As Provost—Penn’s new Provost, also known as Chief Academic Officer—it’s my great pleasure to welcome you this evening.
Of all the wonderful things you’ve heard about this place—yes, they’re all true—there is perhaps one aspect you haven’t heard about, because it’s impossible to truly convey: what it’s like to be new. How it feels to be in a new place; how to forge connections with the new people around you; even how to remember everyone’s name.
I’m speaking, of course, about myself. Like you, I’m new. Not new to Penn, but in a new role, as you are. Also like you, this is my first Convocation as Provost. Hopefully unlike you, it won’t be my last. We—that is, all of you, and I—are starting on this new voyage together. I can’t claim to know exactly how you’re feeling, but I can imagine a close approximation. I went to college (I know that was in the dark ages, when phones were on the wall) and I’m a parent of two daughters: one is a junior in college and one is a high school senior. So let’s just say I’ve gotten quite an education.
What I’d like to share with you this evening is not necessarily advice, or how it was back in the day, or for that matter some profound nugget of Provostial insight; remember, I just started. Instead, it’s part observation, looking out, and part reflection, looking inward. It’s some context on what a Penn education means, and how we can help one another as we begin this journey of discovery together.
The first observation: we are going through a difficult, contentious period of human history. You may have noticed. These last few weeks, especially, have shown that finding common ground seems more challenging than ever. As a professor of law, I train my students that to effectively make their side of an argument, they need to understand the other side.
Here, we don’t ask nor expect that you agree. You may disagree vehemently, and that’s fine. But we do expect that you listen thoughtfully, and consider carefully. We don’t ask that you change your firmly held views, but that you be willing to examine them. And that you respect that your professors, classmates, roommates, or dormmates may not look like, act like, think like, or have been brought up like you. And why would you want to be in a place where they had? I know I wouldn’t.
These diverse interactions with a range of people will help you navigate Penn and the future beyond Penn, a future of doorways and windows, not mirrors. They will be as much a part of your education as anything you learn in class.
A second observation: our words matter. And not just what we say, but how we say it. Penn thrives on vibrant, open discussion: that’s how we tackle difficult issues and resolve conflict. No one expects you to tiptoe around on eggshells here, afraid to speak your mind. Make your voice heard. If something strikes you as unfair, say so.
But keep in mind we can speak our minds while also being mindful. Let me be clear: being mindful is not self-censorship. But it does require self-reflection: how might my words be interpreted by someone who’s not like me? No one you meet at Penn has had the exact same set of experiences you’ve had. But that doesn’t mean they can’t—or shouldn’t—contribute to the discussion. That discussion is what makes this campus a community.
I won’t lie to you. Balancing open expression and mindfulness can be precarious, especially today, which is precisely why we seek to do so. Because it is hard, and it forces us to think carefully: about what we say, what we value, and what we stand for. About the person we see in the mirror. But don’t be dissuaded by difficulty. If the answer were easy, well, this wouldn’t be Penn. From my perspective, I will continue to speak out against hatred and intolerance, in all forms. That’s who I am, and that’s who we are, as a community.
As I said, these are difficult times. The ground is shifting—hourly, it seems sometimes. When the ground does shift, trust yourself. You’ve gotten this far already. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s what we’re here for. Ask anyone in my office: I’m always yelling for help. OK, not always, sometimes.
A third and final thought: you and I may be at the start of our Penn education, but everyone here is still learning. In his classic book The Discoverers, the historian Daniel Boorstin explored humankind’s relentless pursuit to make sense of the world and our place in it. He wrote that the greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.
Your next four years will be filled with the acquisition of knowledge: with your discovery of the shape of the world, and your place in it. If, at the end of that time, you believe you have nothing left to learn, then we will have failed. Education may have a beginning, but it doesn’t end. Each of us has something to offer here, and we all have much we can learn, not least about ourselves. It’s more than just what we can do. It’s who we are: who’s in that mirror and who we can become, what we see through that window. Here, we are all discoverers. And new worlds await. That is also part of your education, and mine. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get started.