For Franklin, generosity and prudence were partners

As Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer

January 17, 2006

For Franklin, generosity and prudence were partners

A call to continue his legacy of public service

By Amy Gutmann

Benjamin Franklin's genius harnessed entrepreneurial energy and intellectual creativity in the service of civic improvement. Philadelphians were the lucky beneficiaries; their city became his laboratory for imagining, inventing, and creating a better world.

For example, while other colleges were founded to train a privileged class for the clergy and courts, here Franklin founded an academy to teach practical subjects, discover new knowledge, and prepare great future leaders. Today the academy Franklin founded is Philadelphia's largest private employer and one of the world's great research institutions: the University of Pennsylvania.

By linking higher education to self-improvement and to serving society, Benjamin Franklin created the very framework for American philanthropy and civic-mindedness.

Today, Philadelphians enjoy the benefits of Franklin's drive to create America's first modern city. Concerned for safety and security, he proposed fire-fighting and insurance associations. The nation's first hospital grew out of his campaign to promote better health care. The first free library system came from Franklin's desire to bring the benefits of reading to everyone.

How can we draw on his legacy to help us forward into the 21st century?

One way is to improve education. Americans should concentrate on providing students of all backgrounds with access to education that prepares them for full participation in our democracy. An education at most selective private colleges and universities, unfortunately, remains beyond the reach of many qualified middle- and low-income students.

The students I know at Penn from underrepresented groups include a gifted writer who is the daughter of an auto mechanic and the first in her family to attend college; the son of a truck driver who has become a standout at the Wharton School and a campus leader; and the son of a grocery store clerk who wants to pursue both a doctorate in philosophy and a law degree.

One of our highest priorities is increasing accessibility, making our excellent undergraduate, graduate and professional educations more accessible and affordable to the sons and daughters of our country's middle- and low-income families. Accessibility is one of the guiding principles of the Penn Compact, a statement of purpose I first put forward in the fall of 2004. We work hard to attract students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds from the Philadelphia region; although the numbers are climbing, we can do even better.

At the same time Americans must continue to push for greater opportunity in elementary and secondary schools - to bring higher education to a more diverse group of students whose contributions will be vital to our country's future.

At our university-assisted neighborhood K-8 public school, the Penn Alexander School, many students come from low-income households. Seventy-two percent of last spring's graduating eighth graders are now enrolled in magnet high schools in Philadelphia, greatly improving their chances of getting accepted to selective colleges or universities.

Such are the future citizens Benjamin Franklin had in mind. But how to assure that they will have a thriving community to support?

Franklin's success was rooted as much in his low-key style as in the brilliance of his ideas. Franklin would float a proposal (sometimes under a pseudonym), then step back while others took credit. He jumped back into action when the moment came to drum up broader support.

Let's follow Franklin's example. Put the greater good ahead of parochial interests. Collaborate on solutions, and share the credit. Relearn the art of compromise, which Franklin gracefully modeled in engineering the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

In Philadelphia, opportunities are many to embrace these principles. For years, Penn has been collaborating with our neighbors on initiatives to improve public education, public health, economic development, employment opportunities, and the physical landscape of West Philadelphia.

From such collaborations will grow efforts in the next decade to begin converting 24 acres near 30th Street Station into parks and recreational facilities; shops and restaurants; arts venues; buildings for teaching, research, and technology transfer, and gateways along the Schuylkill that better connect the university and West Philadelphia to Center City.

Franklin loved to say, "People who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages." His 300th birthday is the perfect occasion to follow his inspiring example and open the package for as many people as possible.