Penn's provost

Ron DanielsPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

In the year and a half since Ron Daniels took the helm as Penn’s provost, the native-born Canadian has made his mark on the University. Within a few months of his arrival he had organized a series of major symposia on the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, bringing together scholars and leaders from around the nation to discuss ways to move forward from the tragedy. Soon after that, he orchestrated the publishing of a companion volume, “On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina.”

Since then he has kept a busy schedule—with up to 14 meetings a day—focusing on academic and strategic issues that impact the future of Penn. On a day-to-day level he is involved with countless decisions about tenure, research and scholarship. To push forward his broader goals for institutional global engagement, Daniels put in place a Task Force on Global Engagement and developed a global initiatives fund to support international teaching, research and engagement of an interdisciplinary nature. Last summer he traveled to Botswana to spend time with Penn doctors who are trying to change the course of HIV/AIDS in that country and to see first hand the impact Penn can have around the world.

Daniels would be the first to admit Penn has also made an impression on him since his arrival. Moving from his post as dean of the law school at the University of Toronto, he quickly learned that being the academic leader of a major Ivy League university would involve a steep learning curve. And he has immersed himself eagerly in the experience, expanding his purview beyond the humanities to become, for example, an effective advocate for the neurobehavioral sciences at Penn. Daniels has also gotten to know what makes Penn tick, and what makes it unique. He sums that up as its essential “esprit de corps,” a spirit of engagement and commitment to service that he finds exhilarating.

He has also found his way to the Constitution Center, thanks to his youngest daughter, identified his favorite campus food truck (more on that later) and discovered that in one area at least Philadelphia lags way, way behind Canada. That’s right, you guessed it, snow removal.

Q What’s a typical day in the life of the provost?
A The thing that I think is most marked about my days is just the sheer breadth and range of the meetings and issues I’m exposed to. As I like to say, for someone who has a short attention span this is an ideal job because you’re dealing with a budget issue at one moment and then there’s a student life issue the next. In terms of the actual day, what is most distinctive about it is it’s just chockablock full of meetings. On a typical day from 9 in the morning till 6:30 at night I may go through 14 meetings. So you’re literally every half hour or 45 minutes shifting from one meeting to another, one group of colleagues focused on a budget issue, then on a capital planning issue, then you’re dealing with a curriculum issue, then going to tenure decisions.

And so that’s really the challenge of the job. Just because of the density of the days and how intense the meeting schedule is, the challenge is to make sure that in your determination to support all the various people who report in to the office, who require support and guidance, that you’re not always in the reactive mode, that you’re still able to be in a position where you’re proactively shaping an agenda. I keep in my left hand drawer four or five priorities that are really important to me and I want to make sure that given how jam packed the days and weeks are you’re still able to move forward things that really are important to you and to the institution.

Q So you’re constantly balancing the macro and the micro?
A But there’s a real connection between macro and micro. That’s to say one of the really important jobs that I’m entrusted to perform is to make recommendations to the President and ultimately to the Trustees about tenure appointments at the University. On one level, tenure decisions are simply the most important decisions that we make at the University. And it’s very micro. And yet the decisions that you’re making week by week, month by month, at a micro level actually amount to something much more important in that you’re really making judgments about the standards to which the University has committed itself, so it’s a way of connecting the macro, that is there’s a determination to move the University forward and, in the President’s terms, to move from excellence to eminence, but at another level these decisions you’re making every day at the micro level are concrete manifestations of that aspiration. You can only get to the abstract ideals by getting the micro decisions right.

Q How did being dean of the law school at the University of Toronto prepare you for the role of Penn’s provost?
A In a lot of ways law schools are interesting animals in that they really are a microcosm of the university as a whole. Law schools have important constituencies like faculty, students, administrative staff and of course alumni of the school, but at the same time there’s a broader role that the law school, at least at Toronto, played in the university. It was deeply connected to the rest of the university. Forty percent of the faculty held joint appointments. And it played a broad public role in trying to shape policy debates and to connect with the community in a number of different dimensions. In that respect the law school is almost a mini university.
So that opportunity to deal with a number of different constituencies and to be able to bring academic leadership to that institution served me well in terms of giving me some preparation at least for this role, but in truth it’s still a very steep learning curve and there’s parts of the University that from my perch at the law school I really didn’t understand well, particularly in the sciences and the health sciences. Coming from law I was much more connected to the social sciences and humanities. There is new terrain that I had to explore, and I’ve really enjoyed learning.

