, among other amenities.

Further up Walnut, at 40th Street, the road to another major commercial development was a bit bumpier but ultimately successful. Plans to build a multi-screen movie theater stalled when the original partner—Robert Redford’s Sundance Cinema—had to back out for financial reasons in mid-construction. But the University persevered, and later struck a deal with another company, National Amusements, to open The Bridge: Cinema de Lux, a six-screen theater with reserved, all-stadium seating that also houses a café and lounge. Across Walnut Street from The Bridge is the Fresh Grocer, a well-stocked supermarket and prepared-foods store in whose aisles and checkout lines the campus and neighborhood really do meet. (They can also park there, in the 800-space garage above the store.)

At the opposite end of campus, The Left Bank complex, in a University-owned building at 31st and Chestnut streets, was opened in 2001, housing apartments, Penn’s facilities and real-estate department, other University offices, and the Penn Children’s Center daycare center. Radio station WXPN will soon be moving to the area as well, in a facility now under construction that will include a broadcast studio, offices, and a venue for live performances, The World Café. A lot more company will be coming in the years ahead as the University develops the recently acquired postal lands [“Gazetteer,” November/December 2003].

Other key projects have aimed at preserving and enhancing existing campus structures. Here, pride of place must go to the Perelman Quadrangle, completed in Fall 2000, which knits together Penn’s Houston Hall, College Hall, Williams Hall, Logan Hall, and Irvine Auditorium around a new courtyard, Wynn Commons. The loving restoration of Houston Hall, the nation’s first student union, and of Irvine Auditorium are particularly noteworthy (though opinions differ on some features, such as the giant Penn shield that dominates one end of Wynn Commons).

More student-activity space was opened up when the University acquired the old Christian Association building at 36th and Locust Walk, now known as the Arts, Research, and Culture House (ARCH). It houses CURF, performing-arts groups, and ethnic-heritage groups, including La Casa Latina, the Pan Asian American Community House (PAACH), and Umoja, for students of African descent. And Penn’s graduate students got a space of their own on campus with the opening of the Graduate Student Center at 3615 Locust Walk in a former fraternity building. The Carriage House was renovated to house Penn’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Center in 2002, and Steinhardt Hall, the striking new home for Penn Hillel, opened in 2003.

With the College House system making residences more stimulating socially and intellectually, the University moved to match that with a physical upgrade through extensive renovations to the Quadrangle (completed in 2002) and to Penn’s three high-rise dormitories (to be finished by 2005).

While they have received less attention, several major new academic buildings have also been completed or begun under Rodin’s leadership. New space for education and research in the biological sciences include the Vagelos Laboratories, opened in 1997, and the Biomedical Research Building II/III, completed in 1999. The dental school added the Schattner Center to its group of buildings at 40th Street between Locust and Spruce. In addition, new buildings for the life sciences and for bio-engineering (Skirkanich Hall) are under way.

Levine Hall, home of the Department of Computer and Information Science, was finished in 2003. The Mainwaring Wing at the University Museum, completed in 2002, brought state-of-the-art conservation space for the Museum’s collection of perishable artifacts, plus more space for staff offices and student research. Skinner Hall, the former Faculty Club (relocated to the Inn at Penn), got a makeover in 2001 to transform it into Addams Hall, the new headquarters for the Department of Fine Arts. The building’s entrance gates—featuring casts of hands holding various art implements—became an instant sculptural icon on campus.

The last 10 years have also seen new building and renovation projects at the Law School, the Graduate School of Education, Van Pelt Library, and the Annenberg School for Communication and Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Last but not least, the Wharton School’s Huntsman Hall, occupying the block from Walnut to Locust on 38th Street, set a new standard for both educational technology and—as envious students in the University’s other schools have been quick to point out—comparative luxuriousness of appointments.

Unlike the building boom of Rodin’s student years, the one she presided over has assiduously avoided displacing local residents in the University’s construction projects, fulfilling her pledge that Penn would not encroach to the west and north but rather look to the east for its future growth—an expansion made possible by the acquisition of 24 acres of land between campus and the Schuylkill River owned by the U.S. Post Office. Rodin brought this long-sought goal to fruition in March, when the $50.6 million purchase was finalized, assuring that Penn’s need for growth in future administrations would no longer endanger relations with its neighbors.—J.P.

