Class of ’79 | Though she’s been active as an alumna pretty much since the day she stopped being a student, the new Penn Alumni president knows that’s not the pattern for everyone—and she wants to spread the word that it’s never too late to start.
“If it’s your 33rd reunion or your 48th or your 17th, Penn will always be open to you and ready for you when you’re ready,” says Julie Beren Platt C’79, who took office as the head of the University’s alumni society on July 1.
Platt was formally elected at a meeting of the Penn Alumni Board of Directors and Council of Representatives over Alumni Weekend. The gathering also featured several tributes to her predecessor as president, Lee Spelman Doty W’76, whose five-year tenure saw a significant expansion of alumni engagement—including a 66 percent increase overall, a doubling of attendance at Homecoming and Alumni Weekend, and a 300 percent increase in young alumni engagement, as detailed by Penn President Amy Gutmann at the meeting.
“Supreme is the only word I can think of for Lee as the spirit and face of Penn alumni worldwide,” said Gutmann, who—unbeknownst to Doty—had arranged to appear to “formally thank” her and present her with “a small token of my appreciation and Penn’s appreciation” in the form of a new limited-edition print depicting iconic structures on Penn’s campus.
Platt joins in the praise. “The truth is, and this isn’t just waxing poetic, if I can do half the job that Lee has done, I would feel gratified,” she says.
She adds that Doty has already mentored her, having visited her home in the Los Angeles area and “bestowed upon me a necklace of red and blue to wear in my new position,” she says. “I know Lee is an email or phone call away. It gives me great comfort and confidence to know that, because I will be learning from someone who has done such a marvelous job for Penn.”
At the meeting, Doty described Platt as “phenomenally involved at Penn, both locally in California and on campus,” and added that she would be the first Penn Alumni president from the West Coast. Doty, a longtime New Yorker, also jokingly recalled that before her visit, she saw that Platt lived a mere two miles from her hotel, whereupon she decided to walk—only to realize that she had “made a terrible, terrible mistake” in sidewalk-challenged Beverly Hills. She arrived with “shoes full of mud.”
Though she went to college in the East and moved West a few years after graduation, Platt grew up in Wichita, Kansas—“the only Jewish student in a public high school with a graduating class of 700,” she says. She first learned about Penn from a Hebrew-school teacher she admired who had gone to the University.
“I was looking for a place to expand my mind, my life experience, and to meet other Jewish children my age,” she says, and from her teacher’s descriptions, Penn seemed to fit the bill. “It was her inspiration that made me apply. And, thankfully, Penn accepted me. I didn’t see [the campus] until the day I moved in.”
Before her first week was through, she had met her future husband, Marc Platt C’79 [“Passion Plays,” May|June 2006].
“I walked into a room in the Quad, just trying to meet new people,” she recalls. “I was living in Hill House. And there he was.”
They were friends at first, but started dating by the end of freshman year. They got engaged in April of their senior year—“during Friday night services at Penn Hillel”—and were married a month after graduation.
Their transition from students to volunteers was a seamless one. “My perspective in terms of giving back to the University has always been there,” she says. “Marc and I were class-gift chairs from the very beginning.”
She connects this perspective to “the Jewish tradition of the obligation to give back” in which she grew up, and to her own sense of being “a grateful student” on the model of a “grateful patient” contributing to the hospital where they received care. “I knew I would try to find whatever ways I could to give back to a university that had unlocked so much for me.”
Over the years, those ways have included leadership roles in her class reunions, on the secondary-schools committee (now the Penn Alumni Interview Program), as a member of the Trustees Council of Penn Women, and on the boards of overseers of the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and of Penn Hillel (she also co-chairs the latter’s national board of governors).
She served as chair of the School of Nursing’s “Healthy Women, Healthy Cities” conference in Los Angeles in October 2012, which she singles out as good preparation for her new role. When Dean Afaf Meleis invited her to head the committee, her initial response was, “I don’t know what you’re thinking,” she says, believing that she didn’t know enough about the subject beyond her own experience. “But I understand the support network, professionally and voluntarily, that Penn offers. So I know I could do anything for this University because we’re all in it together.”
