On Jan. 9, The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Penn President Liz Magill in her College Hall office for a 25-minute interview. The conversation spanned topics from Penn's recent actions on climate to ongoing searches for multiple University administrators. The full transcript of the interview is below and has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Read the takeaways of the interview here.
Reflecting on her time at Penn so far
The Daily Pennsylvanian: You're starting a new semester, your second semester here at Penn. We're curious how the first semester went, and how you're feeling as president of Penn a couple months into your role?
Liz Magill: Well, it's been a fabulous ride. I think we're just about a year from when I was announced, a few days before that. I was reflecting back on the whole year, and I feel like I've learned so much, especially once I got to campus in July. From afar and thinking about this job and having an opportunity to have this job, I kind of had this hypothesis that this was the most exciting presidency in the United States, at a higher education institution. I would say that that hypothesis has been really valuable.
There's just this extraordinary vitality to the place. There's almost nothing you can't do here, basically, as a faculty member, as a staff member, as a student. And as maybe some of the next questions get to, I've spent a huge amount of time trying to get to know Penn, the broader Penn family in Philadelphia, and soon on the road, and then the Philadelphia community in the region. And it's just been incredibly energizing. There's so many things that excite me.
DP: Glad to hear it. What's your favorite part of campus and Philadelphia so far? Do you have a place that you've been frequenting or enjoying the most?
LM: So you know that's like asking someone who loves books which they would choose, or parents who their favorite child is.
DP: I don't know if I could choose.
LM: I do have a soft spot for the Fisher Fine Arts [Library], the Frank Furness Building, which is a great architectural wonder — an emblem of that industrial age, [Ben Franklin's] whole theory about knowledge production, and soon we're going to solve all the problems of the world; we're just going to accumulate more and more knowledge and [along] the way you get bigger and bigger.
I love that building. I would say there are probably 20 or 30 other spaces on campus that I just love to go to. I love the fact that I am not constantly lost, which is how I was in July. I remember, I think I was standing outside of College Hall and someone asked me where [Claudia] Cohen Hall was. Maybe I was pointing to Williams [Hall]. And I now know where Cohen Hall is.
The city has also been fantastic. I spent a good deal of the summer, especially because fewer people were on campus, getting to know elected officials, civic leaders, community leaders in West [Philadelphia], exploring history, art, culture, and food. I have had just a wonderful time doing all of that. And what's a favorite? I think one of my favorite moments was meeting the Class of 2026 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Throwing out the first pitch of the Phillies and not embarrassing myself was a big plus. I went to the new Barnes [Foundation] for the first time. I'd gone to the old Barnes in Merion, [Pa.] We went to Fishtown this weekend, and that was a highlight. The last thing I'd say is I've walked all the historic parts of [Philadelphia]. I'm a history major, so being able to walk to Constitution Hall is pretty amazing to me.
The last is the food. Philadelphia is a great food town. I ask people in lots of meetings, what's your favorite place to be, what's your favorite place to eat? I always get different and equally valid answers. So I have a long list of places. I'm making my way through food trucks and fine dining.
DP: Have you tried a halal food truck yet?
LM: I have not tried a halal food truck. Is there one you recommend in particular?
DP: There's actually one right near here. It's across from the Wawa on Spruce Street. Just to add to your list. [38th and Spruce streets], his name is Rahim [Khan]. UPenn Gyro. In case you need a quick lunch.
LM: I'll definitely go there.
The presidential transition and COVID-19
DP: I'm curious, based on the changes that you've overseen at Penn so far in just a few months, is there anything that you are most proud of accomplishing so far as president?
LM: I would say my number one point of pride is I regularly go back and read the notes I take, and the amount I've learned about Penn — which is one of the things I set up for myself in the fall — my trajectory is good. I feel much more knowledgeable about the place, what we do here, and our aspirations for the future. I'm also proud that I don't get lost as much as I used to.
One thing I'd identify is that at a really large institution like Penn, transitions just are difficult. They're difficult in a family of two, but they're really difficult in an organization like Penn that's so large and complicated. And I feel like we've been navigating pretty seamlessly, two transitions. One, our first new president in  years. And that's not just a lot of work, which it is, for the team that is figuring out how to do things in maybe a slightly different way than in the past. But just for the whole institution. And I feel like we have navigated the transition pretty well. And that is not a tribute to me, that's a tribute to the team.
And we are continuing to navigate the COVID-19 [pandemic] moment, [a] sort of new normal. And I feel like we've reconnected with each other in a way that is good. My getting up and about has been trying to signal that that's a great thing to do. So those are two things, I think, they're not really trivial to me. It's a big team, many people are doing it. But those are a couple. And just as when I started talking about this, all the things I've had a chance to learn.