Good Neighbor Policy

Today, it all seems so clear. Back in 1997, what was clear was that something had to be done. Whether it would work was one big, murky question mark. 

“I think that this is a pivotal time for West Philadelphia—and for us,” Rodin told the Gazette that year, when Penn was about to embark on its bold effort to revitalize its neighborhood. “And that’s why this is a crucial moment to act. Urban universities need to figure out a way to enhance and revive and reaffirm urbanism as a critical feature of American life … We are all stakeholders in the future of Philadelphia. And it’s critical.”

She wasn’t blowing smoke—not about the urgency; not about what she and Penn were going to do to address it.

The situation was unquestionably urgent. Crime had stepped out from the shadows; the previous fall, a Penn researcher named Vladimir Sled had been stabbed to death in a robbery attempt near 43rd and Larchwood, and a student named Patrick Leroy C’97 had been shot on 40th Street in the small hours of the morning. Those were only two of the most dramatic episodes. The overall crime rate—from stolen bikes to gunpoint-holdups—was soaring. And University City was hemorrhaging. 

“Shops and businesses were closing, and pedestrian traffic was vanishing,” recalled Rodin this past March during a speech unveiling Penn’s new Urban Research Institute (see p. 21). “Middle-class families were leaving, and more houses were falling prey to abandonment and decay. The streets were littered with trash, and abandoned homes and buildings became canvasses for graffiti artists and business addresses for drug dealers.”

There was more. The housing market had collapsed in the late 1980s, and was still on its knees. Graduate students were fleeing to Center City, which was not only safer but had a lot more to offer in the way of retail and entertainment options. For parents of school-age children, the options were grim—especially the old, overcrowded public schools, three of which ranked at the bottom in state-administered math and reading tests. At the western edge of campus, Rodin noted, the “depressed and desolate commercial corridor of 40th Street” had become an “invisible campus boundary beyond which Penn students and faculty were advised not to venture.”

Despite many individual efforts by faculty and administrators to reach out to the community, “residents by and large still felt that Penn had turned its back on the neighborhood,” Rodin recalled.

“Who could blame them?” she asked pointedly. “Penn was so near and large, and yet, remained so remote.”

When Rodin became president in 1994, the “fundamental question” facing Penn was: “Could a university so alienated from a deeply distressed neighborhood at its doorstep continue to grow and prosper?” Some suggested that the problems were intractable, she recalled. Others encouraged Penn to “take a leadership role in revitalizing the neighborhood as a matter of enlightened self-interest.”

In hindsight, “the right call looks like a no-brainer,” she said. “At the time, however, neither my job description nor my charge from the trustees included investing large amounts of my time and the University’s funds in neighborhood initiatives.” As a result, when Penn first offered to devote “substantial resources” toward redeveloping a “distressed neighborhood that disliked us,” Rodin acknowledged that many members of the academic community “wondered aloud what we were smoking.”

The University quickly developed a game plan, which began with its “Urban Agenda” in the Six Academic Priorities section of the 1995 Agenda for Excellence

Given the complexity of the problem, it soon became clear that Penn had to take an integrated, multi-pronged approach. As Dr. Ira Harkavy C’70 Gr’79, director of Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships, told the Gazette in 1997: “Anything that focuses on a single-pronged attempt—by the nature of not looking at the enormous interrelated complexity that exists in an advanced society—will necessarily fail.”

“Many urban universities had taken action on one front or another,” said Rodin this past March. “None had attempted to commit to intervening holistically on all fronts at once.”

Rodin also made it clear what Penn wouldn’t do. In addition to a promise not to “expand our campus to the west or to the north into residential neighborhoods,” ever again, she pledged that the University “wouldn’t act unilaterally,” but would instead “candidly discuss what we could do with the community,” and operate “with transparency.” (For an example of that behavior, check out the approach taken by Penn Praxis on its 40th Street project at, which has been a model of two-way communication and transparent goal-setting.) Finally, Penn would only make “promises we knew we could keep,” and leverage its considerable resources by “stimulating major investments by the private sector.”

“In my mind, nothing short of a revolution would do,” Rodin recalled. “I wanted to reorient the entire administrative culture at Penn toward transforming the University and the neighborhood simultaneously.”