Q Soon after Hurricane Katrina you organized a series of symposia and, with Penn Press, published “On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina.” Why did you feel it was so important for the University to be involved?
A For me it’s just very simple. Universities have tremendous intellectual capital and you have faculty members who have deep expertise in a number of different policy areas, and it seems to me that when catastrophes strike and when policy makers are grappling with difficult issues we are potentially a very important source of advice and counsel to the broader community on how you respond to those issues. So it just seemed to me in the context of the wrenching challenges that the citizens of the Gulf Coast suffered in the wake of Katrina that the University of Pennsylvania had expertise that it could provide to help shape that debate. It was important that we mobilize our intellectual resources but at the same time do so in a timely manner so we have a chance at affecting policy. Penn Press has been a great partner to us on this enterprise. They are committed to working with the University to produce books quickly so that, again, we can imagine getting our ideas translated very quickly into concrete policy decisions.

Q I know you visited Botswana last summer to learn more about a program the School of Medicine is running there. Can you tell me about your visit?
A This visit to Botswana goes back to a conversation I had with Harvey Friedman about a year or so ago where I recruited him to participate in a presentation to alumni on the breadth of Penn’s global activities. He did a very stirring presentation on the Botswana project, which is really a very impressive program. The School of Medicine, led by Harvey Friedman and supported by other colleagues like Steve Gluckman, has been in Botswana for a number of years now and they were invited to go there to help deal with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and in particular some of the clinical challenges posed by that. Over the years about 65 Penn doctors and students have been over to Botswana to spend time there working within the main hospital in Gaberone, and have provided a range of clinical services. The impact that those individuals have had on the management of patient care in Botswana has been profound.

What moved me about the visit, and Harvey had wanted me to see this first hand, was first and foremost just the magnitude of the AIDS crisis in Botswana. Botswana is deemed to be one of the success stores in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not a failed state, but in spite of its many successes in quality of government and education, close to 35 percent of the population is HIV positive, and so just the amount of disease and death that has been endured by that society is truly remarkable. Going there and just seeing Penn on the ground and how in a small country we were able to have a very significant impact in the hospitals, raising standards of patient care and training physicians, it was the epitome of capacity building. This was a wonderful example of Penn taking this ethos of community service abroad.

We’re quite anxious to build on it so we’re having discussions with the University of Botswana and individuals in Botswana to develop that program further. It’s a very good example that we can generalize from that we should look to areas where faculty and students are currently involved in good works and we’re making an impact. We’re also seeing that our activities are not only affording us an opportunity to share our research ideas but also to develop our research, and with those foundations in place one can think about trying to grow these programs in a number of different ways.

I think there are a lot of international activities that are being conducted by the various schools and departments of the University here. It just seems to me that by looking for projects like the Botswana partnership there’s wonderful opportunities to develop this program in a way that we can see each of the schools in the University playing a significant role in helping government, universities and industry in Botswana and really making a difference.

Q Let’s talk about interdisciplinary collaboration, another of your priorities. In the last year or so Penn has hired five Penn Integrates Knowledge professors with joint appointments across schools.
A I’m really struck by the fact that if you look at what the great universities of the world are saying about the core priorities of these institutions, interdisciplinary collaboration is something that all of the great universities are talking about. The challenge is how do you take that aspiration and make it concrete? What can you do differently in order to really make that meaningful? And I think the President’s development of this initiative, both conceiving it and getting it funded, is of tremendous value in that enterprise. It’s not the only way we go about promoting interdisciplinary collaboration at Penn—there’s a long tradition of interdisciplinary collaboration at Penn—but this is a very important way to move it ahead and its been very exciting to be able to work with the deans and the department chairs as they start to dream about the possibility for interdisciplinary collaboration, and doing that by in some sense embarking on one of the most difficult challenges—that is, true joint appointments across two or more schools where both schools have to be able to recognize the value of this candidate and to say that this candidate is someone they would feel comfortable having as a voting member of their schools. That’s not easy and it puts into play these issues of different disciplinary perspectives and how one thinks about the appropriate ways of pursuing and developing knowledge. But despite all those barriers the deans of the schools have been remarkably successful in finding these candidates and luring them to Penn. So I think this is very exciting and I’m very proud to have been part of the team that’s worked on this.

Q Tell me about the nuts and bolts of working with Amy Gutmann.
A There’s a variety of scheduled meetings that we have each week either on our own or with other groups. Amy’s been really committed to the idea of having a senior leadership team at the helm of the institution that works in a creative and constructive way with one another, and so the nice thing is there’s lots of opportunities to participate in that team. A lot of the interaction comes through those meetings. On another level we speak often, almost daily and on weekends, keeping each other in the loop, and so there’s a lot of communication, and for me it’s been great to work with someone who’s got great academic values. She’s a very determined and decisive academic leader and it’s just been wonderful to have that partnership with her and her support of the academic mission of the University.

Q What goals do you have for the coming year that you’d like to share with our readers?
A There are a number of things that I’m working on. We’re working now on trying to develop a global health initiative because it’s one of the areas where we would like to develop Penn’s global identity and we recognize that there’s lots of activity in global health that doesn’t just emanate from the nursing, medical, vet and dental schools but in fact affects a number of other parts of the University as well, and so as we think about priorities for Penn’s global efforts this is a natural focal point.

