My first memory of Penn is from May of 1991, when my father told me after his 20th reunion here that he didn't want me attending his alma mater. I was 11, and my family drove up from Maryland. We stayed in the high rises and spent the weekend touring the campus. It was the first time I had been here, and the first time that my dad had spent so much time here in years. My father loved his four years here. He still gets misty-eyed when the band strikes up the Red and Blue and still counts his college friends among his best. But the campus he saw was a virtual armed fortress in physical disrepair. The early nineties weren't kind to the University. When we arrived that spring, Penn was in the midst of a particularly bad year and things were going to get worse before they got better. There were shootings that year outside of the Penn Tower and what's now Cinemagic; rapes in Hill House, the Medical School and the Quad. Fewer and fewer high school students were applying to Penn, and that year saw a 47 percent admittance rate -- the admissions dean wouldn't even release the class's average SAT score. The University was running budget deficits. And Smoke's almost lost its liquor license. That was exactly 10 years ago next month. Since then, Penn has inaugurated a new president and discovered that it could in fact compare to the Harvards and Yales of the world. Judith Rodin brought with her a strategic plan and the drive to implement it. New faculty and administrators started to realize that Penn could compete with the other top universities, and it slowly found itself rising in stature. The result is that the school we all attend today is dramatically different, both physically and academically, from the one the Class of 1991 left behind a decade ago. And even still, the campus continues to remake itself, to the point where it's unlikely I'll recognize much of this university 10 years from now. When I got here almost four years ago, there was no Sansom Common, no Perelman Quad. The DP crime reporter had something to write about every day. The pre-college house high rises were anti-social (so some things have stayed the same). In 10 years, the University has gone from a pseudo-Ivy also-ran to a school known for more than just being the "social Ivy." It's gone from being in danger of tumbling out of the U.S. News top 20 to being on everyone's list of the top 10 schools in the nation. The campus has gone from a veritable warzone to a place where most students feel safe walking around campus at night. And most importantly, there now exists a long-term vision of where Penn will be 10, 20, even 50 years from now. Penn has indisputably become one of the nation's premier research universities and a model for urban-centered higher education. A far cry from 1991. In fact, it's gotten to the point where, if we continue to evaluate our progress on the same scale, there's no where to go but back down. So after years of comparing ourselves to our so-called "peer institutions," Penn's new challenge is to find ways to measure its successes without comparing itself to the schools that it has already surpassed -- or the ones it never will. Penn is never going to be Harvard and University City is never going to be Cambridge. Our endowment will likely never hit the eight-figure range like some others, and we'll never crack the U.S. News top five. But the very fact that we think in those terms only highlights how far the school has come since a decade ago, when comparing Penn to the Dukes and Georgetowns of the world would have elicited laughter. And it shows that we're past the point where we need to build respectability in order to survive. Penn's done that, and now the challenge is to not just survive, but thrive by becoming its own peer group, with its own unique characteristics and niches to fill. It's time to abandon the vestigial inferiority complex that has for so long been a part of the Penn psyche -- and continues even now to color what students think and how administrators act. We seem to be walking at least gingerly down that road. And it's a necessity if I'm going to avoid coming back to Penn 10 years from now and not see a school that has slid backwards.Comments powered by Disqus
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