Climate change and divestment efforts
DP: I remember when we first chatted, your goal was just to learn as much about Penn as possible through talking with all the groups that are frequently on your Instagram and everything. I want to touch on your inauguration, which was fun to see happen. In your speech, touching on a specific issue, you talked about climate change a lot. You referred to it as an existential threat and, of course, one of many challenges facing Penn and other areas across the world. Can you just talk about some of the steps that Penn has recently taken or plans to take to address that issue?
LM: Sure. We are about to publish our update on the Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0. I just reviewed it over the break. One way to think about the different domains in which we work is our missions, our research, and teaching and disseminating knowledge and innovation is part of that.
The most significant thing that is in this report that I can talk about is the origin of some really interesting hires in energy science. If we are going to tackle climate change, we need to figure out how to produce energy in a carbon-neutral, or carbon-free way. And we are very far from that right now. Things like chemistry will be essential to that future. We've hired a group of incredible chemists and have some more folks coming in engineering, I think some junior faculty this year all around sort of energy sciences' future. That's a joint effort between [the School of Engineering and Applied Science] and the School of Arts and Sciences. That's one thing I'd highlight.
Another part of the academic mission side of the work that we're doing on climate is trying to educate the future leaders of the world, people like you and your classmates. Every semester, the number of classes we are offering on some element of climate — its challenges from a scientific policy, finance implementation, perspective — increases, and its hundreds and hundreds of classes since we adopted the Environmental Innovation Initiative. That's to highlight on the academic side.
Maybe getting less attention, but which I would say is incredibly significant, has to do with the operational changes that we are in the midst of implementing. When the Power Purchase Agreement is fully online, we will be producing more than 70% of all of our energy from carbon-free sources, mainly solar. That's a pretty extraordinary operational change. Every year, the amount we're relying on carbon and resources to fuel our energy needs is dramatically declining.
I've been trying to sort of have us talk about all of these things together — our academic side of the house, our operational side of the house, and the purchasing we do and the investment decisions we make in the endowment. I'm sure you read the piece that [Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok] and I wrote about that. I happen to believe that the most important thing we're doing is the net-zero investment commitment. That is an opportunity for us to actually move the economy, invest in promising companies that are looking forward to the future. So that's a lot of things to talk about. I don't know when [the Climate Action 3.0 report] will be out. It might be this week. But it covers most of that. It doesn't cover the endowment.
DP: I appreciate you highlighting all that. I know at COP 27, there were a lot of Penn professors there, in tandem with the message that you shared.
Going back to the endowment investment changes briefly: Of course, there was a lot of student activism around that last semester. You announced in November that Penn no longer holds direct investments in fossil fuels. From your perspective, what role did student activism play in that statement that you wrote with Bok?
LM: The students' views always play a role in what we're doing. You're some of the most talented people in the country, and you're here, and you have perspective on what we're doing, [and] what we could do better. So I don't know if I'd say anything more than that. I'm always listening.
The Red and Blue Advisory Committee
DP: Do you have any updates on the work of the Red and Blue Advisory Committee that was announced last semester?
LM: I meet regularly with [Annenberg School for Communication Dean John Jackson], who's chairing that committee. They are still very much in the engagement stage. We have some open forums coming up in the next two weeks.
Of course, I've visited all 12 schools. So everywhere I go, I ask, "Have you submitted your thoughts? Are you participating in this?" So they're continuing to try to engage with as many members of the community. When I get on the road to see alumni starting next week, I will be doing the same.
I think the main thing I'd say is, we're hearing a lot of common themes. Nothing is crystallized to a particular proposal yet. There's a lot of sentiment that Penn has natural advantages in the collection of 12 schools and their associated centers of every discipline you might want to have on one very compact campus, and a culture of collaboration. If you think about the challenges to democracy right now, we have 15 or 20 departments and faculty members who think about that question in various aspects, [and] we have hundreds of students working in different aspects.
So there's a lot of sentiment that we should sort of continue to double down on this kind of unique advantage that we have as Penn in these large complex problems facing society. Climate is one of them. Sustainability is a big one, a microcosm of the human health. That's not to say those are specific ideas, but those are examples of things you could say, "We're really good at this." Not many places have four different schools that work on health matters. That's a really good example, and they don't have the proximity that we have to one another or the color.
I would say that's one big thing: We're interdisciplinary — we care about societal problems. What more can we do to enhance our research and our education of the future leaders to double down on that? A lot of interest in the future of education and educating our students in a world that prepares them for this complex and ever-changing future, undergirded with a kind of idea that we hope to inculcate — which our students already have — to deepen the sort of commitment to serving the broader world throughout their lives. Then the last theme, I'd say it's coming through in all my conversations, is our role in Philadelphia — which is, you know, we're a global model for what universities can do. But things are always changing. And we should be thinking about what we can be doing in this city.
Visiting Penn's 12 schools
DP: Could you elaborate more on your experience visiting all of Penn's top schools? That's definitely a unique experience that most people in the Penn community don't really get. How might that shape your vision further?
