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25 undergraduates will participate in a policy-focused fellowship program based at the Perry World House.

Credit: Lizzy Machielse , Lizzy Machielse

Penn’s $17.8 million investment came to fruition Tuesday with the grand opening of the Perry World House, which included high profile speakers and garnered student praise.

The event began with a keynote address delivered by former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay. The South African jurist lauded the new center for its mission of gathering experts from both government and academia to confront the most pressing of geopolitical problems. Recounting her experience as an anti-apartheid activist, she explained how global academic cooperation, like that fostered by the Perry World House, effects meaningful social progress.

“We owe [the fall of apartheid] to international focus and activism,” Judge Pillay said, giving particular credit to the activism on college campuses.

Pillay’s speech also decried what she saw as the “failure” of the international community to confront human rights travesties. Pointing to the crimes of the Islamic State, the corresponding refugee crisis and the plight of developing states such as South Sudan, she called for greater respect for international law.

“There is a great deal of work for the Perry World House to do,” the career-activist said.

Following Judge Pillay’s keynote, the new center’s namesakes, 1977 Wharton graduate Richard C. Perry and his wife Lisa Perry, joined Penn President Amy Gutmann for a traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“You guys are really unbelievable,” Richard Perry said, expressing his gratitude for his wife, Gutmann and the Penn student body.

Later, the opening celebration continued at the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. During his conversation with Gutmann, the seasoned statesman told of his personal experiences serving under five different presidents.

“Lyndon Johnson had the biggest ego,” Gates recalled. He also remembered Richard Nixon as “the strangest,” Ronald Reagan as “the most visionary” and Jimmy Carter as the president whom he once told “to zip up his pants” before an important speech.

On a more serious note, Gates discussed an array of current geopolitical topics. These ranged from the sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, to intensifying Russian aggression, to the rise of far-right governments in Europe. He also called for the United States’ global economic engagement, and he endorsed the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Complementing his policy input, Gates shared advice for Penn students interested in government. He told them not to be put off by today’s hostile political atmosphere, and instead urged them towards local and national public service.

“Take risks, follow your passions,” Gates said, noting the opportunities institutions like the Perry World House offer.

A panel of experts also explored the geopolitical issues central to the Perry World House’s mission. The panel consisted of five policy experts, including former Utah Governor and United States ambassador to Singapore, 1987 College graduate Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. Together, the group deliberated and debated what foreign policy the United States should adopt in the immediate future. Among the more notable suggestions were directing more economic aid to Ukraine, organizing a much stronger sanction regime against North Korea and augmenting military presence in Syria.

Penn students attending the day’s opening ceremonies said they looked forward to similar Perry World House events in the future.

College senior and President of the Social Planning and Events Committee Spencer Winson said, “In the past SPEC’s brought speakers like Serena Williams and Caitlyn Jenner [to Penn]. So I’m very interested in seeing where the Perry World House will go, and what other speakers it will bring to campus.”

International students present were also particularly excited. Engineering freshman Eduardo Ortuno, who is from Mexico, praised the new center at the ribbon cutting ceremony as a symbol for global engagement.

“I was proud to represent my country [at the ceremony] today, because I love what the Perry World House represents,” he said.

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