July | August 2011 contents
Denzel to Class of 2011: “Fall forward”
Perelmans give $225 million to the School of Medicine
Collapse author: “Take environmental problems seriously”
$15 million anonymous gift to renovate ARCH
Older scholars, new ideas
Penn Reading Project choice Reality is Broken launches Year of Games
Truman Scholar Corey Metzman
Tracking the rise of the contractor in national security
Wharton Business Plan-winner Stylitics makes dressing digital
All-Americans Maalik Reynolds and Leslie Kovach
Renée C. Fox A beloved teacher and mentor, you received both a Danforth Foundation E. Harris Harbison Gifted Teaching Award and a Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching. In 1998, after nearly three decades of contributions to Penn, you became the Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences … A pioneer in the area of medical sociology, you have combined knowledge from various fields to explore the intricacies of human behavior, interaction, and culture.
Mo Ibrahim Aware of the tremendous opportunity to bring mobile communications to Africa, you launched Celtel International in 1998 … In 2005, you established the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to cultivate responsible leaders who promote economic and social progress in Africa … In 2008, Time magazine named you one of the 100 most influential people in the world. You have harnessed technology to help more Africans share their voices and used your personal success to transform a continent.
Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn Exemplifying the highest ideals of journalism and the finest inclinations of the human spirit, you immerse your readers in history-making moments and bring light to the darkest corners of existence … In 1990, together, you became the first husband and wife team in history to win a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism … In 2009, you were awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Lifetime Achievement in recognition of your “work chronicling human rights in Asia, Africa, and the developing world.”
Ei-ichi Negishi Gr’63 Your groundbreaking research has helped to advance the development of not only lifesaving medications and crop-protecting agricultural chemicals, but also state-of-the-art electronics … Your contributions to humanity also have been recognized with … Japan’s Order of Culture, that nation’s top cultural award. In 2010, you were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Richard Heck and Akira Suzuki “for palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis.”
Joyce Carol Oates Earlier this year, President Barack Obama presented you with the 2010 National Humanities Medal in recognition of your “contributions to American letters” … In 2009, the National Book Critics Circle honored you with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. One of the greatest authors of our time, you have stirred the emotions and sparked the imaginations of generations of readers.
Denzel Washington Your powerful performance as Detective Alonzo Harris in the gritty police drama Training Day earned you the Academy Award for Best Actor … Today, you are a forceful advocate for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, serving on the organization’s Board of Governors and as a national spokesperson. In 2004, you received the organization’s highest honor, the Herbert Hoover Humanitarian Award … You inspire us not only through brilliant performances, but also through your compassionate efforts to support underserved populations.
Despite the threatening clouds tumbling through the sky, the crowd in Franklin Field was spared a spring shower at the University’s 255th Commencement. Thousands of graduates in the rich colors of Penn’s 12 schools processed through the steamy morning air to take their seats on the field, as family and friends looked on from the stands.
President Amy Gutmann kicked off the proceedings with a Top Ten list of life lessons she’d gleaned from her favorite movies—not only because she was warming up the podium for actor Denzel Washington, this year’s commencement speaker, who was seated behind her, but also “because the very first Academy Awards ceremony was held on this exact date in 1929,” she said.
From True Grit, she said she had learned that “perseverance pays off”; from Avatar, respect for nature; from Titanic, that “no ship, strategy, or scheme is unsinkable”; from The King’s Speech, “it’s not always the case that what you say is more important than how you say it.” And perhaps most important of all, she reminded the graduates: “E.T. should remind you to ‘phone home.’”
Laughs aside, Gutmann also reminded the class that “real lessons—most especially life lessons—can’t be summed up in a one-liner,” and that the challenges they’ll face are not necessarily the stuff of Hollywood. But, she said, “by following your heart, by giving it your all, and by doing so with creativity and courage, you will not only be happy. You will also be great!” she said. “And,” in a reference to the commencement speaker’s 2010 runaway-train thriller, “you will truly be Unstoppable.”
Denzel Washington is no stranger to Penn, and he sounded glad to be back. “It’s always great to be on the Penn campus. I’ve been to a lot of basketball games at the Palestra,” he explained, since his son Malcolm, a sophomore, played on the team his freshman year. (“Coach didn’t give him enough playing time, but we’ll talk about that later,” he joked—we think.)
“I’d always get a warm welcome here,” Washington went on, “except on the few occasions when I’d wear my Yankees cap. It’s like taking your life in your hands. People would say: ‘We love you, Denzel. But you walking around with that hat on … we don’t care who you are.’”
Washington had wisely chosen to forsake baseball gear in favor of academic regalia, with the traditional mortarboard and tassel (later in the ceremony he received an honorary degree).
He also admitted that the invitation to deliver an Ivy League commencement address left even a mega-celebrity like him with some jitters. “I’ll be honest with you: I’m a little nervous. This is out of my comfort zone,” he said. “But if you really want to know the truth, I had to come—exactly because I might make a fool of myself.”
“I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks,” he told the graduates. “I’ve never understood that concept of having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall forward.”
“Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career—the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs … Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t either—because number 1,001 was the light bulb.”
“Fall forward,” he said, not backward, because failure is part of life. “Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. That’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony. But, hey, I’m telling you—embrace it.”
As an actor, Washington said, he’s no stranger to failure. “Early in my career, I auditioned for a part in a Broadway musical. A perfect role for me, I thought—except for the fact that I can’t sing.” He tried to audition with “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations. “That’s what I came up with,” he said. “Suffice to say, I didn’t get the part.”
“But here’s the thing: I didn’t quit. I didn’t fall back. I walked out of there to prepare for the next audition, and the next audition, and the next one. I prayed and I prayed, but I continued to fail, and I failed, and I failed. But it didn’t matter. Because you know what? You hang around a barbershop long enough, sooner or later you’re going to get a haircut.”
“And let me tell you, the world needs your talents,” he said. “Man, does it ever. I just got back from four months of filming in South Africa—beautiful country, but there are places with terrible poverty that need help. And Africa is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The list goes on and on: the Middle East, Japan, Alabama and Tennessee, Louisiana, and even Philadelphia.”
“The world needs a lot. And we need it from you, the young people,” he said.
—Sean Whiteman LPS’11