Interim Penn President Wendell Pritchett comes "full circle" each morning as he climbs the steps of College Hall — the same building where he earned his Ph.D. in history almost 30 years ago.
Pritchett — a longtime legal scholar, administrator, and tennis player who assumed his current position on Feb. 9 — is already approaching the halfway point of his presidential tenure, as M. Elizabeth Magill will assume the role on July 1. The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Pritchett himself and spoke with 12 Penn community members and University leaders about the personal trajectory that led him to take the helm of the University.
Pritchett is Penn’s first Black president, an accomplishment that he said was “very meaningful” but not something he thinks about on a daily basis in his position. He mentioned his scholarship in African American history and his biography of Robert Weaver, the first Black United States cabinet secretary.
"I certainly think a lot about the question about the first Black person to do something. At the same time, the most important thing is to do a good job whatever your race," Pritchett said.
Beyond the historic nature of his presidency, Pritchett’s academic record and administrative experience have been tested by challenges that the University continues to face. Pritchett's presidency comes as Penn expands deeper into its surrounding neighborhood, navigates its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis stage, and prepares to welcome its first new president in 18 years.
Penn’s expansion into West Philadelphia
“[West Philadelphia] is my community,” Pritchett — who resided in the area for 24 years — told the DP in an interview on Feb. 24.
Both of Pritchett’s parents were public school teachers who grew up heavily involved in the neighborhood, where many of his relatives also lived. Pritchett’s Ph.D. thesis advisor Walter Licht, the Penn Civic Scholars faculty director and a longtime friend of Pritchett’s family, said that both Philadelphia and his parents influenced Pritchett’s lifelong passions for urban policy and civic engagement.
“I really got a sense that he absorbed their passions, their commitments, their great intellects as well,” Licht said. “And that sense that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it to better people, relations among people, and the life of the city.”
Pritchett earned his Ph.D. in history from Penn in 1997 and went on to teach history at Baruch College in New York until 2002. Cornell professor and 1997 history Ph.D. alumnus Edward Baptist said he looked up to Pritchett as a role model because he already had a family and a career outside of the graduate program.
Penn Law School professor Sarah Gordon, who encouraged the school to give Pritchett a full-time tenure track offer in 2002, said that he was aware of the changes happening throughout West Philadelphia from a young age.
“He not only saw West Philadelphia for a long time, but he saw that changes were happening,” Gordon said. “He has been in the Penn orbit since he was a kid.”
Throughout his academic and administrative career, Pritchett has always emphasized that civic responsibility should be a primary focus for anyone working in higher education.
Ira Harkavy, the founding director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, said that Pritchett is respected in international higher education circles for prioritizing both “Penn traditions of [Ben Franklin’s] emphasis on service and [W.E.B. Du Bois’] emphasis on working with communities.”
Harkavy has known Pritchett since 1995, when he was a teaching assistant for an Academically Based Community Service course.
By holding meetings with the faculty and national advisory boards of the Netter Center, Harkavy said that Pritchett helped form several current initiatives as provost, including the Provost’s Graduate Academic Engagement Fellows, the Provost’s Faculty-Community Partnership Award, the Provost’s Faculty Fellows, and the Community Engaged Scholarship Committee.
“He has advanced community engagement significantly throughout Penn, and he has done it by advancing the ABCS community, community-engaged scholarship and research, and doing programs like the Provost’s Academic Theme of Civic Engagement [beginning in 2020],” Harkavy said.
Pritchett has also worked with the School District of Philadelphia, which serves over 200,000 children. He was appointed to the School Reform Commission when the city’s schools were facing a multitude of issues — including a cheating scandal and the closure of dozens of buildings. He resigned from the position in 2014, citing frustration with the lack of government participation and funding.
In 2018, however, Pritchett went on to advise the School District after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf returned control of Philadelphia schools to the city government through a mayor-appointed board of education.
1995 Wharton and 2006 Fels Institute of Government graduate Lee Huang, one of the first board members, said Pritchett was on a “shortlist” of people who volunteered to prepare the board members to respond to parental and staff concerns.
“Hearing this advice from Pritchett, to let us know that people are invested enough to be angry, to be emotional, and that we should lean into that and we should affirm that and we should figure out how to be responsive in an empathetic way and in a way that is action-oriented — as we were nervously thinking about being about to take over as the governance board, we all found that advice incredibly insightful,” Huang said.
