At the end of March, when jazz vocalist and alumni volunteer Lolita Jackson EAS’89 serenaded Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66 at a gala at Manhattan’s Gotham Hall to celebrate her tenure as Penn president, the song chosen for this tribute was “You’re the Top.” Earlier, in introducing Rodin, Penn trustee Leonard Lauder W’54 had proclaimed her Penn’s greatest president—to which the crowd of about 1,000 New York alumni responded with a roar of approval.

In Philadelphia in mid-April, Rodin was honored with a surprise Alumni Award of Merit, which credits her with bringing about “spectacular transformations” at Penn. (See page 63 for the full text.) It was presented by trustee Alvin Shoemaker W’60 Hon’95, who, while chairman of the board of trustees, headed the search committee that recommended Rodin 10 years ago. He recalled knowing from his first meeting with Yale’s then-provost that she would be Penn’s next chief executive, and called her presidency “one of, if not the most important in the distinguished history of the University, and the most successful we’ve ever had”—to a similarly enthusiastic response from the crowd packed into the Annenberg Center lobby.

These are just two examples of what Rodin gratefully calls the “tremendous reservoir of good will” she has experienced since she announced that she would step down from Penn’s presidency as of June 30, 2004. Given the demands on anyone running a major university, some measure of appreciation would surely be appropriate, but the intensity and enthusiasm of Rodin’s well-wishers at those events and in Washington (on April 20, after the Gazette went to press), as well as in dozens of other venues large and small in recent months, speak to a broad awareness that the past 10 years have been extraordinarily good and important ones for Penn—and that Rodin’s leadership has been essential to the University’s advances during this period.

Many of those advances can be quantified, in buildings built and renovated, major programs and research institutes launched, top-quality faculty and staff hired and retained, selectivity in admissions increased, neighborhood fences mended and new relationships forged—not to mention money raised to pay for it all. But as important, Rodin—the first woman president in the Ivy League—brought a new spirit and energy to College Hall and the task of raising Penn to the next level. Among her numerous other activities, she has been a tireless cheerleader for Penn, with a savvy sense of how to get the word out about the University.

Her administration has not been free of criticism—much of it revolving around a leadership style that some felt was too “corporate”—and has also confronted several significant challenges along the way. One was a sharp rise in crime in the Fall of 1996, of which more below. Another was the death of research subject Jesse Gelsinger in a gene-therapy trial, which prompted FDA sanctions against Penn’s Institute for Human Gene Therapy and its director, Dr. James Wilson, and a reexamination of protocols for informed-consent in research trials. And the accidental death of alumnus Michael Tobin C’94 at a fraternity party led to changes in the University’s campus policies on alcohol. Lawsuits against the University were filed by the families in both of those cases, and were ultimately settled out of court.

On the business side, a 1997 decision to outsource facilities-management functions, touted as a model for the future, was later reversed in large part. Perhaps the gravest threat, in terms of its potential impact on the institution, was a financial crisis at the University’s Health System, which a few years ago had amassed more than $300 million in deficits, leading to the ouster of Dr. William Kelley, then CEO of the Health System and dean of the medical school. Those losses have been reversed, and the system is currently profitable. After considering setting up a separate not-for-profit entity, the University created Penn Medicine, a new, unified governing board for the Health System and medical school that reports to Penn’s board of trustees [“Gazetteer,” January/February 2002]. Moody’s Investors Service recently upgraded Penn’s long-term rating, commenting favorably on the University’s integrated strategic and financial planning.

And as Rodin prepares to depart College Hall, Penn is engaged in a simmering dispute with some of its graduate students over their right to unionize.

However, virtually all observers concede the effectiveness of her administration in responding to these challenges and its determination to reach the ambitious goals set out for the University almost from the day she took office. As early as her inauguration, as the president herself notes in the interview that follows and in her farewell “From College Hall” column, the critical elements of her vision for Penn were present. Following extensive discussions among the University’s schools, centers, and other constituencies, these priorities were elaborated and codified in The Agenda for Excellence, the University’s strategic plan for 1995-2000. And, unlike many similar plans, they were largely carried out.

Not that Penn can ever rest on its laurels. In her interview with the Gazette, the president emphasized that universities must continually reinvent themselves or go stale, warning: “That’s what’s happened to many of our peers, and that’s why we were able to surpass many of them.” Below, we take a look at the Rodin-era reinvention and some of the ways it has changed Penn.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/27/04

The Rodin Years
By The Gazette Editors

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A Passion for Penn
By John Prendergast