Today, even the most knee-jerk Penn-bashers would have to agree that under Rodin, the University has put its money—and its intellectual capital and influence—where its mouth is. University City is not without problems, but it has made impressive strides in every area.

To make the neighborhood cleaner and safer, Penn beefed up its Division of Public Safety, hiring 19 more police officers and 13 detectives and investing in state-of-the-art technology. It opened a new police station at 4040 Chestnut Street, which it shares with the Philadelphia Police 18th Precinct substation, and has upgraded some of its procedures and protocol. (Example: a computer-aided dispatch system now lets Penn Police know that an off-campus robbery in its patrol area has been reported to Philadelphia Police, which, on a busy Saturday night, might not be able to respond quickly.)

More visibly, it created the University City District, a special-services district whose uniformed “safety ambassadors”—welfare-to-work recipients—walk the streets and support campus and city police, and whose trash collectors supplement city sanitation-department units and help remove graffiti. 

Not everything can be measured by numbers, but many things can. Even, to an extent, morale, and according to a recent survey, 70 percent of University City residents agree that the area is “cleaner and better” than it used to be. (One wonders about that other 30 percent, but never mind.)


  • Between 1996 and 2003, total crime dropped 40 percent. Only bicycle thefts are up (18 percent), and those appear to have peaked in 2002.
  • Eight public gardens have been created; 450 street trees have been planted. Some 2,500 outdoor light fixtures have been installed at 1,200 properties.
  • Housing prices, a sure indicator of a more desirable neighborhood, have risen 59 percent. Twenty carefully selected vacant properties have been rehabbed; 329 people affiliated with Penn have purchased homes in the area; another 137 Penn “affiliates” renovated their existing homes; and 282 units of rental housing were created with private capital.
  • Twenty-five new stores have been attracted to the area, and foot traffic along the 40th Street corridor has increased by 86 percent. The Inn at Penn/Penn Bookstore complex, now known as University Square, employs 200 area residents.
  • Penn has purchased $307 million worth of goods and services under its “Buy West Philadelphia” program, and has awarded $125 million worth of contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses.

In 2002, the dazzling new Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School—better known as the Penn-Alexander School—opened to rave reviews at 42nd and Spruce streets.

The decision to “roll the dice” and create a new Penn-supported public school—one whose enrollment “reflected the broad diversity of University City”—was Penn’s “greatest gamble,” says Rodin now. “Everything else we did made University City a much more enticing place to visit. But if we wanted to make the neighborhood more attractive for families, we had to improve public education.”

In order to “model best practices and innovations” to other neighboring schools and “ultimately transform urban public education,” Rodin recalled, the Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had to be involved in a “true partnership.”

“Nothing like this had ever been tried in the history of public education in America,” said Rodin, and it didn’t come easily. “First, it took a lot of persuasion and ‘gentle’ arm-twisting to reach an historic, three-way agreement. It took another year of painstaking, thoughtful collaboration with educators and community representatives to come up with a design and plan for the school, and then another year of addressing the fear and concerns of residents—some of whom were suspicious of our motives, and others who didn’t want to be left out in the cold.”

But they prevailed, and today, the partnership accomplishes a number of different things. The Penn-Alexander School provides “excellent education for up to 700 neighborhood children,” and strengthens the other neighborhood schools by “providing professional development and serving as a source of best practices,” noted Rodin; it also serves as a community center. By making University City more attractive to young families with children, the school has further stabilized the neighborhood.

For Rodin, “perhaps the most intriguing statistic of all” has to do with the overall population of University City. “While Philadelphia as a whole has seen its population decline by 4.5 percent over the past five years, University City has seen an increase of 2.1 percent,” she pointed out. While that may not be a “staggering number by itself,” she added, “when you consider the alarming condition of this neighborhood a decade ago, that figure puts an exclamation point on our revitalization efforts.”

“There is no doubt that Penn has been transformed by our engagement with West Philadelphia and our decision to become the lead developer in University City,” Rodin said in March. “We have overcome decades of hostile relations with our neighbors to forge partnerships that have achieved remarkable progress.” Furthermore, the various West Philadelphia initiatives have won numerous national and international awards, including the Urban Land Institute’s 2003 Award for Excellence.

