Distilling the University’s essence.
By Amy Gutmann
This past fall, I found myself facing a rewarding and challenging dilemma. As I traveled near and far beyond Penn’s campus, meeting with wonderful alumni and friends, my quandary was this: how to wrap my arms around the vast array of recent Penn milestones in the limited time available and share them with my fabulous audiences?
As far as problems go, this is a most welcome one to have!
Here’s my best attempt at a solution: Certain words that distill Penn’s essence immediately resonate no matter where I go. They capture our momentum, our enormous energy, and the sheer good we all set out to achieve together. Three words I’ve been thinking a lot about are genius, breakthrough, and noble.
Genius has the potential to change everything. Think of the greatest fathomable possibilities waiting, unlooked for, in untraditional places. That kind of genius must first be discerned and then fostered.
In September, the MacArthur Foundation announced their 2019 Fellows, recipients of their coveted “genius” grant. One of them is Penn Classical Studies Professor Emily Wilson. She is widely lauded for her pioneering new translation of The Odyssey, the first English translation done by a woman and one that is both eloquent and accessible.
Penn discerns and empowers such genius not only in our faculty but also in our talented and diverse students, who are both winning great awards (more about this in a moment) and doing inspiring work that contributes to so many communities before and after they graduate. None of this would be possible without our avid commitment to affordability, which continues to grow. Since 2008, we’ve awarded $1.8 billion in undergraduate financial aid. For aided students, about half of our undergraduates, it now costs 22 percent less to attend Penn than it did 14 years ago. Whereas 15 years ago, one in 20 undergraduates were first-generation in their families to become college graduates, today in our latest first-year class, one in seven are first-generation students.
With programs such as Penn First Plus, we are not only recruiting but also supporting and empowering exceptional students who are first-generation, low-income, or both. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that, from the moment they are admitted, these incredibly resilient students—who have overcome significant barriers to get to Penn—know they will be afforded fully loaded computers, study abroad, internships, meals over semester breaks, mentoring, clothes for job interviews, and the like. We are creating a beautiful welcoming space for our Penn First Plus program in College Hall.
As Penn breaks down barriers to educational success, we also continue building on our incredible resources that enable student genius to shine. Our New College House West will create an inviting new quad bordering Locust Walk and Walnut Street on the western side of our campus. It will include 450 student rooms, common social and study spaces, music and yoga rooms, a demonstration kitchen, dining, and much more. Modeled on the Lauder College House on Hill field, New College House West will enable Penn to provide a best- in-class campus living-and-learning experience for all our first- and second-year students. Also on the west side of our campus, Tangen Hall, our new center for student entrepreneurship, is also rapidly moving toward completion.
When we foster student genius, our society and the world benefit. For example, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award-winning superstar and founder of the Show Me Campaign John Legend C’99 Hon’14 was back on campus this fall to champion a national cause he shares with Penn students: encouraging more of our youngest citizens to register and vote. An honorary degree recipient and our 2014 Commencement speaker, Legend performed “The Red and Blue” along with a medley of his own greatest hits as part of a nationwide effort to increase voter registration and turnout—and he brought down the house. (His rendition of “The Red and Blue” brought me to tears, of joy.) His important message of civic engagement strongly resonated with our students who are championing Penn Leads the Vote.
What Penn people go on to achieve today is so often called a breakthrough.
In November, I attended the awards ceremony for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which has been called the “Oscars of Science.” This $3 million prize is awarded for transformative advances that improve human life. One of this year’s six laureates is Penn’s own Dr. Virginia Lee. A leading Alzheimer’s researcher, Lee is a trailblazer in better understanding how neurodegenerative diseases progress.
Breakthroughs such as hers require both a physical place and a collaborative culture, which we have built from the ground up for multidisciplinary research and innovation. These breakthroughs require long-term investments in support of ideas that may one day utterly shift the paradigm. Penn is an epicenter for such investments and their ensuing breakthroughs in the most far-ranging innovations that serve humankind.
We all know the story of Dr. Carl June and the rise of CAR-T cell therapies. A CAR-T treatment for leukemia developed at Penn became the very first FDA-approved gene therapy for cancer. Penn discoveries are now altering the possibilities for treating a range of cancers.
It’s inspiring to hear our path-breaking researchers talk about it. They give us good reason to believe that conquering cancer—although it’s among the most daunting cluster of diseases—is just the beginning. Another multi-talented Penn team is exploring CAR-T therapies targeted at treating heart disease. We have organized our entire University to foster such interdisciplinary innovation, and we will do even more.
To further our biomedical progress from research through patient care, the Pavilion, Penn Medicine’s visionary new hospital facility, is moving swiftly toward completion in 2021. Yet another exciting development is the new Energy Science and Technology Building, now in the works thanks to a record-setting gift to Penn Arts and Sciences from Roy C’50 Hon’99 and Diana Vagelos. Here faculty and students from the physical sciences and engineering will collaborate on sustainable solutions to the world’s energy needs. Most recently, we announced the single largest gift in Penn Engineering’s history, made by Harlan Stone C’80, to support a new Data Science Building. This state-of-the-art building—just north of Lauder College House—will promote collaborations across disciplines as scholars harness big data responsibly to meet crucial issues facing the world.
All of which brings me to the third word, noble. A noble deed is action we take without thought of immediate glory. It’s a long-term investment in the good of society whose dividends may only pay off after we’re gone.
These greatest of works are recognized by the noblest honor of them all: the Nobel prizes. Here, too, Penn has earned special recognition. In October, the Swedish Academy announced Penn alum Dr. Gregg Semenza M’82 Gr’84 was sharing a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his transformative discoveries in how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. This Nobel was recognition decades in the making.
For what is a noble act but an impressive act of hope for the future? Penn fosters the genius and breakthroughs I’ve described because we believe—to our very core—in the world-benefiting nobility of our academic mission.
As I write this, we celebrate some remarkable news, and so I will add a fourth word to my list. That word is Rhodes. Penn proudly announced not one but two Rhodes Scholars—the third year in a row that we claim this honor. We can now count no fewer than nine Rhodes Scholars from Penn in the last five years alone.
Our 2020 Rhodes Scholars are Nurul Ezzaty Binti Hasbullah C’20 and Stephen Damianos C’19. Ezzaty is passionate about social impact and has devoted significant time and energy to reducing education inequality in Malaysia, while also organizing numerous international volunteering initiatives. Stephen has dedicated himself to empowering refugees and is now studying their integration into formal labor markets and rights-based approaches to international development, with plans to attend law school.
We could not be prouder of our 2020 Rhodes Scholars—along with our three currently confirmed Schwarzman winners and two Marshall winners, with this year’s Fulbrights and President’s Engagement and Innovation Prize winners yet to come. Above all we are excited about the good they have done and will do in the world.
In the category of words known round the world, Rhodes certainly ranks highly. People also immediately pay avid attention whenever we talk about genius, breakthroughs, and noble work. Now, thanks to our enormous strides on these and so many other fronts, I can report from my many travels that another word features regularly among that rare group. Go just about anywhere in the world and say this word, and it sparks immediate recognition. It is synonymous with educational preeminence, paradigm-shifting research, and engagement for good.
That word is Penn.