September 15, 2009,
Volume 56, No. 03
Below are the remarks given by Provost Vincent Price to the Class of 2013 on September 8, 2009.
Penn’s Novel Possibilities
Welcome to the great Class of 2013.
As you sit here this evening, now finished with your orientation and about to begin your studies, you’re probably experiencing a mix of emotions: You’re excited, you’re eager to begin, and perhaps you’re a little nervous.
I know just how you feel.
I too am beginning a new chapter in my life. Although I’ve been at Penn for more than a decade, this is my first convocation as Provost.
It is this sense of newness that I’d like to talk about.
We think of beginnings—of trying something new—as an opportunity to start fresh.
In many ways, it’s true. Your four years here will offer ample opportunity to think and to learn—to examine and discuss ideas—in new ways.
This is a new place, a different kind of place. It’s a place where you will be asked to challenge convention—to re-examine what you know on your journey of self discovery.
One aspect of that journey is an opportunity for revision. After all, each member of this class is new. Nobody knows you. We’ve all heard that college is a chance to remake yourself.
To be—or to become—a different person. A new person.
You know, it’s Extreme Makeover, Ivy League Edition.
But seriously, what can new truly mean, without reference to what has come before?
Consider College Hall. Dating to 1873, it’s the oldest building on campus.
As you were probably told on your first tour, local lore holds that cartoonist Charles Addams—a Penn alum—used it as the inspiration for the Addams Family mansion.
Today, the President and I haunt the halls.
Or consider this building, the Palestra. Built in 1927, it has hosted more games than any other college facility in the country.
Like those buildings, this University is renovated occasionally. But in a larger sense, though it retains its essential character, it undergoes continual change. You are the architects of that change. Like all the classes that preceded yours, and all those to follow, you will make it your own.
Now consider, Philadelphia, your new home. It was one of the nation’s original cities.
Before that, Philadelphia was home to the Lenape, followed by the Swedish, the Dutch, and the British, and to waves of immigration from around the world.
Old? Yes. Yet Philadelphia has always been a place of new beginnings. It was the place where American colonists determined the existing system was outdated and unfair, and ripe for revision.
Penn itself follows this tradition. America’s first University, home to the nation’s first medical and business schools. Home to Houston Hall, the first student union, and to the first general purpose, electronic computer—ENIAC.
Penn is old too, but radically and continuously new also, from its beginning.
In creating a “Publick Academy,” Benjamin Franklin envisioned a new kind of institution, for a new world.
A secular university, one that would offer a multidisciplinary education to be used in the service of society, not to further stratify it.
Today, this idea hardly seems novel. At the time, though, it was untested, and unfamiliar to almost everyone.
That’s what it’s like to be new: To be untested, and unfamiliar—like Penn at its founding—like a student union in 1894—like ENIAC in 1946.
Like you, today.
You will find, as Franklin did, that there are vast opportunities in facing the unknown, and endless room for exploration.
This, too, is part of the Penn tradition.
But new is not necessarily improved. In your quest to take advantage of your newness, consider the following story, about Albert Einstein.
Einstein was notoriously absent-minded, and cared little for his appearance.
It’s said the physicist’s wife often suggested that he dress more professionally when he went off to work.
“Why should I,” he would reply, “everyone knows me there.”
Well, one day Einstein was to attend his first major conference. His wife pleaded with him, just this once, to dress up a bit.
“But why should I?” he said. “No one knows me there.”
As Einstein realized, changing one’s appearance is easy. Fundamentally, though, we remain who we are. When we worry too much about what others think of us … when we try too hard to impress everyone else—to be something we’re not—it shows.
And it rings false.
Yes, you are new here. But you begin at Penn, not from scratch, but from almost two decades of learning and preparation—informed and shaped by your family, friends, and teachers. You are here to renovate, not to reinvent. To become well-rounded, not re-made.
You were chosen because of who you are.
Any renovation presents some potential dangers, and even the best designs often need to be altered. And there are always shortcuts. The dangerous temptations of four years of unsupervised work release.
Now, it is up to you.
You, Philadelphia, and Penn have in common glorious but distinct pasts. Unlike our pasts, our future will be shared.
It will be largely of your making. Be bold, be new, but be true to your best selves. In time, you will have made changes, and history, here: Your own occasions to mark, your own traditions to observe.
Class of 2013, I am honored to welcome you to the new Penn, your Penn.
Related: Keeping Penn’s Community of Scholars Forever Young and Forever Strong;
New Graduate and Professional Students