We continue to work on a set of hires in the neuroscience area and here again we’re working on multiple fronts. At one level it’s really important to make sure that we can recruit outstanding academics to the University in the neuroscience area. At another level I’ve been working closely with Dean Bushnell on putting in place the financial support and other approvals necessary to build the new neurobehavioral science building. This is the second building for the life sciences complex and that’s tremendously important. In fact the recruitment of faculty is closely related to building because if we don’t have physical space we’re not going to be able to recruit faculty. So that remains an important priority.

I have other priorities that I’m anxious to move ahead on. In terms of long standing challenges for the University, one has been technology transfer, so we’re working hard at developing effective support for faculty members interested in commercializing their research ideas.

And then continued work around faculty recruitment and retention. This was something that was a priority for me last year and continues to be something I work hard at this year.

And finally, we’re doing some interesting things in undergraduate research. We’re augmenting the offerings at CURF this year, trying to find ways to enhance the possibilities for undergraduates to engage in meaningful supervised research opportunities with faculty members over the summer. So that’s a short laundry list.

Q At your 2005 Convocation speech you said you were still “looking for the soul” of this University. What have you learned of Penn’s soul since then?
A For me, one of the really striking features of Penn is the esprit de corps that characterizes the intellectual community here, and it is so nice to be working with students and faculty members who are demanding of themselves and demanding of you in terms of what we can do to further the academic mission. It’s nice when the concerns, the demands and the expectations are really entirely in synch with the aspirations of the academic leadership, to be part of such a collaborative community where people are really working to make the University better. At core people really love this intellectual community. People speak of this University in those terms—of love, of affection. It’s nice that people really hold the University in such high esteem.

The other thing that I’ve been really moved by as I’ve come to know Penn better is this spirit of community service that pervades the campus. It’s really striking when you look at the student population how much they’re doing in terms of community works and really coming onto campus with a sense from the get-go that they’re part of a very privileged group to be at this campus but nevertheless a firm determination to share that bounty with a broader world. I’ve never been in a university where that ethos of community and community responsibility is as palpable as at Penn. It’s really a very distinctive and I think in truth unusual trait for an academic community. You see it in the stuff that the kids are doing in West Philadelphia, the things they’re doing on reading week in Louisiana. Just the relentless commitment to worrying about how they contribute to the public wheel. It’s exciting because you see for the students that come here this is at one level an intellectual journey but on another level it’s a moral journey as well and a lot of them whether they come with this predisposition or its inculcated while they’re here, there’s no question they leave with a very strong, fiery determination to contribute. I think that’s wonderful.

Q How do you stay connected with the students at Penn?
A There are the range of scheduled meetings you have with student leadership and that’s very helpful in trying to keep close ties to the student leaders. But for me it’s jumping at the opportunities to be at various student events, whether it’s the South Asian anniversary dinner I was at a few months ago or attending sports events or even this past week I was teaching at the Law School. Just trying to find ways outside of more official forms of interaction where I’m seeing students in a casual setting, even lining up as I do at the food trucks at 34th and Walnut and having the opportunity to talk to students and get some sense of what courses they’re taking and how their Penn experience has been. These are all very effective ways of getting a sense of the pulse of the community.

Q So which is Ron Daniels’ favorite food truck?
A People will never believe this back home but it’s the health food one, the Magic Carpet. The way that I was able to figure out which was the best one when I first went out there—there was a dizzying array of choices—was I looked for the longest line and I got in that one.

Q How do you find living in Philadelphia, compared to Toronto?
A The big difference between Philadelphia and Toronto is just being at the site of the birth of this grand democratic experiment. Being in a city where the history is palpable and in the character of the place. Last week my youngest daughter had been to the Constitution Center and had gone through the exhibits and went to the program where they have the actors. Anyway, she is a very tough cookie and she’s a very proud Canadian but she really wanted me to go with her and walk through the exhibit. We sat there at this presentation and as the lights went down she said, “You know, Dad, you’re going to get a big lump in your throat by the end of this. It’s truly amazing what happened here.” The sense of being in the city where something so grand and so bold took place is exciting.

Q What do you miss about living in Canada?
A It isn’t the snow, that’s for sure. I would say perhaps it is the capacity of Canadian cities to remove the snow. Two weeks ago when we had the snowfall and the city was just gridlocked I came in and said, “I have a novel and bracing idea for the city of Philadelphia. When we do get snow, what’s the strategy they should use? One word: plow.”

Q What are some of your favorite places at Penn?
A I love standing right here and looking out at College Green. I particularly like to be on the phone in my office when classes are changing and you can just see the flurry of activity. So that’s a wonderful spot. I like Locust Walk and just being able to see the student groups and be part of the rhythm of the community. One of my new favorite spots is Skirkanich. Just walking through that building and seeing the interplay of materials and light, that’s a wonderful building.

Originally published March 29, 2007.

Originally published on March 29, 2007