Huang and Harkavy both said that Pritchett leads in a democratic, cooperative manner that makes people feel heard. His leadership style was tested just two weeks into his term as interim president when nearly 100 students and West Philadelphia residents protested Penn’s role in the eviction of residents from University City Townhomes.
The landlord of the townhomes — a housing development near Penn primarily occupied by Black and low-income Philadelphians — had declined to renew the unit's affordable housing contract and announced its plan to sell the property prior to the protests. The sale is set to displace 69 households in July.
“President Pritchett knows what displacement looks like. He is a scholar of affordable housing law,” College sophomore and Police Free Penn member Jack Starobin said to the University Council, which Pritchett sits on, at their Feb. 23 meeting. “[Pritchett] and others here know what will happen this summer.”
In an interview on Feb. 24, Pritchett did not mention the townhomes explicitly in his response to a question about his plans to engage with the West Philadelphia community. However, he said that Penn is “in conversations with” city leaders about how to help deal with the scarcity of affordable housing throughout University City.
“I’m excited to see those conversations move to fruition,” Pritchett said.
Navigating the evolving COVID-19 pandemic on campus
Many of the administrators and students that the DP spoke with commended Pritchett's leadership as provost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Penn Law Dean Ted Ruger has been a colleague and friend of Pritchett’s since they worked as law professors together in 2004. Ruger discussed the “almost daily decisions” that Pritchett had to make during the first year of the pandemic.
“He was extremely helpful to the law school and our ability to innovate and have classes during the pandemic,” Ruger said.
Harkavy said that Pritchett played a key role in increasing the number of ABCS courses provided by the Netter Center throughout the pandemic — which initially dipped, but soon rose again.
When Pritchett took office as interim president in February, the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 was finally beginning to recede at Penn after infecting over 5,500 students and staff from Dec. 19 to Feb. 12. The variant led the University to implement remote instruction for the first two weeks of the spring semester.
Pritchett and Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein met with the Graduate and Professional Students Association on March 18 to discuss improvements to in-person life for graduate students and changes with Penn’s masking policy.
GAPSA President Paradorn Rummaneethorn said that Pritchett asked attendees to share their feedback on the masking policy so that he could share it with the relevant parties. He added that the meeting was “more productive than average” compared to other meetings with administrators, crediting Pritchett’s approach to the masking policy and his attempts to “accommodate and compromise."
“Sometimes when we interact with administration, it’s like a dance, and you can tell whether they actually care once you commensurate with the ideas you’re bringing forth,” Rummaneethorn said. “[Pritchett] really shows that he cares from my impression and wants to make a difference with however much time he has as interim president.”
Preparing to welcome a new president
Pritchett said that until then, two of his central responsibilities are to “keep the trains running” and “make as few mistakes as possible.”
“I really do consider my job to be to help the incoming president be as prepared as possible,” he said.
He added that he talks with Magill twice a week to help prepare her for the transition and address specific agenda items such as student wellness, support for first-generation, low-income students, and the City of Philadelphia.
“He made my job much easier, because so many of the parts of the law school were in good shape that it was a very smooth transition,” Ruger said.
Both Ruger and Winkelstein praised Pritchett as a mentor. When Pritchett took a medical leave of absence from the provostship in May 2021, Winkelstein was elevated from deputy to interim provost. Before Pritchett became interim president, he served as a senior advisor to Amy Gutmann until she was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Germany.
Rummaneethorn said that Pritchett is responsible for relaying to Magill what he has heard in recent months so that students’ concerns are not lost “into a vacuum." Rummaneethorn, who was a member of the presidential search committee that nominated Magill, declined to comment on whether Pritchett was at any point considered for the permanent presidential position.
Once Magill takes office, Pritchett expects to take a sabbatical for one year and then return to Penn Law. Ruger said Pritchett then plans to teach a class on local government law.
Pritchett, an avid tennis player, also plans to continue to be a presence on Penn’s tennis courts. Penn graduate student and women’s tennis player Marija Curnic, who first bonded with Pritchett when he played with the team during her first year, said the interim president is “very competitive.”
“Sometimes [my coach] would let me warm up with him before we started doing drills,” Curnic said. “He would always run me around pretty badly, so I would get really tired, but it would be super helpful.”
Curnic added that Pritchett has visited the women’s team on the court three times this semester. Pritchett talked to her about his law school experience when she considered studying law.
“I’ve been blessed to be the interim dean and be provost and now interim president, but to be honest the job that I love the most is being a professor,” Pritchett said. “And that’s what I get to go back to do, and that will make me happy every day.”
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