How many presidents has Penn had?

Dear Benny:
I keep hearing and reading that Amy Gutmann is Penn’s eighth president. But I also hear and read that Penn traces its origins back to 1740. When I do the math, it just doesn’t work out, unless each president held office for more than three decades. Can you clarify the history and lineage of the Penn presidency?
—Hailing the Chiefs

Dear HTC:
The presidents of Penn certainly have been an energetic and hardy bunch. But you are correct in assuming there have been more than eight chief officers of the University in its 271 years.

The short answer to your question is that historically, the administrative chiefs of the University have not always held the title of president. From Penn’s initial days until the late 1800s, the University provost oversaw the College faculty (but not the faculties of the Law School or the Medical School). The Rev. William Smith was named Penn’s first provost in 1755. Thirteen other provosts followed him, serving as the University’s top leaders through the Civil War, the First World War and the roaring ‘20s.

In 1930, Thomas Sovereign Gates was elected by the University Trustees to be Penn’s first president. During his term, which lasted until 1944, Gates gave particular attention to equal education for women, recommending to the Trustees that Penn establish a College for Women by July 1, 1933. He also insisted that the women’s curriculum match that provided to the men.
The complete list of Penn’s presidents shows 10 names, not eight. But technically, William Hagan DuBarry, who served in 1950-51, 1952 and 1953, was an “acting president,” and Claire Mintzer Fagin served as “interim president” from 1993 to 1994.

Amy Gutmann became president of Penn on July 1, 2004, and in her inaugural address, introduced the Penn Compact. The principles of the Compact have propelled Penn faculty, students and staff to achieve distinction in research, scholarship and service.

Got a question for Benny? Send it via e-mail to current@pobox.upenn.edu or via regular mail to the Current, 200 Sansom Place East, 3600 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104-6106.

Originally published on February 17, 2011