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“Each of you is exceptional in some way, or you wouldn’t be here,” Rodin assured the Class of 2007 at Convocation last fall. She wasn’t being charitable to the University’s newcomers. The admissions process has grown more selective over the past decade as the number of students angling to attend Penn has risen. This year there were 18,278 applicants—a 33 percent increase over the 13,739 students who applied in 1994. Penn accepted 36.3 percent of its applicants the year Rodin arrived and only 21 percent of them to fill the Class of 2008.

It may be tougher to get into Penn these days, but the students who do enroll here find many new academic paths awaiting them as well as opportunities for learning outside the classroom. One of the most notable changes has been the transformation of all campus living-spaces into a system of 11 College Houses based around communities of students and faculty. Dr. David Brownlee, the art-history professor who was the first director of the Office of College Houses and Academic Services, explained how quickly it came together under Rodin. “Starting in the mid-sixties, Penn produced a report recommending the establishment of a system of College Houses almost every other year,” he said. “President Rodin asked for just one report and then said, ‘Do it,’ and so we transformed the landscape of undergraduate education. [She] led us to accept our responsibility to build an academic community whose life and vitality stretched outside the classrooms and throughout the campus, and beyond the ordinary hours of teaching into every moment of our lives.”

Campus housing now has more facilities such as game rooms, darkrooms, and music-practice rooms; more faculty in residence; and more cultural and social programs, including Wednesday with Morrie (free van service to the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and partly subsidized music lessons in the residences.

Another development, the 21st Century Wheel project, has brought a range of academic-support services—from computing and languages to math and writing—to students around-the-clock in the College Houses.

To strengthen community the houses are divided into smaller residential programs centered on interest in particular subjects, such as “Social Consciousness in Black Films” (new for fall 2004), “Healthy Living,” “Biosphere,” “Readers’ Corner,” and “Law and Society.”

One of the keys to the system’s success has been the spirit of individuality allowed to grow in each house. “This isn’t a top-down process where you say, ‘You go out there and build a community using Formula 227 out of the handbook for community building,’” Brownlee explained in 1999, as the College House System was getting under way. “It is like gardening. You plant things and step back and watch to see what grows in a particular climate, where the soil is enriched by faculty and graduate students of a particular kind with students of a particular kind, in facilities of a particular kind.”

The well-tended garden has flourished. More than 30 residential programs exist now, compared to half a dozen in 1994. For the fourth year in a row, on-campus housing has had nearly 100 percent occupancy, compared to 88 percent in 1994. According to Leslie Delauter, the current College House director, at least 85 percent of students who responded to a survey last year were “satisfied with the spirit of community and the types of programming in their [College] Houses.”

Brownlee predicted: “I think what we’ll be seeing in the future is lots of change within a system that was designed to be broad enough and strong enough to foster all kinds of innovation as smart people in different small communities figure out exciting and different ways to do things.”

Some key resources for students were gathered at four hubs across campus. Those eager to roll up their sleeves for neighborhood service worked on projects through the Civic House, while budding wordsmiths connected with each other and with more experienced writers and poets at the Kelly Writers House. With the creation of Weiss Tech House, young inventors found encouragement, technical resources, and entrepreneurial direction.

Another hub, the Center for Under-graduate Research and Fellowships, has helped Penn students collect their fair share of prestigious fellowships for study and research since its creation four years ago. “These awards were scattered from place to place in the University [before],” says CURF director Dr. Art Casciato. With the creation of CURF, “It’s more or less one-stop shopping for fellowships.”

He emphasized the importance of encouraging more students to apply for them in the first place: “We’ve only won five Marshall Scholarships in [the past] 50 years, but we’ve won two of them in CURF’s four years. It shows we can do it if we have someone focusing on it, and the reason we have someone focusing on it is because of Dr. Rodin.” Along the same lines, Penn garnered 15 Rhodes Scholarships in the century before CURF was created; since that time, it has won two more. Last year Penn students were awarded 18 Fulbright grants—a record in the University’s history.

In addition to breaking down the walls of the classroom, Penn has broken down barriers between schools and disciplines with the creation of numerous academic programs and centers during Rodin’s tenure.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/27/04

FEATURE:
The Rodin Years
By The Gazette Editors

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