As she enters the “homestretch” of her presidency, Dr. Rodin reflects on her administration’s achievements, talks about the importance of both vision and passion to successful leadership, and says “thank you to everyone” for the privilege of leading Penn.

March 26, 2004—somewhere in the neighborhood of her 3,555th day as the University’s chief executive (give or take a leap year along the way)—was a typically full one for Judy Rodin. The first event on her schedule was a 7 a.m. train ride from New York to Philadelphia; the last, a 7:30 p.m. dinner at her residence in Eisenlohr Hall. In the 12 1/2 hours in between, among a stream of meetings and phone calls, the day’s events included finalizing the University’s $50.6 million purchase of 24 acres east of campus from the U.S. Post Office and an appearance before alumni class leaders gathered at the Inn at Penn for a weekend retreat to begin planning for next year’s slate of five-year reunions.

President Rodin also took time that day to talk to Gazette editor John Prendergast about her 10 years of service as Penn’s seventh president.

When we spoke last summer, soon after you had announced you were stepping down, you said your focus would continue to be on your duties as president. How do you feel now? Do you have the sense of something coming to an end?

Yes. I feel like we are on the homestretch—rather than the last time when I really felt that the year had so many busy things ahead that it wasn’t time to think about the conclusion.

 

One of the areas in which you expressed particular satisfaction then was the University’s academic gains. Clearly, Penn is attracting students of higher quality and more of them are coming to the University—rather than some other school—after they’ve been accepted. What attracts these students here now?

Well, I think Penn has become truly extraordinary. If you look at institutions that have really gone though unusual transitions in the last decade—Penn and a handful of others—we are the place that others look to. We are seen as more innovative, more risk-taking; we have more creative degree programs for undergraduates than any of our peers. We’re focusing on the strengths of the urban environment in ways that make [Penn] very attractive to undergraduates who want a sophisticated urban experience. We have improved teaching and learning in an environment in which we have focused more and more on what goes on outside of the classroom, as well as what goes on inside of the classroom, with the hubs and the college houses and the extraordinary kind of programming that undergraduates have access to. So those are some of the attractions that the undergraduates see very clearly.

 

In West Philadelphia, the Penn-Alexander pre-K-8th grade public school has been open for a few years now. The neighborhood has become much more attractive to potential homeowners—housing prices have risen substantially. How do you see developments in that area playing out as time goes on?

I see that as phase one. We announced [in March] that we’ve expanded the boundaries of the University’s mortgage-assistance program. It was not our desire to drive up the prices for home ownership, and we want to make sure that this is really about an urban-development initiative. [Extending] the boundaries will help make more housing stock available. We’ll start to see the same reanimation of those surrounding areas, and eventually we’ll move them further as this proves to be successful. So this is all very much of a process. We have expanded the affordable-housing fund and actually have brought in some new partners recently—again because it is not our goal to create expensive housing. It is our goal to make this a very congenial neighborhood for a variety of socioeconomic groups.

The school is an incredible success by whatever metrics we look at. Whenever there are Philadelphia competitions for science and math and spelling, our kids are almost at the top in every grade of every group. It’s an open, wonderful environment for learning, and in the teacher-training work we’ve done and in the interventions in the other schools in West Philadelphia, we’ve created an environment of excitement and activity and learning for more of the kids of West Philadelphia—and our goal ultimately would be for all of the kids of West Philadelphia.

 

What would be the greatest obstacle to continued progress? Is there still lingering resentment toward Penn in the community?

I think we’ve come a long way this year, and it’s another thing as I look back on this year that will have been a success. Through Penn Praxis and the efforts of Harris Steinberg and [of Harris Sokoloff in] the Graduate School of Education, we’ve just completed a very exciting 40th Street planning exercise that was very neighborhood-friendly and included all of our harshest critics, actually. Together, with Penn really not in the leadership but as one of the participants, we’ve created a shared vision for 40th Street from Baltimore Avenue to Lancaster Avenue. It’s a neighborhood planning process now. The more that happens—and this was a very significant first effort—the more it will feel to everyone that, although Penn launched all of this six or eight years ago, it now is owned by the neighborhood and we’re one of the participants. In the long run, that will be the outcome that makes all of this sustainable.

 

Could this serve as a model for other places, other cities?

