Welcome Back From the President
Fostering Mutual Respect
It gives me special pleasure to welcome all of you back to campus after so many of you have welcomed me so warmly and often gone out of your way to help get my presidency off to a flying start. Long after we have scaled new heights together, I will remember the encouragement you offered and the opinions you (so freely!) shared. Penn is clearly a community of wonderful faculty and staff whose commitment to excellence continuously elevates our sights in higher education. I am grateful to all of you and honored to be your president and colleague.
A little more than a month from now, I will deliver my Inaugural address, in which I will share my vision for making Penn an even greater force for promoting life, liberty, equal opportunity, and mutual respect throughout our world. That vision—along with countless decisions I will make throughout my presidency—will draw on the wisdom and good will of this dynamic community of scholars.
As a political philosopher, I believe that encouraging more citizens to raise their voices in reasoned debate can help a leader make wiser decisions. It also can strengthen the fabric of community.
One excellent vehicle for promoting a lively exchange of views exists right in this publication: "Speaking Out." I recently had the pleasure of browsing through editions of the Almanac dating back almost 25 years.
I was struck by the broad range of issues vigorously debated by faculty and staff in these pages during the 1980s. Some letters were topical: How would President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative affect the integrity of academic research? Should the University divest its portfolio from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa?
Other letters were as timeless as the widespread lamentations about the (seemingly Biblical) plague of speeding bicycles on Locust Walk: How should we reform the undergraduate curriculum? How do we promote gender equity?
Many letters were elegantly crafted, with frequent flashes of wit. Long-time Almanac readers may remember the satirical musings of the late Clifton Cherpack, a Professor of Romance Languages. In one piece, "Splice of Life" (Almanac January 13, 1987), the professor offers a "transcript" of a secretly recorded bathroom conversation he had with an "ethnobiosociologist" who is presenting a paper on "Circumcision, Scarification, and Victorian Cookbooks" in the "Desperately Interdisciplinary Visiting Lecture Series."
Cherpack wants to know why "members of university committees, not to mention others, almost never bother to look up and read the books and articles that pertain to the matters at hand?"
His fictional counterpart replies, "My dear Cheesepack … To do such research would be to violate the root-like essence of committeeization. The function of a committee is to merely committeeize; that is, to meet, to talk off the top of one's head, and to produce a report that nobody reads, not even the next committee on the same subject."
While such spoofs brought comic relief to the "Speaking Out" section, some contributions led to critical change. For example, in 1985, a large number of Penn staffers signed a letter that argued persuasively for establishing a child-care (dependent) tax-sheltered account as part of the flexible benefits package–which the administration instituted.
In recent years, the volume of letters in "Speaking Out" has noticeably dwindled. That is unfortunate. Silence is not golden when the world in which we play a pivotal role is facing many challenges that directly or indirectly affect the institution of higher education.
I therefore invite anyone with an issue to raise, a viewpoint to express, or a good story to tell to take advantage of the "Speaking Out" forum. After all, Penn's Guidelines for Open Expression state that "Faculty, staff, and students are free to express opinions as long as it does not interfere with duties during regular business hours."
One closing thought: From the moment of my nomination as Penn's eighth president, I have received nothing but kindness, warmth, and respect from this great community. In that vein, I'd like to propose a new academic year's resolution: Let's extend the same measure of kindness, warmth, and respect to one another–to our colleagues, our neighbors, and especially to students and employees, who look to us for guidance, inspiration, and wise, humane leadership. Mutual respect both binds our great academic community together and is among the most important values that all of us will ever learn from one another. May we always teach each other well.