By Amy Gutmann | Nowhere on the planet is Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday on January 17 generating more excitement than in Philadelphia. Visitors in town for the yearlong festivities will toss pennies on Franklin’s grave in Christ Church cemetery, hoping for good luck.
But we at Penn long have recognized how lucky we are to trace our roots to the man whose legacy graces our campus as the namesake of an academic honor society, of our athletic field, even of a server on our computer system. He’s even more visible in statues on campus as a young man striding vigorously along outside Weightman Hall, sitting reading The Pennsylvania Gazette on his bench off Locust Walk, and in front of College Hall at the heart of Blanche P. Levy Park.
Franklin was president of the College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia from 1749 to 1755, and served continuously as a trustee until his death in 1790. As Franklin’s heirs we can use the occasion of his tercentenary to ponder how well Penn is upholding his founding principles and values to make the University he envisioned greater than ever.
Let us consider those principles.
In his Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, Franklin warned Europeans that here “people do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? but, What can he do?” In Franklin’s ideal America, all who would get ahead set out from the same starting point. Ambition, diligence, and virtue were the factors that determined success. And in his American dream, all were expected to serve the greater good.
(Unfortunately, Franklin’s definition of Americans did not apply to all of its residents. He owned slaves and promoted slavery in his newspaper during the early part of his life, but Franklin reversed his position and vigorously argued for the abolition of slavery up until the end of his life, and founded the country’s first abolitionist society.)
Franklin emphasized that a good education for all citizens was essential, both to promote equal opportunity and to support the fledgling democracy. Franklin also originated the concept of integrating knowledge by advocating instruction in “things likely to be most useful and most ornamental” for a “connected idea of human affairs.” He argued that students should be taught commerce, mechanics, and natural sciencein Englishalong with history, geography, modern foreign languages, and classical languages.
While Penn’s peers frowned on Franklin’s emphasis on the arts and sciences and professional training, the University he founded would revolutionize higher education by turning theory into practice and practice into new theory.
Penn’s pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit strongly appeals to me. I am proud to help channel this spirit to move Penn forward toward the goals that are vital to our democracy and humankind.
First, we are building on the interdisciplinary strength Franklin prized. Our new centers for Nano/Bio Interface and for Molecular Discovery, our Abramson Cancer Center, and our recent National Symposium on Risk and Disasters in Washington, epitomize Penn’s leadership in developing cutting-edge knowledge. As we continue to encourage new collaborations across arts and sciences, engineering, medicine, and other schools and centers, we are positioning Penn for eminence in research and teaching by attracting and retaining the best and the brightest faculty and students.
No one is prouder than I that Penn students were awarded two prestigious honors this year: the Rhodes Scholarship and the Marshall Scholarship. This marks only the second time in Penn’s history that our students have received both awards in the same year. As a Daily Pennsylvanian editorial pointed out, “The two seniors who won are proof that these honors are attainable.” The awards also are evidence of Penn’s continuing strength in training great future leaders.
Franklin recognized that diversity is an essential component in the formation of a healthy society as well as the formation of its leaders. I am old enough to remember the time when bastions of higher education did not welcome women, public school graduates, Jews, children of immigrants, African Americans, and Latinos into the faculty and student ranks.
Penn values diversity not because it is an end in itself, but rather because diversity is a means to three important ends of higher education: first, equalizing opportunity; second, educating leaders for all sectors of society; and third, enriching the educational experience of all students since we learn more from people whose life experiences differ from our own than we do from people just like ourselves.
I imagine Franklin today applauding the strides we have made but also reminding us that we still have a long way to go. As a champion of upward mobility, he would point to the under-representation of women and minorities in the ranks of tenured facultyor to small enrollment figures for low-and middle-income students at our nation’s most selective universities.
The students I know at Penn whose peers are underrepresented include:
A gifted writer who’s the daughter of a New Hampshire auto mechanic and the first in her family to attend college;
The son of a truck driver from Texas who’s become a standout at the Wharton School and a campus leader;
And the son of grocery store clerk who wants to pursue both a doctorate in philosophy and a law degree.
At the same time we must continue to push for greater educational opportunity at the pre-college levels. Consider the gains, for example, of our University-assisted neighborhood K-8 public school, the Penn Alexander School, at which many students come from low-income households. Seventy-two percent of last spring’s graduating eighth graders are now enrolled in magnet high schools in Philadelphia, making their chances of getting accepted to selective colleges or universities much better than would have earlier been the case.
Now we are working with the School District to create a college-preparatory international-studies high school in West Philadelphia.
One of my highest priorities is to make Penn’s excellent undergraduate, graduate, and professional educations more accessible and affordable to the sons and daughters of this great country. Increasing financial aid will be one of the primary goals for our upcoming endowment campaign.
Franklin called for educated citizens and educators to give back. Penn embraces its mission to serve humanity by engaging local communities at our doorstep and all over the world. Many problemsfrom failing public schools in America to endangered public health in Africaare too complex to be solved by governments alone. By working with communities to address these problems, Penn is becoming an agent of transformational change at home and around the world.
We have made enormous strides by partnering with our neighbors in West Philadelphia to create a national and international model for local engagement. Now we are strengthening those ties and moving forward on new initiatives that will drive economic growth and improve the quality of life throughout our region.
As we look toward expanding our campus eastward, Penn has the potential to empower the growth of local business, help create jobs and support job training, develop affordable housing and recreational space, and promote economic opportunity for our neighbors. Some of these initiatives are underway; others will require concerted effort. But we are committed for the long term.
We are also committed to looking beyond our immediate community. Historian Edmund Morgan recounts in his recent biography how Franklin, while serving as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly in the late 1740s, ordered two maps to be hung on each side of the door to the Assembly Room. One was of North America. The other was a map of the world, to remind Pennsylvanians that they were “not an island.” Franklin’s later voyages to England and France on behalf of his country reinforced this awareness. No doubt he would encourage our pursuit of new ways to become a bigger player on the international stage.
As I pass Franklin’s statue each day, one legacy impresses me above all of these commitments, and that is the dynamic philosophy of life that he practiced so well. Seizing each opportunity for improvement, wrestling with every difficult challenge, and taking bold risks, he always asked, not “What if?” but “How?” and “When?”
How high can Penn rise in greatness? Even higher than our sightsprovided we continue the great work we have begun together as a united Penn family. Benjamin Franklin would remind us, “People who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages.” Just imagine how much we will achieve by wrapping ourselves as one extended family in Penn’s future.
To our Founder, a happy 300th!