Some of the thinking behind the Agenda for Excellence seems to go back as far as your inaugural address as Penns 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  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 Pennto 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.
The first of the plans nine goals is to solidify and advance [Penns] 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? Thats a harder question. We certainly have raised the profile of Penn by every objective indicator and by lots of qualitative ones as well. Whether its rankings, elections to honorary societies for our students or the faculty, the perception by our peers or the regard of our alumniin 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. Its where we needed to be, its where we deserved to bebut 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?
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.