Ten years ago, “few thought Penn had the guts to stick its neck out for its neighbors,” Rodin said. “Today, we realize that by putting our money and reputation on the line to help revitalize University City, the neck we saved might well turn out to have been our own.” 



By John Prendergast |Photo by Bill Cramer

As she enters the “homestretch” of her presidency, Dr. Rodin reflects on her administration’s achievements, talks about the importance of both vision and passion to successful leadership, and says “thank you to everyone” for the privilege of leading Penn.

March 26, 2004—somewhere in the neighborhood of her 3,555th day as the University’s chief executive (give or take a leap year along the way)—was a typically full one for Judy Rodin. The first event on her schedule was a 7 a.m. train ride from New York to Philadelphia; the last, a 7:30 p.m. dinner at her residence in Eisenlohr Hall. In the 12 1/2 hours in between, among a stream of meetings and phone calls, the day’s events included finalizing the University’s $50.6 million purchase of 24 acres east of campus from the U.S. Post Office and an appearance before alumni class leaders gathered at the Inn at Penn for a weekend retreat to begin planning for next year’s slate of five-year reunions.

President Rodin also took time that day to talk to Gazette editor John Prendergast about her 10 years of service as Penn’s seventh president.

When we spoke last summer, soon after you had announced you were stepping down, you said your focus would continue to be on your duties as president. How do you feel now? Do you have the sense of something coming to an end?

Yes. I feel like we are on the homestretch—rather than the last time when I really felt that the year had so many busy things ahead that it wasn’t time to think about the conclusion.

One of the areas in which you expressed particular satisfaction then was the University’s academic gains. Clearly, Penn is attracting students of higher quality and more of them are coming to the University—rather than some other school—after they’ve been accepted. What attracts these students here now?

Well, I think Penn has become truly extraordinary. If you look at institutions that have really gone though unusual transitions in the last decade—Penn and a handful of others—we are the place that others look to. We are seen as more innovative, more risk-taking; we have more creative degree programs for undergraduates than any of our peers. We’re focusing on the strengths of the urban environment in ways that make [Penn] very attractive to undergraduates who want a sophisticated urban experience. We have improved teaching and learning in an environment in which we have focused more and more on what goes on outside of the classroom, as well as what goes on inside of the classroom, with the hubs and the college houses and the extraordinary kind of programming that undergraduates have access to. So those are some of the attractions that the undergraduates see very clearly.

In West Philadelphia, the Penn-Alexander pre-K-8th grade public school has been open for a few years now. The neighborhood has become much more attractive to potential homeowners—housing prices have risen substantially. How do you see developments in that area playing out as time goes on?

I see that as phase one. We announced [in March] that we’ve expanded the boundaries of the University’s mortgage-assistance program. It was not our desire to drive up the prices for home ownership, and we want to make sure that this is really about an urban-development initiative. [Extending] the boundaries will help make more housing stock available. We’ll start to see the same reanimation of those surrounding areas, and eventually we’ll move them further as this proves to be successful. So this is all very much of a process. We have expanded the affordable-housing fund and actually have brought in some new partners recently—again because it is not our goal to create expensive housing. It is our goal to make this a very congenial neighborhood for a variety of socioeconomic groups.

The school is an incredible success by whatever metrics we look at. Whenever there are Philadelphia competitions for science and math and spelling, our kids are almost at the top in every grade of every group. It’s an open, wonderful environment for learning, and in the teacher-training work we’ve done and in the interventions in the other schools in West Philadelphia, we’ve created an environment of excitement and activity and learning for more of the kids of West Philadelphia—and our goal ultimately would be for all of the kids of West Philadelphia.

What would be the greatest obstacle to continued progress? Is there still lingering resentment toward Penn in the community?

I think we’ve come a long way this year, and it’s another thing as I look back on this year that will have been a success. Through Penn Praxis and the efforts of Harris Steinberg and [of Harris Sokoloff in] the Graduate School of Education, we’ve just completed a very exciting 40th Street planning exercise that was very neighborhood-friendly and included all of our harshest critics, actually. Together, with Penn really not in the leadership but as one of the participants, we’ve created a shared vision for 40th Street from Baltimore Avenue to Lancaster Avenue. It’s a neighborhood planning process now. The more that happens—and this was a very significant first effort—the more it will feel to everyone that, although Penn launched all of this six or eight years ago, it now is owned by the neighborhood and we’re one of the participants. In the long run, that will be the outcome that makes all of this sustainable.

