By Amy Gutmann | The American Revolutionary War ended not in a skirmish, but with the stroke of a pen at the Hotel d’York, Paris, in 1783. Holding that pen, Benjamin Franklin—one of three American representatives to sign the Treaty of Paris—closed a conflict of arms and ideas that had changed the world. But for Franklin, the world of politics wasn’t the only thing that had changed. At 77, he could celebrate the success of the Revolution he had helped bring about, but the years had made it nearly impossible for him to read the document he was signing.
“I cannot distinguish a letter even of large print,” he explained in a letter to a friend a year later, without engaging in the cumbersome process of exchanging one pair of spectacles for another. However, Franklin, being Franklin, had already crafted the solution. “But [I] am happy,” he continues, “in the invention of double spectacles, which, serving for distant objects as well as near ones, make my eyes as useful to me as ever they were.”
The letter is his first known mention of one of our founder’s more famous inventions: bifocals. Ingeniously practical and elegantly simple, his bifocals enabled Franklin to look far out while paying careful attention to things close at hand. Several years later, with his trademark spectacles perched on his nose, Benjamin Franklin lent his formidable mind, signature, and renewed vision to the creation of the US Constitution.
I have been thinking about the meaning of those bifocals for Franklin as we enter into the next era of the University’s history. Penn today finds itself at a crossroads of incredible potential. In the decade since I became Penn’s president, we have together done so much to advance Penn’s capabilities and potential. The Penn Compact has guided our University’s growth from excellence to eminence, and the record-shattering success of the Making History campaign empowers Penn to go much further.
Make no mistake: Penn’s place in the world tomorrow will be decided by what we do today. By enunciating our plans and aspirations now we will determine how we harness our collective drive to shape the future. We’re at a pivotal moment, not just for our University and higher education, but more importantly in light of the enormous global challenges such as climate and energy, food and security, health and politics that we, like Franklin, must confront with an absolute clarity of vision. Now is the time to craft a renewed plan that is both elegantly practical and simple, yet also bold in its power to lead our University through the next decade and beyond as one of the world’s preeminent academic institutions. To borrow from our founder, our vision must focus effectively on distant objects as well as near ones, and it must make our efforts as useful to Penn in the everyday details as they will be in the grand scheme of things to come.
That vision is Penn Compact 2020.
Penn Compact 2020 builds on the past decade of progress we have made in advancing the University of Pennsylvania. It is a far-reaching vision that outlines next steps to increase access to Penn’s exceptional intellectual resources; integrate knowledge across academic disciplines with emphasis on innovative understanding and discovery; and engage locally, nationally, and globally to bring the benefits of Penn’s research, teaching, and service to individuals and communities at home and around the world. This renewed strategic vision will serve to spotlight and strengthen three of the core values that we aspire to, and make us uniquely Penn: inclusion, innovation, and impact.
Our commitment to inclusion means we will continue to meet the full financial need of undergraduates with all-grant, no-loan aid packages. We also are dedicated to expanding the Penn World Scholars program, and to strengthening graduate- and professional-student financial aid. We will increase diversity at all levels with high-priority efforts that include the Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence. And we will continue advancing Open Learning at Penn with high-quality online-education initiatives that promote the very best teaching and educational research on Penn’s campus.
We will continue to innovate by bringing the greatest minds together across academic fields. To do this, we will increase Penn Integrates Knowledge and other endowed professorships across our schools to recruit and retain the most eminent interdisciplinary faculty. We will build highly collaborative, inter-school research and teaching programs. And we will expand Penn’s culture and practice of innovation through a new Pennovation Center, where Penn discoveries will find rapid application to pressing social needs.
Penn’s impact is powered by our engagement; it will change the ways we live and think at home, across the nation, and around the world. We will implement our Penn Connects 2.0 campus plan to create the most innovative, sustainable, and beautiful urban campus with vibrant living and learning spaces for the community. By fall 2016, we will open a spectacular new College House on Hill Field, making this prime campus space simultaneously more useful, beautiful, and welcoming to Penn, and also providing the swing space to thoroughly renovate its neighbor, Hill College House. We will enable Penn faculty and students to advance knowledge-based public policy through focused inter-school programs including the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative. And we will bring the world to Penn and Penn to the world through broad-ranging university-wide programs including the Perry World House and Penn Wharton China Center.
To realize the bold and far-reaching vision of the Penn Compact 2020, we depend most of all on our Penn people. I have consulted closely with members of the Penn community here and around the world to help envision this plan. It reflects our shared values and it exemplifies our passion for bettering our community, country, and world. Penn Compact 2020 affirms the commitment we share with our founder: to put knowledge into action for the greatest good.
Franklin retired as American envoy to the court of Louis XVI in 1785 and boarded a ship for the long voyage home. That same year, his bifocals appeared prominently for the first time in a contemporary portrait by noted painter Charles Wilson Peale. That portrait now hangs at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: a glimpse of a singular thinker and leader, caught at a historic moment, deep in contemplation, fired by clarity of purpose. It is the image of a man who, with renewed vision, confidently foresees yet more great works.
Penn stands at the threshold of its own next great chapter. Guided by Penn Compact 2020, advanced through shared determination and empowered by our own clarity of purpose, together we can make possible the great works to come.