The University’s next president, M. Elizabeth Magill, has the resume necessary to become the next great leader of Penn. Set to assume current Penn president Amy Gutmann’s role this July, Magill will take the reins of a university that has seen a rapid expansion in endowment, groundbreaking research, an increase in socioeconomic diversity among its student body, and the construction of numerous prominent campus facilities. But Penn has also seen tensions between Greek life and students of color, recent changes in University leadership, and pushback from Philadelphia officials and community members — all while navigating a ruthless pandemic.
In light of Magill’s appointment, The Daily Pennsylvanian’s Editorial Board has three suggestions for Magill as she charts her own path at Penn: Be accessible to various constituencies of the Penn community, responsive to the needs of marginalized students on campus, and cooperative with our Philadelphia neighbors.
Magill has already made clear her interest in interacting with students. In the coming months, and as president, Magill should attempt to make herself as accessible to the student body as possible. This means regular virtual and in-person communication with students, faculty, and staff and being present on Locust Walk — especially during the warmer months. While we acknowledge Gutmann’s incredible tenure at Penn, her accessibility to the student body has, at times, been lacking.
For example, Gutmann has experienced a frosty relationship with the press, including student managers and reporters at the DP. Some of this silence may prove useful, such as when discussing the University’s politically active alumni, but Gutmann’s insulation of Penn administration from the press certainly reduces transparency surrounding University decisions. This can, and should be, a top priority for Magill. Being a regular face on campus, as well as being available to answer questions from student media and local organizations, as well as the student body at large, will facilitate greater trust and understanding with our community. And University and Philadelphia community members will no doubt appreciate this type of transparency and regular interaction.
Secondly, Magill should focus on supporting the needs of marginalized groups at Penn, specifically by fostering a more cooperative relationship with the 7B, Penn's main minority student coalition groups. The 7B has petitioned for numerous issues of importance throughout the past few decades, including but not limited to increased multi-stall, all-gender bathrooms and access to more centralized cultural spaces on Locust Walk. While Penn has taken steps toward some of these issues, including bringing in an architect, the lack of regular meetings with the president and provost has hindered progress. Many of these issues have been systemic problems for years, and Magill has the opportunity to address them.
Additionally, while Penn has made strides in improving socioeconomic diversity, including shifting toward grant-based financial aid and the creation of the Penn First Plus, there are still strides to be made. A previous study from The New York Times estimates that 71% of Penn students come from the richest 20% of Americans, and a recent viral tweet from a Wharton professor revealed just how much some students at Penn are out of touch with the average American. Acknowledging these disparities is the first step. And at Penn, listening to the 7B, which represents over 90 constituent groups, isn’t just about supporting marginalized populations; it's about serving the Penn community as a whole. Decisions made by Penn’s administration, from the top down, should reflect this reality.
Finally, Magill needs to prioritize having a more equitable and human relationship with the West Philadelphia community. Many of the consequences of Penn’s activities over the 18 years Gutmann served as president have been felt not by students or professors, but by local community members — who for years, have called Penn, University City, and West Philadelphia their home. Some of these impacts have been positive, such as investments in local infrastructure and increased support for West Philadelphia schools via the Netter Center and financial donations. However, the area’s real estate prices have become increasingly unaffordable to buyers largely due to University actions, affecting low-income households’ ability to remain in the area — and Penn has drawn criticism from students, faculty, and community groups for instances like the Penn Museum’s recent possession of remains belonging to child victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing.
As a result, Penn must take actions that benefit the West Philadelphia community and rebuild trust. As the incoming face of the University, Magill should make sure that University decisions impacting West Philadelphia residents are made in collaboration with community stakeholders, and the University should take steps to ensure that West Philadelphia residents are not displaced due to University-driven gentrification. Taking these steps is by no means comprehensive nor restorative, but they will increase goodwill toward Penn among local residents, not to mention improve lives.
Incoming President Magill will have a myriad of issues to tackle as the next President of Penn. We see Magill’s fresh leadership as an opportunity to transform Penn across boundaries, bringing her needed warmth to our students, faculty, and staff, prioritizing mutually beneficial relationships with the local Philadelphia community, and furthering Penn’s already globally renowned reputation.
Editorials represent the majority view of members of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. Editorial Board, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to Penn's campus. Participants in these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on related topics.