With the graduation of the Class of 2001, the University is losing one of its most valuable resources.
After all, ours was the only class to remember when a dingy bookstore and a string of low-priced shops stood on the spot where Huntsman Hall now rises to the sky; when the heart of campus, today home to a shiny new bookstore and a string of high-priced stores, was a barren parking lot; when a genial historian with an unfortunate propensity for putting his foot in his mouth sat in the provost's office; when fraternities could charge freshmen $5 for the chance to swill cheap beer and perhaps go home with a new friend; when an on-campus shooting shattered the illusion of Penn as an oasis amid the city's troubles.
In time, more will be lost. Thanks to modern technology, no Penn student will again have the fond memory I have of watching a goal post splash down in the Schuylkill River. The scientific treachery of James M. Wilson will become apocryphal, the name Jesse Gelsinger forgotten. The activists who gave up both classes and personal hygiene to protest Penn's labor policies will all leave, their demands still unmet. The reasons for the University's ongoing financial distress will fade into oblivion. Moviegoers taking in a future Star Wars prequel on 40th Street will be ignorant of the cultural purposes the site was intended to serve.
And all this will be a shame.
The sad truth is that for all the hundreds of millions of dollars they pay in tuition and fees, Penn students in general know woefully little about the University. We come, ignorant of what came before us, accepting the ephemeral for the perennial. And then we leave.
Ignominious events in its past are swept under the rug, quietly remembered only by a few faculty or staff. Incoming classes are led to believe that the campus was always an oasis of safety in West Philadelphia, that retail options were always plentiful and popular, that the college house system is an old tradition rather than clever marketing gimmick. But they should know that this is not true.
The point here is not to dwell on the negative, or to amass a useless menagerie of facts and figures. Rather, institutional memory is important for the ends it serves.
Without knowing where Penn has been, it is impossible to know why things are as good as they are today, as in most cases they are. Without knowing how the University has responded to challenges in the past, it will be difficult to appropriately respond to those that lie ahead.
Wondering why your favorite professor was denied tenure? See why a half-dozen other popular faculty members have been forced to leave in the last decade. Upset by the University's alcohol policies? Find out how they were challenged in the late 19'0s. Rooting for the Quakers at the Palestra? Learn about the powerhouse teams Penn fielded in the 1970s.
And if you're planning to storm College Hall for one cause or another, Penn alumni of your parents' generation have a few good stories -- and tips -- to offer.
Personally, I would know very little of what happened before I came to Penn if it weren't for sleepless nights spent poring through bound volumes of The Daily Pennsylvanian in the paper's windowless offices. I wouldn't know how students were afraid to go out after dark because of the rampant incidence of violent crime; how Penn became the national poster child for political correctness run amok; how the surrounding community displayed a "subtle hatred of the University's guts."
(OK, some things never change.)
This knowledge helped me greatly. It informed my writing and editing for this paper, but it also made me a better student, a more spirited sports fan and a better consumer of what this University has to offer.
On the whole, it is impossible to deny that most everything on this campus -- the physical plant, the academic options, the residence halls, the shopping -- is better than it was four years ago.
But it is also impossible to deny that the administration has a remarkable penchant for screwing things up. The Health System's woes, the new dining plan, the interminable delays on every construction project and dean search -- these and far too many other blunders still unknown to us bear this out.
The challenge for students returning in the fall is to use knowledge of the University's history and operations to be better consumers. Demand the access you deserve to the decision-making process at this school, but do so with the facts and precedents that will enable you to make positive contributions to the campus community.
And to the students whose brief period on this stage now ends -- the future faculty, administration, donors and trustees of this University -- you have a similar charge to keep. If we are to help determine where Penn is going, we first have to know where it's been.Comments powered by Disqus
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