Could this serve as a model for other places, other cities?

Absolutely, and we’ve been asked by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to look at this model and see how replicable it is for other cities and for other universities or other kinds of institutional partners.

John Kromer [senior consultant at the Fels Institute of Government] and Lucy Kerman [director of special projects in the President’s Office] are doing a book compiling quantitative data on the improvements that have occurred on the basis of the West Philadelphia interventions [provisionally titled, “West Philadelphia Initiatives: A Case Study in Urban Revitalization”] which we think may be helpful to other cities and other universities. And then finally, one of my activities for next year is that I am going to write a book on this. It has been a passion for me—and a real labor of love—and so I will write a book on what we did in West Philadelphia and why we did it.

Will this work also be within the scope of the Urban Research Institute announced in March [“Gazetteer,” May|June 2004]?

Yes. Genie Birch and Susan Wachter will co-chair the institute, and I actually am going to chair the advisory committee. So we will all continue to work on this.

How much of your job—how much of what has happened over the last decade—has been a matter of going out and convincing people that Penn should be where it is now?

I think if you go back to my inaugural address you will see that, at the earliest moment of my presidency, I laid out what I thought was my vision for Penn. That was a vision that came out during the presidential search, and I think the trustees hired me because that resonated with them. And so from the beginning I have felt enormous trustee support for a vision that said Penn was excellent, Penn would rise to the highest ranks in higher education. We would find ways to do it, but here was what our strengths were: I emphasized the Franklin dictum on combining theory and practice, which really does differentiate us from the other Ivies. I talked a lot in my inaugural address about what it meant to be truly of Philadelphia, and there was a shared vision for that. I spent a lot of time my first year saying to people that if I wanted to be at Yale I would have stayed there. So I really thought my goal was not to make Penn Yale, but to make Penn the best Penn that it could be, and that’s what I think we have tried to do over these 10 years.

And I think everyone resonated to that vision. How could you not? If there were views that were different—as there should be, because no one should agree with the leader completely—it was on how we got there. And we had lots of wonderful debates over the years about that. But the fact that we wanted to be there was something that everyone on the board, and certainly the senior leadership team, truly aspired to and was willing to work hard to achieve.

I’m grateful for the hard work of the trustees and the senior leadership, and I think we inspired the alumni and I think we inspired the local constituents that it could happen—because we believed it so fervently.

Can you talk a bit about how being an alumna of the University and a native of Philadelphia has shaped your presidency?

I think it has shaped my presidency completely. My ability to move quickly in reintegrating Penn in the fabric of Philadelphia and then claiming for Penn a rightful role as a leader of Philadelphia—not the but a—I think was very much formed by my own experience as a Philadelphian and my ability to understand how Philadelphia works—a bit—from having grown up here and knowing some of the players. After all, Ed [Rendell C’65 Hon’00] was the mayor. We were undergraduates together. There were many people in local and state government who I’d gone to school with in the Philadelphia public schools, so there was some ease of relationships and that was great and fortunate.

And I think being an alumna for me imbued the role with a kind of passion that has framed my leadership. I think vision is really critical, but without passion the vision doesn’t get ignited. And the passion that drove me was twofold: one, the passion for excellence, which I have always tried to achieve, and second, my love for Penn. I loved this place as an undergraduate, and I came back and had the opportunity to love it again, which was wonderful.

What are the best and worst things about leading a major academic institution like Penn?

The worst thing in an academic institution is that there are often competing constituencies, more than one of which has legitimate demands, and so [leadership] is often adjudicating among constituencies where there isn’t one that’s right and the rest are wrong, and that’s very difficult.

I also hate being called during the admissions process. Some people must love being thought of as the kingmaker or a gatekeeper, but I actually have hated that part of the job.

Before or after admissions decisions are made?

All the time! Yes, before and after, and they are equally unpleasant. I don’t want to be thought of as someone who can get people in; I don’t want to be thought of as somebody to complain to after somebody doesn’t get in. I feel it so personally when people call, and then I worry about it.

How about the good part?

