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Getting Results

 

When I came back to Penn to edit the Gazette, in the summer of 1996, it wasn’t long before I heard people talking about the University’s new five-year strategic plan, the “Agenda for Excellence.” Not all the comments were especially reverent. There seems to be something in the notion behind such efforts—things can be different, and better, and we know how to make them so—that brings out the cynic in people. For example, when we ran a story on one of the key elements in the Agenda, the announcement of the “Six University Academic Priorities” [“Gazetteer,” November 1996], an unnamed faculty member professed not to have read them. “They do come and go, you know,” he was quoted as saying.
        I might think this reaction was more common on a university campus, except that the place I had worked before—a professional association of engineers—had been developing its strategic plan when I left, and, allowing for context, the attitude was basically the same. I don’t know what became of that plan, but Penn’s has turned out pretty well. You can read about some of the results starting on page 22, followed by an extensive interview with President Rodin on page 26.
        In her regular column, “From College Hall,” Dr. Rodin writes about the history and current role of the arts at Penn. One of the campus arts institutions she highlights is the Arthur Ross Gallery. The gallery, located in the Fisher Fine Arts Library, is represented in this issue by “Art From a Land of Sun and Shadows,” on page 32—which combines an article by senior editor Samuel Hughes on the 35 years spent by alumnus Harry Pollak W’42 collecting Mexican art with some stunning examples of the results, which are on exhibit until December.
        Around the same time that Pollak was discovering his passion for the art of Mexico, Dr. Raymond Davis Jr., research professor of physics and astronomy, was swimming deep underground in the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, South Dakota. Some time later, the mine would be the site of the first experiment to successfully detect solar neutrinos—nearly massless, weakly interacting subatomic particles produced in fusion reactions at the center of the sun that could help in understanding astronomical objects and the nature of the universe itself.
        The results of Davis’ experiment—he found neutrinos, but not enough to support the standard model of the sun’s operation—set off an international quest to discover the missing particles or prove they didn’t exist and that the standard model was wrong. As associate editor Susan Lonkevich details in “The Particle Sleuths,” Penn scientists have played a central role in the hunt, up to and including the finding, announced in June, that appears to have provided the “smoking gun” to answer the questions raised by Davis 30 years ago.
        Today, Davis is considered a contender for the Nobel Prize, but Alfred Butts Ar’24—who also had to wait decades for his work to bear fruit—is largely forgotten. During the Depression, Butts invented Scrabble, which in the prosperous 1950s became the most successful boardgame in history. In an excerpt from his book Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis C’85 tells the story of an unassuming genius’s long, lonely, and poorly compensated effort to perfect his invention.
        One more set of results, and a moment of horn-tooting: Back in May, we conducted a telephone survey of Gazette readers, and the responses were gratifying. It turned out that alumni are reading the magazine (about five out of six issues per year, on average), and to a great extent like what they find in it. More than 80 percent considered the Gazette a reliable, trustworthy news source and said that it strengthens their sense of connection with Penn. (Shockingly, though, only 12 percent found this column to be “extremely or very interesting.”)
        To everyone who took the time to answer the survey, many thanks for your comments—and sorry to bother you at home.

—John Prendergast C’80

 

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