A Penn Trivial Pursuit

Our advice column, “Ask Benny,” regularly gets questions from readers interested in interesting details from Penn’s past or present. Some of these questions involve obscure or arcane matters. We thought this time we would look at a couple of substantial historical questions.


When Was Penn Really Founded?

1740—that’s easy. Or is it?

The story of our claimed founding date is the most durable and complicated of all Penn legends, and it is University Archives Director Mark Frazier Lloyd’s favorite.

“In 1899, Penn’s Trustees adopted a resolution that established 1740 as the founding date, but good cases may be made for 1749, when Franklin first convened the Trustees, or 1751, when the first classes were taught, or 1755, when Penn obtained its collegiate charter,” he explained. “The issue, unfortunately, has never been re-examined.”

How did we get to 1740? By way of founder Benjamin Franklin’s search for a home for his Academy of Philadelphia.

After laying out his new college’s philosophy in his 1749 “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania,” Franklin and others formed an organization to establish the school and seek a facility. He soon came across the unfinished “New Building” at Fourth and Arch Streets, originally intended to house a “Charity School” for poor Philadelphia children. This structure was the only fruit of a drive organized in 1740 by prominent Philadelphia tradesmen inspired by the preaching of the Rev. George Whitefield. To gain title to the building, Franklin incorporated provisions for the Charity School into his own Academy’s charter. Thus was Penn’s link to 1740 established.

Why Penn Had No President Before 1930

Traditionally, at American universities, the provost is second in command to the president. Where the president is responsible for the entire institution, the provost oversees its academic operations.

Prior to 1930, that was not the case at Penn—the provost was the institution’s top officer. Before 1880, the University was small enough that the Trustees—whose head bore the title “president” from 1749 to 1791 and again from 1880 to 1911—could handle all administrative duties. Beginning with Provost William Pepper C 1862, M 1864, Hon 1894, who assumed oversight of the law and medical faculties as well as the College, the provost began gradually to take on more of the academic administration once performed by the Trustees. The separation of oversight from administration was completed in 1930, when then-Chairman of the Trustees Thomas Sovereign Gates W 1893, L 1896, Hon’31 became Penn’s first president. Judith Rodin CW’66, whose term ends this year, is the ninth occupant of the office.

— Sandy Smith

Originally published on January 15, 2004