Former Penn President and Professor Gaylord Harnwell

Gaylord Harnwell, Penn’s President from 1953-1970, is credited with spurring the University’s educational and physical development during that time and transforming Penn into a more open, diverse campus.

Former Penn President and Professor Gaylord Harnwell Photo credit: University Archives

Under Harnwell’s tenure as president, the University conducted an expansive and systematic evaluation of its operations that led to widespread changes, including those in all areas of study for undergraduates and graduate students.

Harnwell, Penn’s fourth president, also made improvements to educational facilities, student life programs, education for women and life on campus and the West Philadelphia community. Ninety-three new buildings were erected during Harnwell’s presidency, and 34 more projects were on the drawing board when he retired from Penn in 1970.

In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Penn was growing west of Center City, constructing new high-rise dorms, classrooms, research facilities and administrative offices. The expansion was controversial because some local residents and businesses had to be relocated to make way for the new structures.

Today, Penn is expanding eastward with several projects currently underway, including the new Penn Park and the Cira Centre South building. The new development is being embraced by the community.

Harnwell, a renowned atomic physicist, came to Penn in 1938 as a professor. He later became chair of the Physics Department and taught classes even after he became president, as shown in the accompanying photo from 1968.

Harnwell was called into service during World War II, earning a Medal of Merit for his work on developing special weapons and devices with the Navy.

His obituary in the Penn Almanac in 1982 called his years as president “the watershed in the University’s development from a regional university to a major national force in research with worldwide outreach. His administration was the time of the deliberate diversification of the student body to include students from all walks of life; of dramatic changes in faculty hiring ... and of the founding of the University Senate and later of other mechanisms that brought consultative groups together. Physical expansion alone was monumental.”

For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at

Originally published on January 20, 2011