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Welcome Back from the President
January 13, 2009, Volume 55, No. 17

Improving the Evolving World

Happy New Year! I hope that your winter vacation was relaxing and rejuvenating.

In less than a week, the world will witness the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. Just a few short months ago, Penn students worked tirelessly to register voters and turn out the vote. They displayed a level of enthusiasm the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes. On Election Day, Penn students supporting Obama celebrated all night on the streets of Philadelphia. After the election, eminent Penn faculty participated as members of President-elect Obama’s transition team, bringing their expertise to bear on national policy. Jonathan Moreno, Laurie O. Robinson, and Kevin Werbach served on agency review teams for the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Communications Commission Agency Review Team, respectively.

Everyone who wants to improve higher education in America is looking forward to the federal government acting to improve college access for students from lower- and middle-class families. Offering to pay a student’s college tuition in exchange for voluntary national service is just one plan for improving access that both John McCain and Obama endorsed. Penn is in the vanguard of increasing access for high achieving students. We remain one of the few private “need-blind” universities in the nation, and, beginning this fall, we are replacing loans with grants for all financially needy students. In addition, we will fund an additional 400 new service opportunities for undergraduate students over the next four years.

This increase in support of service will build on the impressive achievements of the Civic House, the Fox Leadership Program and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Each year, more than 4,000 Penn undergraduates in all schools engage in a variety of service activities. Additionally, students in the School of Social Policy & Practice provide more than 150,000 hours of community service a year. The School of Dental Medicine’s PennSmiles program supplies children in West Philadelphia with dental education and treatment and the School of Nursing’s LIFE Program provides nursing, medical, and rehabilitative care for more than 350 local seniors. Notably, Penn Law was the first to require pro bono work as a graduation requirement and Penn Vet, in partnership with the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, affords veterinary students the opportunity to participate in a surgery rotation, increasing the number of adoptable dogs and cats each year.

We are proud of putting knowledge into practice, but we are not complacent. Over the course of Penn’s history, the challenges facing humanity have increased in quantity and intensity. One hundred years ago, teams of adventurers mounted expeditions to the South Pole during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Today, expeditions to Antarctica are no longer an end unto themselves. Instead, scientists travel to the continent to study climate change, a new and evolving challenge that is sparking imagination and igniting bold pursuits. 

New challenges also abound deep inside the human body. At Penn, neuroscientists explore the workings of the mind and brain, which remain largely unknown to us. The field of neuroscience is rich with opportunities for exploration and growth. Now more than ever, advances are critical as developmental disabilities and neurodegenerative diseases plague our population. Our new Penn Integrates Knowledge Neuroscience Initiative will help ensure that we are on the leading edge of new discoveries as the needs of society evolve. This initiative supports five new Penn Integrates Knowledge professorships, provides start-up funds for collaborative research, and strengthens interdisciplinary initiatives between the School of Medicine and other schools within the University.

The landscape of higher education and the greatest challenges of our time are constantly evolving. It is all the more fitting then that, on February 12, Penn and Philadelphia join communities around the world in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Since last April, the campus has been abuzz with programs organized by Penn and local cultural organizations to celebrate the Year of Evolution. The Year explores evolution through a variety of approaches, including an interactive, multimedia exhibition at the Penn Museum entitled Surviving: The Body of Evidence.

Darwin’s contributions to science both continue to provoke debate and to spark research. His development of the modern theory of evolution enriches our understanding of the diversity of life and the development of both differentiated individuals and species. Just as biological adaptations over generations create new branches on the tree of life, the decisions we make—individually and collectively—alter the course of human history as we adapt (or fail to adapt) to a rapidly changing world. A key characteristic of evolution is that timely adaptation to change is essential to the survival of both individuals and species.

Long before Darwin’s birth or the publication of On the Origin of Species, Heraclitus said that, “There is nothing permanent except change.” As society and challenges evolve, Penn adapts and flourishes. With creative thought and innovative action, we will thrive in new environments and welcome the opportunity to tackle new intellectual and practical problems. This year, may we all broaden our horizons, attain our goals, and engage one another as members of a community of learning, growth, and fellowship.

Amy Gutmann signature


Almanac - January 13, 2009, Volume 55, No. 17