As Daily Pennsylvanian editorial page editors during the second half of the "Rodin decade," we have spent a considerable amount of time analyzing, and frequently criticizing, our outgoing president.
But even we, among her most skeptical observers, cannot deny Judith Rodin her tremendous accomplishments. The University of Pennsylvania is unquestionably a better school, and a better place, than it was when she took its helm in 1994. None of this success was a foregone conclusion; during the dark days at the end of Sheldon Hackney's presidency, it would have taken quite an optimist to prophesy the booming Penn of 2003.
The University has already done an apt job of broadcasting the achievements of the Rodin administration. Thanks to aggressive fundraising and unprecedented billions in government research funding, Rodin succeeded in transforming the campus, the community and Penn's academic environment. Among her most easily identifiable legacies will be the enormous physical growth of the campus. Her focus on beautification, public safety and community relations has made West Philadelphia a safer, kinder, more attractive place to live. Last but not least, her efforts have brought about an academic renaissance, giving Penn's reputation the boost it needed to lure top-notch students and faculty.
For it all, Rodin was handsomely rewarded with a series of U.S. News rankings - not to mention salary increases - that seemed to defy gravity.
Hers is clearly a record any college president would love to take into retirement, and her services will be sorely missed. But Rodin's presidency was not without its faults, and we stand by the strongly worded editorials we often sent her way. While we are certain that her legacy will rightly be one of accomplishment, we strongly encourage the Board of Trustees to focus on those areas that still demand improvement before choosing a successor.
Rodin's College Hall, for example, has been the archetype of the "corporate" university, and while it can be argued that this was a necessary precondition for her success, it has had its adverse effects. Compared to several of her peers at other universities, Rodin seems evasive, her public persona contrived. She has rarely taken the time to meet with students, and when she has, it has only been under the most controlled of circumstances.
Moreover, Rodin's corporate outlook has contributed to a number of spectacular failures - like the Trammell Crow outsourcing debacle, the failure of the PenNetWorks high-tech incubator and, most notably, the atrocious response to charges of scientific misconduct levied at Penn's Institute of Human Gene Therapy in the wake of the death of 18-year-old research participant Jesse Gelsinger. Mismanagement has also taken a less-than-spectacular form, as evident in the deterioration of Dining Services and in Penn's constantly shifting retail strategies.
In announcing her intention to step down, Rodin explained that it was "the right time for Penn." She may well be right. The challenges that she faced and overcame during the last nine years are very different in nature from those that face the University today, a fact that must not be lost on the members of the presidential search committee.
Looking ahead, Penn's next president will inherit a university in the midst of a recession, a vastly more uncertain economic climate than the one that welcomed Rodin to office. The downturn has affected Penn in almost every conceivable way, from the empty storefronts along Walnut Street to the stagnant endowment to the Health System's myriad problems. At the very least, this means her successor will have to work much harder to finance his or her agenda.
Academics must also be a primary focus. While a number of departments have seen remarkable improvement in the last five years - the growth in interdisciplinary programs is particularly notable - much more needs to be done, particularly in the shortchanged School of Arts and Sciences.
Columbia University's new president, Lee Bollinger, is quickly learning that a great university needs room to grow if it is to maintain its position as a leader in higher education. The Rodin administration here met with great success, especially in securing the Civic Center grounds for future bio-medical development. But since John Fry's departure as executive vice president, little progress has been made in acquiring the Postal Service lands east of campus. With practically nowhere else to expand, that property is crucial to Penn's future.
On a more sour note, Rodin's successor will likely have to conclude the ugly battle over graduate student unionization that has gripped the University for several years. That person would do well to establish more civil relations with Penn's graduate students.
He or she will also have to ensure that Penn remains competitive with the top echelon of research universities. With Harvard, Princeton and Yale reaching deep into their pockets to fund new, extraordinarily generous financial aid programs, it is imperative that Penn keep pace if it is to attract the brightest students.
This requires a continued emphasis on fundraising, one area where Rodin may contribute to the University's future success. But while we are glad she will remain at Penn in the short term, we recognize that the abilities and ambitions of Judith Rodin, president, will not be suitably fulfilled in anything but an executive capacity, and her departure - to corporate America, another university or even the halls of Congress - may be imminent.
Additionally, we are concerned about the impact of giving her the impressive-sounding but ill-defined title of chancellor. Potential presidential candidates already face a daunting challenge in filling Rodin's shoes; they need not have her quasi-legitimate authority hanging in the air, ever-present, even after her departure. Simply put, there should be no doubt that the new president is firmly in charge.
By now becoming a member of the teaching faculty, from which she could better engage the student body and continue to dazzle the fundraising circuit, Rodin might continue to serve Penn from a more appropriate position. Stepping into the shadows and giving the new president the stage would allow Rodin to demonstrate, as she has so often, that she puts the University of Pennsylvania first. Jonathan Margulies is a 2002 Wharton graduate. Jonathan Shazar is a 2003 College graduate. Edward Sherwin is a 2001 College graduate. They served as Daily Pennsylvanian editorial page editors from 2000 to 2003, on the 117th, 118th, and 116th boards of editors, respectively.Comments powered by Disqus
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