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Scott Bok speaks with now-Interim President Jameson at the Board of Trustees meeting on Nov. 3, 2023. Credit: Ethan Young

The last search for a Penn president — which I led not long ago — was a harmonious, conflict-free affair reflecting what appeared to be a broad set of shared beliefs held by Penn’s Board of Trustees, as well as by its deans, faculty, staff, and students. Given the events of recent months, the next search will be different.

The one aspect of the search that will remain unchanged is the process, which is prescribed by the University’s governing statutes. Those statutes provide that the process begins with the trustee chair forming a consultative committee made up of members of each of the constituencies named above. The committee’s charge is “to advise in the selection process by identifying priorities, issues, challenges, candidate qualifications, and other factors important to the constituencies,” represented on the committee. Later, a subset of that committee then becomes the search committee, which is “responsible for the identification, recruitment, and selection of candidates.”

Last time around, there was a robust discussion on the consultative committee of what Penn’s priorities should be, what challenges it faced, and what candidate qualifications might be most valuable going forward. But in retrospect, what is most noteworthy about that large and diverse group is how many important matters did not require discussion or debate. Everyone seemed to believe that the prior three decades, under the leadership of Presidents Amy Gutmann and Judith Rodin, had been a period of great progress for Penn. By any measure — applications for admission, quality and diversity of the student body, caliber of the faculty, research breakthroughs, alumni engagement and contributions, growth in endowment, etc. — the University was broadly perceived as having risen from excellence to eminence, to use Dr. Gutmann’s memorable catchphrase.

Nobody suggested that Penn’s culture had gone wrong.

Nobody suggested that Penn’s historic approach to shared governance — with a strong chief executive, a supportive board, and academic matters left largely to the faculty — should be modified.

Nobody suggested that Penn’s rules on free expression or its student code of conduct needed to be changed.

All appeared to agree that the increased diversity of Penn’s faculty and student body was the positive result of an intentional commitment that ought to be continued.

While the candidates we met in the search all had different thoughts on how they would lead Penn into the future, none of them questioned any of the foregoing shared beliefs.

But next time will be different.

The tumultuous events of last semester have shattered any notion that there is a broad set of core beliefs and values that are so widely held that no discussion of them is necessary. Indeed, each of the foregoing matters has now been questioned. And, given all the press focused on Penn in recent months, any presidential candidate will know that.

In order to reestablish a modus vivendi among the board, administrative leadership, and faculty — as well as to prepare for answering the obvious questions that every presidential candidate will ask — I would suggest asking several important questions before any search process begins. I know what my responses to those questions would be, but it is now for others to provide the answers.

Were the past few decades at Penn a period of great progress and escalating success, or has Penn — in some sense — been heading in the wrong direction?

Should there be any significant change in the respective governance roles of trustees, the president, and the faculty? Former President Liz Magill asked early in her interview process about the relationship between the board and the president. The reassuring answer we provided then cannot be simply repeated next time.

Should Penn’s rules on free expression or its student code of conduct be amended? Public universities must follow the First Amendment. The notion that a private university like Penn should have more restrictive speech constraints than Penn State — or Harvard than UMass — may seem odd, but many have now suggested it. For a real-time case study, check out Barnard College with its political speech ban, administrative censorship, and resulting protests.

Is there a shared belief in the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion? I would suggest focusing on the actual meaning of each of those words rather than the acronym that has become such a political football. At a minimum, any presidential candidate who does not look like me will want to know if his or her candidacy will be taken seriously. But more broadly, the answer to this question will inform a range of ongoing admission and hiring decisions.

One final question — perhaps the most difficult — is one that any thoughtful candidate will ask: what happened to former President Magill, our committee’s unanimous choice for president, whose widely acclaimed success in her first 14 months echoed that of her predecessors Gutmann and Rodin? How was it that the consensus on so many matters melted down in such a quick and publicly visible manner, prompting her to resign? Any serious candidate will want to know how the board might react to unknown, future challenges.

Finding Penn’s next president will be harder than it was last time and not just because of all the turmoil of recent months. The candidates we considered seriously last time have almost all landed new positions since our committee met them. And while there were almost no comparable searches that provided competition for Penn last time, this time we know that Harvard, Yale, and Stanford are — or soon will be — looking for presidents. To maximize the potential for success in Penn’s next search, it is worth taking whatever time is necessary to answer the foregoing questions — both within the Board of Trustees and across the other constituents that play a governance role at the University.

Scott L. Bok is the former Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees. His email is