Assessing the Agenda

Photo by Bill Cramer

Some of the thinking behind the Agenda for Excellence seems to go back as far as your inaugural address as Penn’s president, when you said, “We will design a new Penn undergraduate experience. It will involve not only curriculum, but new types of housing, student services, and mentoring, to create a seamless experience between the classroom and the residence, from the playing field to the laboratory.” And in your very first “From College Hall” column for the Gazette in February 1996, you announced the development of the Agenda to alumni. Could we start by talking about the rationale for doing a plan like this?

I had the great luxury of being named president in November [1993] and not starting until July of the following year. During that period, I used the time, although I was still at Yale, to learn a great deal about Penn—to spend time here and also to engage some help learning what others thought about Penn. We had many, many focus groups going on campus, with faculty and students, with alumni groups, with college guidance counselors, with people in Philadelphia and our delegation in Harrisburg, and then at the national level as well. It gave me a comprehensive view of how Penn was perceived both from the inside and from the outside that helped to frame some of my own strategic thinking about what we needed to do, where we had areas of opportunity. That led to the notion of a strategic plan and how we would actually begin to accomplish some of these goals.
    I think the second reason was that we were in the final year of a campaign [the $1.4 billion Campaign for Penn]. One of the things that I felt acutely was that Penn still lacked some of the resources that it needed to achieve its ambitions, and I wanted to make sure that in the next round of fundraising we would be able to articulate for our friends, our donors, and alumni what specifically our ambitions were and how specifically we would spend the money that we raised.

The first of the plan’s nine goals is “to solidify and advance [Penn’s] position as one of the premier teaching and research universities in the nation and in the world.” Has that been achieved to your satisfaction?

To my satisfaction? That’s a harder question. We certainly have raised the profile of Penn by every objective indicator and by lots of qualitative ones as well. Whether it’s rankings, elections to honorary societies for our students or the faculty, the perception by our peers or the regard of our alumni—in all of those indicators I think that Penn has clearly moved into the pantheon of one of the few truly great research universities in the world. It’s where we needed to be, it’s where we deserved to be—but we needed some work to get there.

The University moved from 16th in 1994 to sixth in the most recent rankings in U.S. News & World Report. Could you talk about the whole notion of rankings, about which you and other heads of institutions have expressed reservations. What is their value?

The rankings are too non-scientific, and the reason that institutional presidents really feel strongly about not solely relying on them is that they move around, that there are not statistically significant differences between the various ranks and the like, but the truth is that the general public reads these entities and they are influenced by them. In some ways they become self-fulfilling prophecies, and to ignore that is foolish, actually, because they do matter, whether we like it or not.
    Having said that, we’re not mindlessly pursuing the rankings. That’s why I talked about seeing ourselves within a key cohort. We think the cohort that includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, and Stanford ought to include Penn. That’s where we think we need to be now. There may be some movement in the rankings, but that’s not really the important thing.
    There are other quality indicators—the applicant pool is over the top—and you have all of those as well. We think that those demonstrate that we are where we should be, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to stay there, and sometimes it’s harder to stay there than it is to get there. I think we can stop for a moment and really enjoy where we’ve gotten through the Agenda for Excellence, but we need to continue to be nimble and to think strategically, because that’s in part what got us there.

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