LM: Well, I think there's no substitute for going out and seeing people where they live. You get a sense of the culture of the place that you're visiting. And when people articulate what they do, and what their aspirations are for the future — doing it in the New Bolton Center, the [School of Veterinary Medicine] space — you hear a different way, you see a different way, you understand a different way.
It also helps build a sense of what they do every day, what they care about in our efforts to build the future. So I'd say the most important part has been getting out of College Hall and having a sense of each location across this very complex campus.
The second thing I'd say is sort of a paradox, in the sense that no human being can understand the complexity of this place. My standing in the basement of the [School of Dental Medicine] and talking to the students who are learning complex dentistry bears very little relationship to the Ph.D. students I met in [SAS], and what their concerns are. There's this enormous, and I find really energizing, diversity of what happens here. Both what people are doing, [and] what they hope to do — either for Penn or for themselves — that they leave here as students and graduate students. And at the same time, there are a lot of common themes.
So it's been a really instructive experience. You can overstate the complexity and kind of miss the common themes. We have some unique advantages in really being so close to each other, having the schools that we have. The last thing I'd say is the schools are where our classes are taught, our research is done, [and] our students are educated. They are delivering our mission. Any aspirations for the future of Penn have to have the schools, their leadership, and their faculty and their staff missions very excited about it. So I knew that, but it's a great reminder of that, and hearing a lot of aspiration and ambition for the future, and what we can do better, with a lot of pride about what we're doing, was really terrific.
Penn's relationship with West Philadelphia
DP: I want to follow up quickly about Philadelphia, and how you mentioned that our fate is tied to the city and how it succeeds. There was a recent survey conducted by the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education where 60% of undergraduates listed Penn's impact on West Philadelphia as one of their top priorities.
Based on the conversations that you just talked about, are there any particular issues that people have been bringing up about our relationship with the community or how we interact with the city more broadly?
LM: There's a lot to say there. A striking thing to me, maybe this is as a newcomer, is that there are very few people — I think there might be no one at the University of Pennsylvania — who actually has a handle on all of the many and varied things we are doing in the City of Philadelphia and West [Philadelphia]. Every university is very decentralized, and that's how they work, but I'm struck by that. So I'm interested just for my own learning. I'd like to know all the intimately linked things that we do.
One big gap is we do a lot of work in economic inclusion, from job training to making sure we're trying to purchase products from contractors in West Philadelphia. And we do a lot of work on the academic side of the house — so in schools. Those two worlds are as if they're different worlds at Penn. So that's one example of the bridge I'd like to bring between those issues.
The second thing I'd say is, the range of issues that students have brought to my attention range from affordable housing, food instability, education, job training, the entire health care provision of health care, the whole range of things you might think about in West [Philadelphia], access to Penn education ... [There's] a lot that I've heard. So I don't know what motivated that big topic list in the [SCUE survey], but I'm not surprised. I think there are always new things we should be thinking about getting involved in because the community's needs are always changing, and our needs are always changing. Our capacity to be helpful, to be a good partner, changes.
So this fall, we asked a group of faculty to engage and think about what we can do in affordable housing in Philly in the coming years. So that's not an entirely new issue for us, but it's newly significant. I think we should be doing more. I'm heartened by the fact that so many people are raising this issue. This has been, actually, a really powerful strength of Penn for decades. Many presidents before me recognized that we are a neighbor and a partner, and the largest private employer in the City of Philadelphia. I feel like, as is true with much of Penn, there's no resting on laurels. It's, "What else could we be doing?" And I found that heartening. It's a symbol of the belief that a great university is a great neighbor.
Upcoming administrative changes
The incumbent deans of the Graduate School of Education and Penn Carey Law School are leaving at the end of their terms on June 30. The provost position is currently occupied by Beth Winkelstein in an interim capacity.
DP: What are you looking for in the successors for the two dean and the new provost positions?
LM: In any leadership search, you're looking for lots of different things. If I could summarize it, I am looking for people who can maximize the potential of the job they're in and therefore the institution they're in. So I think [Penn Carey Law] and [GSE] are extraordinary places, both of them. We're looking for who can articulate that next, [and] getting to that next level. Both [of the schools] are right at the top of the heap, so it's not about rankings. It's about how they enhance what they're doing to build on the strengths they have.
The provost job is incredibly complicated — [there are] 32 direct reports to the provost. So in that job, there's a particular making sure [that] the incredibly important business of the University moves forward, and that the provost is a great partner to all the many leaders they work with, as well as someone who can help me articulate a vision and execute on that vision. It's slightly different, but you're always looking for a person who can take you to the next level.
DP: Any final thoughts before we wrap up about Penn alumni, students, readers, or anything?
LM: I have the best job in the world.
Previously, the DP indicated in the interview that a student survey came from a recently published report from SCUE, the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education. The story has been updated to clarify that the report does not come out until 2025, but a result from the survey was posted on Instagram on Jan. 6. The Instagram post stated that "60% of respondents identified Penn's impact on West Philadelphia as a top priority."
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