Convocation 2013

August, 27, 2013

Let the Experiment be Made!

By President Amy Gutmann

Members of the Class of 2017: Welcome to Penn!

Students transferring to Penn from other schools: Smart move! We are so pleased you are joining us. To all of you, welcome to the Palestra, known far and wide as the Cathedral of Basketball.

You are about to embark on nothing less than a life transforming journey at a world-renowned university.

It is only suitable that we inaugurate this journey with a formal ceremony. This convocation is your rite of initiation.

It is our way of formally welcoming you to the unique community of scholars that is Penn. These robes the faculty, alumni, and I are wearing are not only apparently hot; they are also deliberate reminders of the seriousness of what we undertake here, and your part in it. They speak to the essential role of teaching, education, and deep thought in society. Higher education has long been honored as possessing an element of the sacred.

Three professions in our society are set apart by being granted the privilege of wearing robes: judges, who administer justice; clergy, who elucidate the divine; and your professors, who will guide you on your journey to becoming highly educated adults.

You officially start today on that journey. This is a transition that many your age are also experiencing at other schools around the country. But you chose not to go to just any school. You chose to come to Penn. First off, brilliant choice! And I say that without any bias whatsoever.

Your choice assures me I am addressing the most astute college students anywhere. The numbers bear me out: you, the class of 2017, were admitted from the strongest applicant pool in Penn's history. You come from 48 states. That includes New Mexico, New York, and California, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida, and of course the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania! We are delighted to welcome the largest group in several years from Philadelphia County.

One out of every eight of you hails from a country other than the United States: 72 countries in all. And we are immensely proud that fully 12 percent of you—one out of 8—enter Penn as a first-generation college student.

You are all accomplished enough to gain admittance to any number of the world's most selective universities. But you are even smarter than that, because you chose Penn. You see, Penn is in many ways truly unique.

We are a university that, from our very founding, has always placed a distinct emphasis on discovering and transmitting useful knowledge, knowledge that will help make a better world. We trace this focus directly back to our founder, Ben Franklin. Remember that Franklin—whose life almost perfectly tracked the 18th century —had a front row seat to the dawning of the scientific revolution. Only in his day, they didn't refer to "science"; they called it "natural philosophy."

By the middle of the 18th century, an intense debate raged among Europe's natural philosophers as to whether lightning and electricity were related. Rather than speculating without a scintilla of evidence, Franklin declared "Let the experiment be made!"

His kite and his key experiment later made him world famous. From that experiment, Franklin invented the lightning rod. By 1752, lightning rods were protecting Independence Hall and the University of Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Franklin placed the highest value on knowledge that can benefit humanity. We value it to this day.

Knowledge that helps humanity: This practical ideal propels Penn, your university. This is our spirit. This is the spirit of our extended family. This is a spirit that depends on the enthusiasm and energy you bring to our campus. You will repeatedly encounter smart people at Penn who want to do something useful, something to help humanity. They want the experiment to be made. They want to fly the most creative kite. They want to give the world the next best lightning rod.

This convocation marks the fact that you have arrived at the perfect place to try creative new things, to fail at a few (sometimes grandly), and to end up at a new and surprising point far from where you stand now.

Metaphorically speaking, you're here to learn to stretch your wings and fly. Sometimes you will focus your eyes on a distant landing spot, and you will soar there directly. More often, you will just have to trust yourself and jump.

Without exception, your journey at Penn will be immensely more gratifying and successful if you do it in company. Engage while you are at Penn. Engage your professors. Engage your fellow classmates. Entertain new and challenging ideas. Your flights of discovery will help you find your own life-changing place at Penn.

Proud members of the Class of 2017 and equally proud transfer students: This is your time to embark on the journey of your life and a journey that also helps humanity. Be bold. And, like Franklin, let the experiment be made!

Welcome to Penn!