Absolutely, and we’ve been asked by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to look at this model and see how replicable it is for other cities and for other universities or other kinds of institutional partners.

John Kromer [senior consultant at the Fels Institute of Government] and Lucy Kerman [director of special projects in the President’s Office] are doing a book compiling quantitative data on the improvements that have occurred on the basis of the West Philadelphia interventions [provisionally titled, “West Philadelphia Initiatives: A Case Study in Urban Revitalization”] which we think may be helpful to other cities and other universities. And then finally, one of my activities for next year is that I am going to write a book on this. It has been a passion for me—and a real labor of love—and so I will write a book on what we did in West Philadelphia and why we did it.

 

Will this work also be within the scope of the Urban Research Institute announced in March [“Gazetteer,”]?

Yes. Genie Birch and Susan Wachter will co-chair the institute, and I actually am going to chair the advisory committee. So we will all continue to work on this.

How much of your job—how much of what has happened over the last decade—has been a matter of going out and convincing people that Penn should be where it is now?

I think if you go back to my inaugural address you will see that, at the earliest moment of my presidency, I laid out what I thought was my vision for Penn. That was a vision that came out during the presidential search, and I think the trustees hired me because that resonated with them. And so from the beginning I have felt enormous trustee support for a vision that said Penn was excellent, Penn would rise to the highest ranks in higher education. We would find ways to do it, but here was what our strengths were: I emphasized the Franklin dictum on combining theory and practice, which really does differentiate us from the other Ivies. I talked a lot in my inaugural address about what it meant to be truly of Philadelphia, and there was a shared vision for that. I spent a lot of time my first year saying to people that if I wanted to be at Yale I would have stayed there. So I really thought my goal was not to make Penn Yale, but to make Penn the best Penn that it could be, and that’s what I think we have tried to do over these 10 years.

And I think everyone resonated to that vision. How could you not? If there were views that were different—as there should be, because no one should agree with the leader completely—it was on how we got there. And we had lots of wonderful debates over the years about that. But the fact that we wanted to be there was something that everyone on the board, and certainly the senior leadership team, truly aspired to and was willing to work hard to achieve.

I’m grateful for the hard work of the trustees and the senior leadership, and I think we inspired the alumni and I think we inspired the local constituents that it could happen—because we believed it so fervently.

 

Can you talk a bit about how being an alumna of the University and a native of Philadelphia has shaped your presidency?

I think it has shaped my presidency completely. My ability to move quickly in reintegrating Penn in the fabric of Philadelphia and then claiming for Penn a rightful role as a leader of Philadelphia—not the but a—I think was very much formed by my own experience as a Philadelphian and my ability to understand how Philadelphia works—a bit—from having grown up here and knowing some of the players. After all, Ed [Rendell C’65 Hon’00] was the mayor. We were undergraduates together. There were many people in local and state government who I’d gone to school with in the Philadelphia public schools, so there was some ease of relationships and that was great and fortunate.

And I think being an alumna for me imbued the role with a kind of passion that has framed my leadership. I think vision is really critical, but without passion the vision doesn’t get ignited. And the passion that drove me was twofold: one, the passion for excellence, which I have always tried to achieve, and second, my love for Penn. I loved this place as an undergraduate, and I came back and had the opportunity to love it again, which was wonderful.

 

What are the best and worst things about leading a major academic institution like Penn?

The worst thing in an academic institution is that there are often competing constituencies, more than one of which has legitimate demands, and so [leadership] is often adjudicating among constituencies where there isn’t one that’s right and the rest are wrong, and that’s very difficult.

I also hate being called during the admissions process. Some people must love being thought of as the kingmaker or a gatekeeper, but I actually have hated that part of the job.

 

Before or after admissions decisions are made?

All the time! Yes, before and after, and they are equally unpleasant. I don’t want to be thought of as someone who can get people in; I don’t want to be thought of as somebody to complain to after somebody doesn’t get in. I feel it so personally when people call, and then I worry about it.

 

How about the good part?

The most energizing and exciting thing is watching growth. Watching young people grow, as a class comes in as freshmen and leaves as seniors. I find the freshman Convocation breathtaking and for me very emotional, and I feel the same way about Commencement. These are rites of passage, and what they reflect is what’s gone on in between—which is our real contribution to the growth of these wonderful students, and that’s true at the graduate and professional levels as well.