“It is a beautiful team,” she adds. “And now I get to be part of that team as Penn Alumni president.”
She and Marc—a leading film, TV, and theater producer whose many hits have included Legally Blonde and Wicked—have also been devoted to promoting the performing arts at Penn, sponsoring a rehearsal room in Houston Hall and making a leadership gift to create the Platt Student Performing Arts House.
“I do believe that my husband feels he got his sea legs in the creative journey at Penn, and is very grateful for that,” Platt says. From the first time they met President Gutmann, it was clear that she wanted to “help build up performing arts,” at Penn, she recalls. “It was a perfect fit for us.”
In 2006, Platt joined Penn’s board of trustees. Her work as a member (2006-08) and chair (2008-13) of the student-life committee has had special resonance.
“I experienced a beautiful reflection of Penn and the work of the trustees and our professional partners—a deep and devoted commitment to the Penn student experience including emotional, social, physical, and academic well-being,” she explains. “All equally important.”
Of her nomination as Penn Alumni president, Platt says, “I can’t tell you how it came about. But, boy, am I grateful.”
The feeling is mutual, according to Hoopes Wampler, assistant vice president of alumni relations. “We are absolutely thrilled to welcome Julie,” he says. “Her charismatic personality and dedication to Penn combine to make her a truly exceptional alumni volunteer and leader who will thrive in the position. Penn’s considerable momentum toward increasing alumni engagement around the world will surely continue under Julie’s guidance and direction.”
Platt calls her election “a leap of faith that a West Coast alum can carry this off,” and says she is eager to embrace the considerable travel requirements involved in the position. “I love stepping foot on Penn’s campus,” she says. “I love the opportunity to represent us in different cities around the country.”
Being a California-based president of Penn Alumni is perhaps less momentous than it might have seemed a few years ago, Platt adds. Through programs like “Engaging Minds” and “Penn to You,” alumni in the West already feel connected, she explains. Still, “it’s another step to allow somebody from the West Coast to be in this position.”
Her goals encompass alumni wherever they are, though—and whether they’ve been involved in the past or not. “If there’s anything that I hope I’ll be able to do, [it] is to help people understand that you didn’t have to be in it from the beginning,” she says. “You can come into this game whenever you want.”
The Platt family itself constitutes a bit of a laboratory for observing alumni engagement at different stages. Besides Marc and Julie, three of their five children—Samantha C’05, Jonah C’08, and Hannah C’12—are Penn graduates.
“At different stages they’ll be able to engage or not, depending upon how much they’re killing themselves professionally, or having a new child, or changing jobs, or putting in the time and effort they think they need to on their professional journey,” she says.
While there’s been a concerted effort to engage students and recent grads more effectively in recent years, spurred by the non-financial goals included in Penn’s recently concluded Making History campaign [“Big Finish, Fresh Start,” Mar|Apr], Platt emphasizes that “it’s never too late or too early, or never not the right time, to engage. There are a million leadership roles available to you when you’re ready. Come and join us.”
Alumni who do give to Penn of their time, resources, or energy will find that “you only get it back tenfold,” she adds. “This is the warmest, most welcoming community that I can imagine.” And where Penn’s alumni outreach falls short, “let us work on it. Don’t just opt out.”
As the University moves forward, Platt, like other leaders, is alert to the dangers of complacency.
“I worried about that, because I don’t want to falter from the incredible strength that we’ve garnered over this campaign,” she says. But she notes that her calendar is full for the coming year, with the rollout of the “Time to Shine” celebrations around the country. “It didn’t stop in April in Philadelphia,” she says, referring to the campus celebration held that month at Penn Park featuring performances by the band Train and John Legend C’99 [“Window”].
In fact, by their very nature, the University’s goals can never be met. “We’re always in pursuit of being even better,” Platt says. “It’s not something you complete. We’ll never have all the alumni engaged that we want. We’ll never have all of the scholarship funds we need. It has to be ongoing. So we can’t let it fade after the celebrations. We must continue.”