The most energizing and exciting thing is watching growth. Watching young people grow, as a class comes in as freshmen and leaves as seniors. I find the freshman Convocation breathtaking and for me very emotional, and I feel the same way about Commencement. These are rites of passage, and what they reflect is what’s gone on in between—which is our real contribution to the growth of these wonderful students, and that’s true at the graduate and professional levels as well.

It’s also the opportunity to contribute to the growth of the faculty and staff, and during my time we’ve taken staff-enrichment programs seriously, a whole number of things that really do focus on developing people, creating opportunities for our faculty to develop satisfying careers here so they don’t want to leave—so they find this a really wonderful place for their teaching and scholarship and clinical activities.

And then, finally, the physical growth. When I walk around, and I see the physical transformation [of Penn’s campus], it just dazzles me and excites me.

And so all of these are energetic, growth-related opportunities that a university president gets that are very hard to find, I would imagine, anywhere else.

What about the notion of university presidents being engaged in larger social and political issues—either by speaking out as you have done on free-speech issues, for example, or through writings like the Public Discourse in America volume you co-edited [“The University as Discourse Community,” November/December 2003].

I have thought that it’s very important. You know, there is often criticism that university presidents don’t speak out enough, but I do think [they] are speaking out. I chose the issues about which I felt passionately—civic engagement in America, and discourse generally, which is part of free speech and what academic institutions should foster. And, in a way, what we did in West Philadelphia was an act of civic engagement: What we tried to do is model for our students what a civically engaged institution can and should do, and that’s been the domain in particular in which I have felt I wanted to take a more visible national leadership role.

And I think it’s consistent with Penn’s mission, consistent with Benjamin Franklin’s mandate for our university. So I chose areas that I really felt were mission specific, and not those that any university president could do.

Now that Penn is recognized as being among the handful of top institutions of higher education, what’s next?

I do think that there’s always room to grow and change, and I know that [President-elect] Amy Gutmann has great aspirations for areas in which she would like to see Penn grow and continue to transform itself. But I do think that the kind of scrappy, “We’re-gonna-get-up-there-to-the-top” feeling that motivated my leadership team isn’t totally what will be needed to motivate the next leadership team—because we’re in a different place. And so she will have to think about new kinds of motivations and incentives to move us forward and help people to engage in that transformation, because we’ll be stale if we don’t continue to reinvent ourselves. That’s what’s happened to many of our peers, and that’s why we were able to surpass many of them.

What would you like to be remembered for?

I’d like to be remembered as somebody who led Penn into the next part of its future, gave Penn back much deserved self-confidence, and helped to transform the University. I also want to be remembered as somebody who created a great leadership team, because I didn’t do this alone. I had the best deans and senior officers in higher education and an extraordinary board of trustees, who I felt completely supported by. This is a shared vision, and they enabled me and the other senior leaders to make it happen. 

What are your plans for the future?

I’m doing a book on West Philadelphia, as I said. I’m also doing a book on leadership. Some of the challenges that we faced you alluded to, and I’m going to try moving from Public Discourse in America to really talk about how a leader uses discourse to move an agenda forward. It’s a different kind of book on leadership than what’s typically written, and I’m excited by that and I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that.

I’ve been asked to participate and play leadership roles in several new kinds of boards and activities. I’m considering a number of those opportunities in the education area and back into the health-and-wellness area, which is my own area of research expertise.

At the moment I need to take a deep breath and take a little time off. My husband and I haven’t lived together since we’ve been married. We got married the April before I took this job and were always in and out of different cities. That will be a wonderful opportunity and we’re looking forward to that. And I’ll also do a little traveling, and then I’ll see—but I’m a tenured professor, and so I will come back and teach at some point.

Is there anything else that you’d like to say?

I really want to express what a privilege it was to lead Penn. I did not think at the beginning of my career that I would ever come back here as the president. I expected to have a more typical academic career and was very, very satisfied in my research and teaching at Yale. I could never have imagined when I came into this both how complicated and difficult the job is—even as Yale provost I couldn’t have imagined it. And at the end, as I look back at the 10 years, I think how very lucky I am. Because this has been a privilege—the people, the opportunities to really help to transform a place I love. I leave with just enormous feelings about the people and the place, the tremendous reservoir of goodwill that I experienced during my presidency and when I announced that I would be stepping down. It’s a great feeling, and I’m very lucky, and I want to say thank you to everyone.

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