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Marking the beginning of far more than just her term as Penn's eighth president, Amy Gutmann's official inauguration on Oct. 15 will also signal the commencement of a renewed social justice initiative.

As she officially takes the helm of the University, Gutmann will strive to make Penn a leader in the effort to create a more democratic society both in Philadelphia and America at large.

Gutmann has already articulated the ambitious goal of using Penn's status as an elite university to help strengthen core democratic values and instill a greater degree of social equality within the community.

"We're a private university that has a very big public responsibility, and our public responsibility is to the democratic society in which we live," Gutmann said. "I think we have a huge amount to contribute, and it's a very high priority of mine for us to show how much we have to contribute to our democracy, and to democracies around the world."

To begin focusing on this goal, her inauguration ceremony will feature a symposium entitled "Rising to the Challenges of a Diverse Democracy," which will comprise five interdisciplinary panels. The sessions will highlight the role that higher education, and Penn in particular, can play in solving the inequalities of American society, particularly in the areas of health care, poverty and elementary education.

"The symposium is the intellectual heart of the inauguration," Gutmann said. "I hope that people will become inspired by the things that are said at the symposium, and I hope those panels will stimulate everyone from students to alumni to think harder and do more to contribute to" the community.

Many University administrators and faculty believe the event will help Penn to focus its efforts on some of the most pressing questions that confront West Philadelphia.

"The panels will address five extraordinarily important problems for higher education and particularly for Penn," said Ira Harkavy, associate vice president and director of the University's Center for Community Partnerships.

"Because the problems of West Philadelphia are problems of global significance, Penn is the optimal place to engage in this discussion. By rising to the challenge of creating a genuinely democratic society, Penn is poised to lead all of the other American research universities in terms of creating this ideal society nationwide."

According to symposium speakers and organizers, success in creating a democratic society both at Penn and in America rests on the participation of University faculty, administration and, most importantly, students. By inculcating the values of altruism and social responsibility among members of the University community, the symposium aims to foster a larger movement of social involvement on campus.

"Leadership is important, and by committing herself to integrating service and learning through things like the symposium, I'm convinced that President Gutmann will inspire students and faculty to take their community involvement to a new level," Harkavy said.

But while the symposium may mark a new development in terms of Penn's social involvement and activism, the commitment to community involvement is not a new concept for Gutmann, who has dedicated much of both her professional and personal life to the laurels of social action and moral responsibility.

"I don't think there's a better role model in terms of activism and involvement in the community," said chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics in the School of Medicine and symposium panelist Arthur Caplan, who has known Gutmann for more than 20 years. "It's something which she has really dedicated her career and life to."

Indeed, over the course of Gutmann's 25-year career in academia, she has explored in depth the idea of creating a more democratic society through education, authoring several books on the topic, including Democracy and Disagreement, Democratic Education, Why Deliberative Democracy? and Identity in Democracy. In addition to her prior service as both a university professor and academic administrator, Gutmann both founded and directed Princeton University's Center for Human Values.

Given her career-long commitment to bolstering education and community involvement as essential elements in the achievement of a more democratic society, many members of the Penn community view the symposium not only as a means of sparking Penn's involvement in the community, but also as a further reflection of Gutmann's character.

"The symposium is just an example of how Amy has a heart as big as the Ritz," said Laurie Olin, practice professor of Landscape Architecture and symposium panelist. "She is a very solid person who believes there's an obligation of those who have education and privilege to help those who don't."

According to symposium participants, Gutmann's genuine regard for community improvement and desire to resolve the inequalities of society through education will ultimately translate into more harmonious relations between the University and the community, as well as an improved living environment for West Philadelphia residents.

"My optimism soars for the University of Pennsylvania in the next few years," Harkavy said. "By prioritizing service as a goal for her presidency, it is clear that Amy will lead Penn to be more engaged than ever before in building this democratic society." This article appeared as part of the "Amy Gutmann: Changing of the Guard" series.

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