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Penn’s latest successes are not conclusions, but bold new beginnings.

By Amy Gutmann

Scarcely a year after COVID was declared a global pandemic, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported on pioneering mRNA technology developed at Penn. Thanks to this revolutionary breakthrough, highly effective COVID vaccines were created and deployed with breathtaking speed. Millions of lives were saved, and millions more continue to be saved because of this breakthrough. What’s more: Human trials for new vaccines against HIV, rabies, influenza, and Zika were already under way. So astonishing is the promise of mRNA technology that the AAMC confidently predicted a new era of vaccine development. They wrote, “This is just the beginning.”

Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó, the Penn scientists whose discoveries enabled mRNA technology, were asked about the meaning of their success. Dr. Weissman replied, “I’m already thinking about what we’re going to do next.”

Planning for the next great good we shall do: That is Penn. When we discover new knowledge (which we are doing all the time), we remember Ben Franklin’s inspired maxim that “Art is long and … Time is short.” So, how best to employ our latest insights for the greatest good? In a nutshell: What comes next?

Here at the beginning of an exciting new year, this question seems particularly apt. In September, the Penn community celebrated the conclusion of our record-breaking Power of Penn campaign. This extraordinary show of Penn community engagement raised more than $5.4 billion to advance inclusion, innovation, and impact. With $4.3 billion from the Making History campaign and what we have raised this fall, I gratefully report that over the course of my presidency we raised more than $10 billion in support of Penn. My gratitude overflows for our inspiring community of Penn alumni and friends, faculty and staff, students and parents.

With the Power of Penn alone, we created 830 new undergraduate scholarships and raised nearly $900 million for student aid. We launched Penn First Plus to comprehensively support our first-generation and low-income students. We created nearly 190 newly endowed positions. These include many new Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professorships and Presidential Professorships.

We have built spectacular new academic and residential facilities. We have created innovative new interdisciplinary programs. These span all our Schools and Centers and have made our campus irresistibly more integrated, beautiful, dynamic, and sustainable. We massively exceeded our ambitious Power of Penn goal even in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic and economic retrenchment. Penn’s success speaks directly to the profound and passionate support of Penn alumni, friends, families, and all our faculty, students, and staff.

Penn is now more strongly positioned than ever to continue making a world-class education more affordable and accessible; producing world-changing research and lifesaving innovation; and engaging for good here at home and globally. Proof positive of this is Penn Medicine’s new Pavilion at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. On October 30, we celebrated the opening of the Pavilion with a historic ribbon cutting ceremony. With $1.6 billion invested in 1.5 million square feet of space-age facilities, the Pavilion will set the standard for local, national, and global healthcare for generations to come.

Penn marked yet another historic milestone just shortly after we opened the Pavilion. We are launching the largest and broadest scientific research investment in Penn’s history with a $750 million initiative to advance Penn’s pathbreaking contributions across four critically important areas of health, science, and technology. The four areas are novel therapeutics and health-related initiatives; energy and sustainability; data engineering and science; and infrastructure to support physical science research. These investments are made possible thanks to our skyrocketing innovation ecosystem led by our faculty, the Penn Center for Innovation, and our blockbuster Power of Penn campaign. This historic new investment will further support faculty recruitment and retention and position Penn to be a world leader in some of the most critically important scientific fields for years to come.

We also shared an important campus-wide message concerning Penn’s ongoing efforts to combat the effects of climate change. Along with our achievements to date, we announced that Penn will cease new investments in any new commitments to private equity vehicles dedicated to investments in fossil fuel production. We further confirmed that Penn does not directly invest in companies engaged in the production of fossil fuels. We also announced the creation of a new President’s Sustainability Prize to complement our stellar President’s Engagement and Innovation Prizes. It is of vital importance that we take strong action to mitigate climate change, and Penn continues to lead in doing so.

We also took time to mark an important 10-year anniversary. In December 2011, we announced the creation of the Presidential Term Professorships, a key effort in Penn’s campus-wide Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence. Our intent was to bring to Penn exceptional scholars of any rank who contribute to faculty excellence and diversity across the University. We started out with high hopes and great expectations. A decade in, the Presidential Term Professorship program has proven a true gamechanger in creating a faculty and a university community that is more diverse, more inclusive, and more truly representative of our world today.

At Penn, excellence is our byline, collaboration is our means of achieving it, and community—a rich, robust, and diverse community of innovative thinkers—is the central characteristic that defines us. Every day, our faculty and students do great things. In the classroom, we provide one-of-a-kind educational experiences for the best students anywhere in the world. Beyond teaching, our faculty make significant, groundbreaking contributions to their field. At Penn Medicine, our skilled clinicians deliver exceptional care in state-of-the-art facilities.

With so much happening, with so many new projects and programs and possibilities commencing and under way, no one can precisely predict what comes next. And that’s why being part of this community is so uniquely special. How exciting to know that these successes are not conclusions but bold new beginnings: the start of the next chapter at Penn.

A special joy for me as I contemplate the next frontier in my own personal journey is that, this May, an outstanding promise will be fulfilled. We were absolutely delighted to announce an in-person University-wide Commencement ceremony for the undergraduate Class of 2020 as well as graduate students from the Classes of 2020 and 2021. Throughout the pandemic, Penn students worked hard, played by the rules, and stayed upbeat and positive. They have persevered with grace. To honor their resilience, we will join friends and family on Franklin Field to observe a very special one-of-a-kind celebration.

We will do this with joy and pride, confidence and high hopes. We will celebrate our graduates not only for their remarkable achievements but also for the great good they go forth to do. Of course. Because at Penn, for more than 280 years now, that’s what comes next.

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