"Passionate Intensity"

September 9, 2006 - Convocation Speech
by Penn President Dr. Amy Gutmann

My warmest welcome to the gifted men and women of the great Class of 2010! I extend equally warm greetings to our transfers from other colleges and universities.  Transfers? Smart move!

You have chosen the most dynamic urban University with four great undergraduate schools abuzz with innovation.  

Benjamin Franklin conceived the first liberal arts curriculum for what became the College of Arts and Sciences! 

Business education was invented here – at the Wharton School! 

The first electronic computer was built here – by Penn engineers!

The first woman to lead an Ivy League University, Claire Fagin,  came from – where else? – Penn Nursing!

Each of you knows why you chose us. But I thought you might be curious about why we chose you. I can answer that question in two words that capture both the Penn zeitgeist and a quality that our admissions office found in every one of you: passionate intensity.

We detected in you the passionate intensity to take chances, to catch fire, and to grow into truth seekers, life savers, and world shapers.

You will recognize the phrase “passionate intensity” from William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” In the wake of the devastation of the First World War, Yeats wrote:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Passionate intensity is often identified with fanaticism – especially in popular culture. Far too much of what passes for public debate in the media these days resembles a mud wrestling match – only with far less demonstrable skill. It does not have to be that way. It should never be that way. 

And it certainly is not that way at Penn. Edifying debates take place all over campus. It is a hallmark of Penn that our faculty, students, and staff join these debates with gusto – and show respect for those with whom they disagree.

Now: The latest survey of the mindset of the Class of 2010 reports that yours is the first to be wireless and yet always connected.  Not that any of you would dream of text messaging your friends back home during convocation.

However often you I-M your friends, be sure to make the most meaningful connections at Penn – starting with our extraordinary faculty. A few may not be able to tell hip-hop from IHOP … or M&Ms from Eminem.

But they all know their stuff. My faculty colleagues and I feel passionately about the fact that we are not here primarily to test and grade you. We want you to join us in creating new and important knowledge while you are here. 

Last year, for example, College undergrad Emily Buzzell suggested to demography professor Samuel Preston that the two of them analyze the mortality rates of U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq, where Emily’s brother-in-law was stationed. Their research yielded the first comprehensive profile of the death risks facing the military in Iraq. Their findings, published as an op-ed in the Washington Post, furnish the kind of data analysis needed to inform debate among citizens and policy-makers alike.

Not every discovery you make will be published in the Post. And we won’t pressure you to perform brilliantly all the time. But we will expect you to be passionate in your pursuit of the truth. That’s because we want you and your Penn education to make a major positive impact on the world. 

As I am sure you’ve noticed: Our world is not in the best of shape at the moment. The United States remains embroiled in war. We have yet to overcome the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We face the constant threat of terrorism, fueled by hatred that knows not even minimal moral bounds.

We also confront a host of other global problems – infectious diseases, environmental degradation, and global warming. But you can make a difference by learning from expert interdisciplinary teams of our faculty members who are tackling these problems. And you can join a worthy cause that enriches your education while it extends your horizons beyond Penn.

Our academically based service learning courses put your knowledge to work in doing some good right here in Philadelphia – teaching and providing health care in our public schools and creating beautiful murals on our streets. 

You will undoubtedly notice that I am passionately intense about education, democracy, and Penn.

I am just as avid about friendship. I recognize, as well as you do, that most people tend to be more comfortable hanging out only with those whose backgrounds and educational goals mirror their own.

Yet if I could leave you with only one piece of advice – for your life’s success and the betterment of our world today – it would be this: Take advantage of the greatest gift that our global campus has to offer, the chance of a lifetime to form life-long friendships across ethnic and economic, racial and religious boundaries.

I know that you definitely will be better educated – and ultimately more fulfilled – if you mount the courage to follow your passion for far-ranging friendships. The ties you form can help to heal a world torn asunder by the failure to connect across divides.

 “Nothing great,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

Members of the great class of 2010 – and transfers: Don’t curb your enthusiasm. Take intellectual risks. You’re bound to make a difference in our world – sooner than you think.

Yeats said “the center cannot hold.” This center – called Penn – will hold. And you – a class full of passionate intensity – will flourish here.

Penn and you …. I think we make a great match. Now go prove me right!

Welcome to Penn.