After looking over the timeline of Amy Gutmann’s presidency, I am amazed at how much Penn has transformed since Gutmann’s tenure began in 2004. President Gutmann deserves some credit for Penn’s growth by setting a clear agenda with the Penn Compact of inclusion, innovation and impact. I believe that Amy Gutmann’s administration will be remembered as a productive one, and I would like to share my thoughts on what I hope for in whoever will succeed Gutmann as Penn’s President.
At Penn, the president’s responsibilities include being the University’s ambassador for external constituencies, such as the City of Philadelphia and the federal government. The president collaborates with deans and alumni for fundraising, sets an agenda of institutional priorities, and reports to the Board of Trustees. Over the past 17 years, President Gutmann’s efforts catalyzed Penn’s transformation in both its physical landscape and in students’ collective consciousness of what a Penn education is.
For better or for worse, Penn’s campus has grown at a staggering rate, with the creation of Penn Park, two college houses (Lauder and New College House West), and many more facilities. Of personal significance to me was the 2006 opening of Platt Student Performing Arts House, which as a performer, is my home at Penn. I recognize that Penn’s rapid expansion has not been an unequivocal good for both students and the local community, given the new unpopular sophomore housing & dining plan requirement and a “gradual form of gentrification” in West Philadelphia. Yet, I still believe that Penn’s expansion has provided resources for the student body (through more community spaces) and the West Philadelphia community (including through expansion of Penn Medicine, which often provides care to those with limited access).
For inclusion, Gutmann has helped make a Penn education more financially attainable. In 2006, she led the fundraising effort to make the biggest financial aid investment in Penn’s history. As a first-generation student herself, Gutmann understood that broadening access to a Penn education would enrich the student experience. Yet, I suggest that Penn’s next President should ask students and financial experts how to make Penn more affordable rather than continuing to raise tuition costs.
For innovation, Gutmann ushered in the President’s Innovation Prize, which provides funding to make students’ problem-solving start-up ideas become a reality, and for impact, Gutmann introduced the President’s Engagement Prize, which again provides students funding to bring their service projects to life. For environmental impact, Penn is off to a good start with multiple climate action plans to reduce Penn’s carbon footprint as well as making a contribution of over $100 million dollars to repair Philadelphia School District’s environmental hazards.
However, I am disappointed that I do not know President Gutmann’s personal views on fossil fuel divestment, which many students have been advocating for after repeated dismissals by the University Council. With other universities divesting from fossil fuels, Penn’s next President should listen to fossil free student advocates and make the ethical decision for our future.
I wish that I would hear from the President rather than a spokesperson on what the University’s views are on other important issues, such as Penn’s outlier status in the Ivy League on making payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) to Philadelphia. Furthermore, I feel disconnected from Penn’s administrative leadership. During the (ongoing) coronavirus pandemic, I recall students receiving a lot of presidential emails, which I recognize may have been the most efficient and effective form of communication. However, as a student, I felt disempowered and out-of-the-loop on why University leaders made the decisions they made in regards to campus closures and restrictions. For example, I am clueless if student leaders had any say in the creation of the Student Campus Compact. Our next Penn President should clearly communicate how students were or were not consulted in decisions that impact their campus experience.
I believe that the more important elements of an effective Penn presidency are to have a clear vision and to care about creating a more inclusive experience for the needs of students, faculty and the wider West Philadelphia community. Most importantly, leadership is about listening. In my opinion, the next Penn President should make it a habit to listen to multiple community perspectives to inform their decision-making in an informal setting. Yes, the University Council is supposed to fulfill this purpose, but the restriction of requesting people to submit a proposal to speak days in advance of meetings creates unnecessary obstacles.
More broadly, I believe that the next Penn President should continue President Gutmann’s momentum in making a Penn education more financially viable for first-generation low-income students, giving more resources for innovation (especially for climate sustainability and energy science), and finally encouraging the Penn community to serve the city we live in.
I may not know what the next generation at Penn will look like, but I know that if the next Penn President listens to students and involves them in shaping the University’s priorities, then Penn has a bright future that will truly reaffirm its commitment to inclusion, innovation and impact.
JADEN CLOOBECK is a rising College senior from Laguna Beach, Calif. studying psychology. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.