The Summertime Morphing of Penn

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Media Contact:Russell C. Campbell | | 215-898-7798July 23, 2002
PHILADELPHIA -- There may be a misconception that during the summer a university's campus essentially becomes a ghost town with professors and students lounging on the beach.

While for a few this may be a reality, for others, such as Valerie Ross, the director of the University of Pennsylvania's Summer Sessions, the summer is less about R&R and more about transforming a large urban Ivy League institution like Penn into something akin to a small liberal arts college.

"The summer is the rare time when faculty, administrators and students can get together without it taking the form of a task force, " Ross said.

The relatively small Summer Sessions office is responsible for organizing all of the summer undergraduate curricula, the Summer Abroad programs, international and visiting student admissions and a variety of summer high school and other academic programs. It is also responsible for summer events programming, which ranges from trips to the Philadelphia Art Museum and weekly outdoor movies on the campus green, to deep sea fishing on the Atlantic and mountain-biking in the Poconos.

One of Ross's favorite summer events is the 60-Second Lecture & What's For Lunch series, now in its third year. Penn faculty known for their lecturing acumen are invited to speak on a topic for exactly one minute. These distinguished if brief "lectures" have been performed by the University's president, Judith Rodin, and Provost Robert Barchi, as well as such Penn faculty members as NPR's Kathryn Kolbert, historian Sheldon Hackney and bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

Some faculty use their minute to display their creativity. Bob Giegengach, a geology professor, used a roll of toilet paper as a way of marking geological and lecture time; Ann Matter, a professor of religious studies, transformed a nearby statue of Ben Franklin into Penn's patron saint.

"Our outdoor lecture series is a kind of summer happening;" Ross said. "There's live music, free food from area restaurants and the most diverse and friendly audience one could hope for on a hot summer day at the academy."

Ross created the series in 1999 as a way of adapting the conventional lecture series to the summer feel of Penn's campus. Initially intending to create an ordinary lecture series, she approached several faculty members to see if they might be willing to do a lecture on the topic of "error." The professors confessed that they could only imagine talking for about a minute on this subject, but the minute they provided was illuminating.

"What each had to say in a minute about error was magnificent," Ross said. "It struck me that each of us has at least a minute of pith to share, all the more true when one turns to renown lecturers."