It’s also the opportunity to contribute to the growth of the faculty and staff, and during my time we’ve taken staff-enrichment programs seriously, a whole number of things that really do focus on developing people, creating opportunities for our faculty to develop satisfying careers here so they don’t want to leave—so they find this a really wonderful place for their teaching and scholarship and clinical activities.

And then, finally, the physical growth. When I walk around, and I see the physical transformation [of Penn’s campus], it just dazzles me and excites me.

And so all of these are energetic, growth-related opportunities that a university president gets that are very hard to find, I would imagine, anywhere else.

 

What about the notion of university presidents being engaged in larger social and political issues—either by speaking out as you have done on free-speech issues, for example, or through writings like the Public Discourse in America volume you co-edited [“The University as Discourse Community,” November/December 2003].

I have thought that it’s very important. You know, there is often criticism that university presidents don’t speak out enough, but I do think [they] are speaking out. I chose the issues about which I felt passionately—civic engagement in America, and discourse generally, which is part of free speech and what academic institutions should foster. And, in a way, what we did in West Philadelphia was an act of civic engagement: What we tried to do is model for our students what a civically engaged institution can and should do, and that’s been the domain in particular in which I have felt I wanted to take a more visible national leadership role.

And I think it’s consistent with Penn’s mission, consistent with Benjamin Franklin’s mandate for our university. So I chose areas that I really felt were mission specific, and not those that any university president could do.

 

Now that Penn is recognized as being among the handful of top institutions of higher education, what’s next?

I do think that there’s always room to grow and change, and I know that [President-elect] Amy Gutmann has great aspirations for areas in which she would like to see Penn grow and continue to transform itself. But I do think that the kind of scrappy, “We’re-gonna-get-up-there-to-the-top” feeling that motivated my leadership team isn’t totally what will be needed to motivate the next leadership team—because we’re in a different place. And so she will have to think about new kinds of motivations and incentives to move us forward and help people to engage in that transformation, because we’ll be stale if we don’t continue to reinvent ourselves. That’s what’s happened to many of our peers, and that’s why we were able to surpass many of them.

 

What would you like to be remembered for?

I’d like to be remembered as somebody who led Penn into the next part of its future, gave Penn back much deserved self-confidence, and helped to transform the University. I also want to be remembered as somebody who created a great leadership team, because I didn’t do this alone. I had the best deans and senior officers in higher education and an extraordinary board of trustees, who I felt completely supported by. This is a shared vision, and they enabled me and the other senior leaders to make it happen.

 

What are your plans for the future?

I’m doing a book on West Philadelphia, as I said. I’m also doing a book on leadership. Some of the challenges that we faced you alluded to, and I’m going to try moving from Public Discourse in America to really talk about how a leader uses discourse to move an agenda forward. It’s a different kind of book on leadership than what’s typically written, and I’m excited by that and I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that.

I’ve been asked to participate and play leadership roles in several new kinds of boards and activities. I’m considering a number of those opportunities in the education area and back into the health-and-wellness area, which is my own area of research expertise.

At the moment I need to take a deep breath and take a little time off. My husband and I haven’t lived together since we’ve been married. We got married the April before I took this job and were always in and out of different cities. That will be a wonderful opportunity and we’re looking forward to that. And I’ll also do a little traveling, and then I’ll see—but I’m a tenured professor, and so I will come back and teach at some point.

 

Is there anything else that you’d like to say?

I really want to express what a privilege it was to lead Penn. I did not think at the beginning of my career that I would ever come back here as the president. I expected to have a more typical academic career and was very, very satisfied in my research and teaching at Yale. I could never have imagined when I came into this both how complicated and difficult the job is—even as Yale provost I couldn’t have imagined it. And at the end, as I look back at the 10 years, I think how very lucky I am. Because this has been a privilege—the people, the opportunities to really help to transform a place I love. I leave with just enormous feelings about the people and the place, the tremendous reservoir of goodwill that I experienced during my presidency and when I announced that I would be stepping down. It’s a great feeling, and I’m very lucky, and I want to say thank you to everyone.

 

 



2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/27/04

INTERVIEW:
A Passion for Penn
By John Prendergast
Photo by Bill Cramer

 

BACK TO FEATURE:
The Rodin Years
By The Gazette Editors