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Satisfy Your Intellectual Cravings

Alumni can feast on some sumptuous academic fare.
By Judith Rodin


If you are among the thousands of Penn grads coming to Alumni Weekend this month, you will find the campus buzzing with emotion, pageantry, and a cornucopia of events and programs. For intellectual stimulation, you can join some of Penn’s finest and most captivating faculty for one (or more) of a dozen panel discussions and conversations on lively and relevant topics. These “Classes without Quizzes” are one of the most popular features of Alumni Weekend, and rightly so. They are like Guiltless Chips. You can feast on some sumptuous academic fare free of exam anxiety.

All over campus,
the doors and invitations to join our community of scholars are wide open. Come on in.

However, you need not wait until Commencement to satisfy your intellectual cravings. Visit the Penn campus on virtually any day during the school year, and you are likely to find a symposium, a forum, reading, lecture, colloquium, or panel discussion that is timely, fascinating, and, best of all, open to the public.

In the past year and a half, we have enjoyed a dramatic rise in the quality and number of events that engage a broad cross section of Penn faculty, students, alumni, staff, and neighbors in dialogue and learning. Among the more dramatic new additions are two speaker series launched by Provost Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73.

The first, the Provost’s Lecture Series, has allowed some of Penn’s most distinguished faculty share their ideas and the fruits of their scholarship with the University community—including David Farber (one of the veritable sages of technology), Peter Dodson (decoder of dinosaur bones), John DiIulio (then on loan to the White House as director of Faith-Based Community Initiatives), Alan MacDiarmid (holder of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry), Eugenie L. Birch (a preeminent expert on city and regional planning), political scientist Joanne Gowa (holder of the Walter H. Annenberg Chair in the Social Sciences), Jeremy Siegel (guru of the stock market), and Loretta Sweet Jemmott Gnu’82 Gr’87 (director of the School of Nursing’s Center for Urban Health Research). Following the speakers’ presentations, the conversations continue in informal receptions, in which boundaries among faculty, students, alumni, and staff of Penn’s 12 schools dissolve to create a true community of scholars.

The second, the Spotlight Series (with events co-sponsored this year by SPEC Connaissance, Makuu, and the Honor Council, among other student groups), features prominent figures from the wide world of public affairs, the sciences, and arts and letters. The Penn community has been treated to riveting presentations and performances by the likes of Harry Belafonte; Billy Joel (whose appearance at Irvine Auditorium later aired on A&E); tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand; Erin Brockovich, whose exposure of a cover-up involving contaminated water was the basis of the movie starring Julia Roberts; and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Penn’s schools and departments consistently offer programs, courses, and special events that raise open discussion of a wide range of issues to an art form. The School of Arts and Sciences, for example, is home to the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program. Launched in 1999 by the vision and generosity of Penn trustee Robert A. Fox C’52, the program brings world-class leaders (many of them Penn alumni) from virtually every walk of human endeavor to enlighten, entertain, and inspire our students.

Among the scores of speakers are Mr. Fox himself; P. Roy Vagelos C’50 Hon’99, former trustee chair and CEO of Merck & Co.; Tim and Nina Zagat, of the famous restaurant surveys; NBC foreign-affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell CW’67; and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The Goodwin talk was controversial. Press reports that Goodwin’s biography of the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families contained several passages from other sources lifted virtually verbatim without proper attribution raised the troubling issue of plagiarism—a cardinal offense in the academic world. While Goodwin delivered an utterly charming and captivating lecture on presidential leadership and her love affair with history, the controversy generated a flurry of passionate and illuminating student-led conversations and panel discussions on academic integrity.

SAS has also hosted other lecture series that have been huge successes. The Annual Dean’s Forum Lecture, which in recent years featured writers John Updike and Tom Wolfe, broke new ground in February with a powerful presentation by J. Craig Ventner on his role in mapping the human genome. Within the school, the history department faculty produced a compelling series of lectures in College Hall 200 on major figures of the 20th century, including Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King Jr., Mao Zedong, and Margaret Thatcher.

The Wharton School and School of Engineering and Applied Science host a variety of lectures, workshops, and informal gatherings that focus on business, leadership, and entrepreneurship. This past year, superstar CEO Jack Welch shared his unique insights on leadership at Wharton, while Alan I. Taub, the chief scientist for General Motors Research and Development, spoke at SEAS about the role of universities in automotive research.

Having wrapped up its third year with an imaginative exploration of Time in its multiple humanistic, scientific, and policy dimensions, the Penn Humanities Forum will next shine its interdisciplinary light on books as physical artifacts, cultural technologies, and sources of knowledge, devotion, and passion.

Of all forums for intellectual inquiry and discussion, none is more extensive or truly open to public attendance and participation than the Kelly Writers House, supported by Penn trustee Paul Kelly C’62 WG’64. Here, students, faculty, staff, and neighbors meet regularly with distinguished writers and scholars for lively and decidedly informal discussions about literary works. If you can’t make it to the Writers House in person, you can patch yourself right into the mix via live webcasts (which are also archived) and even add your own comments and questions.

Finally, perhaps no conversations pack more passion than those that our students conduct among themselves in open forums. Recently, for example, about 70 students came to Houston Hall to hear a panel of their peers tackle the very difficult topic of racial self-segregation on campus. The candid conversation generated heightened awareness and resolve.

I cannot possibly begin to describe all the meaningful forums, lectures, and conversations that occur on campus day and night throughout the year. As I write, I have just received from the Penn Center for Bioethics an updated schedule of The Emanuel and Robert Hart Lecture Series, which earlier this year included a highly provocative conference on neuroscience and ethics.

In other words, there are more learning opportunities going on at Penn than you or I will ever have time to seize. However, that is no reason for any Penn alum visiting the old stomping grounds to feel like some post-grad Jude the Obscure sneaking a peek into a classroom. All over campus, the doors and invitations to join our community of scholars are wide open. Come on in.

(And I won’t be surprised to hear that our phenomenal alumni are leading a discussion or two.)

Several of the lectures and discussions referred to above are covered in this issue’s “Gazetteer” section, starting on page 14.—Ed.

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