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A great university’s rich past and magnificent future.

By Amy Gutmann | Strolling through College Green on a beautiful early July evening, I bumped into a friendly Penn couple who had met as undergrads, moved overseas, and were revisiting the campus for the first time since they graduated nearly a quarter century ago. While their two children danced on the Button, these alums expressed amazement and delight over all the physical changes—the new buildings, the restoration of Houston Hall, and all the shops, restaurants, and cultural venues along Walnut Street. But the size of the trees astonished them the most. The saplings from their memories of Locust Walk had grown to stately maturity.

So, too, has the University that I am honored to lead blossomed over the years into an extraordinary institution as beneficial to society—and vital to the future of democracy—as the men and women who have seeded and nourished its growth. 

Having now put down my own roots at Penn, I often call to mind the words of poet Robert Frost: “We love the things we love for what they are.” 

Speaking from my own life perspectives, as the daughter of a Jewish college student who fled Nazi Germany and later became an American citizen, I love Penn for ardently defending academic freedom, embracing diversity, and offering exceptionally capable women and men from all backgrounds the educational opportunity to transform their own lives and improve the lives of others—regardless of their ability to pay. 

As a believer in the intrinsic as well as instrumental value of knowledge, I love Penn for its inspiring faculty and the remarkable quality of its teaching and research in the arts and sciences and the professions. Penn’s faculty deepen our understanding of every dimension of the human experience—from History Professor Stephen Hahn exploring the roots of African-American politics in the crucible of slavery and civil war to Nursing Professors Mary Naylor, Lois Evans, and Norma Lang teaming up to improve LIFE (Living Independently for Elders) in Philadelphia with a model health-care delivery program.

As a political philosopher and passionate (small d!) democrat, I love Penn for being so effectively and energetically engaged in the civic world of the 21st century. No institution is more important to democracy than higher education—because no institution is a greater exemplar and exponent of democracy’s loftiest aim of realizing human potential. From running oral-health clinics for people with HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia to fighting the AIDS pandemic in Africa to educating executives around the world in global business ethics, Penn translates path-breaking teaching and research into practical benefits to city, state, nation, and world. 

I love how multiple architectural styles and pathways unite to create a vibrant and welcoming urban campus. I cherish the mutually beneficial ties that bind the University together with the great city of Philadelphia, the cradle of American democracy. 

The Penn Alexander School illustrates the enduring and the innovative nature of our ties. From the earliest days of the Republic, Americans have believed that educating an informed citizenry is essential to the health of democracy. Visionaries embraced universal public education as an essential building block for a free society. The Penn Alexander School represents the best in this basic American institution, a pioneering neighborhood public school that draws its strength from the participation of Penn faculty, the diversity of the student body, and the community’s commitment to continue working together for educational excellence. 

I love the hubs, which brilliantly demonstrate how diversity and excellence reinforce one another. At Kelly Writers House and Weiss Tech House, for example, Penn students representing a broad spectrum of backgrounds, talents, and points of view form dynamic, mutually respectful communities of learning in which they wrestle with challenging ideas and create new knowledge, innovations, and art. 

I especially love the sense of community that knits the faculty, staff, students, and (most definitely!) the alumni into one extended Penn family that spans the globe. If Penn stands for excellence in both thought and action, it is in no small part because our alumni stand by their alma mater and stand out as social leaders around the world. 

Now, as I develop a 21st-century vision for Penn’s future, I invite you to join with me in conceiving of what Penn is poised to become: A University that strengthens the values of life and liberty, opportunity and mutual respect, at home and around the world, both by educating extraordinary students as responsible global leaders, and by mobilizing cutting-edge research to address the complex challenges of our times and to improve the lives of individuals everywhere. 

With your support, I know that Penn can serve this mission all the more as we move ahead, always resisting complacency and pursuing excellence and diversity together. 

First and foremost, we will make it increasingly possible for all men and women, regardless of their economic means, to benefit from a great Penn education, whether they are undergraduate, graduate, or professional students.

We will create knowledge that sustains and improves lives, and we will also communicate knowledge collaboratively and respectfully across all cultures so that everybody can reap the benefits. 

We will boost the capacity of Penn’s scientists, health professionals, and engineers both to tackle diseases that recognize no boundaries, such as cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer’s, and to extend the wonders of science and technology across cultural, economic, and political barriers. 

We will better educate future professionals in business, law, social work, health care, engineering, design, and the arts and sciences to meet the ethical and intellectual challenges of citizenship and leadership in a diverse world. 

We will place a greater accent on cultivating our shared humanity—from embedding liberal arts, science, and culture in the learning experience of all our students to launching ambitious efforts to promote global health and education.

Using the knowledge we gain to enrich both our own lives and those of our fellow human beings is a moral cause as venerable as Benjamin Franklin’s vision for the University of Pennsylvania. I know of no University better positioned to serve this uplifting purpose than Penn. That is why I am honored to be its president. And that is why I eagerly look forward to leading Penn forward with you and everyone else who treasures Penn’s traditions and who will work with me to shape a magnificent future for our great and beloved University.

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