Welcome Back from the President: On Penn's Agenda for Excellence

From the President

On Penn's Agenda for Excellence

Dear Colleagues:

Welcome back.

Almost too soon, the brief winter break for holidays and families brings us back to face the challenges and opportunities of a new semester. For most of us, the start of any new semester brings with it a special sense of opportunity, particularly, the chance to give new form and substance to our individual and collective futures.

This semester that special sense is particularly strong because the start of the new term coincides with the completion of work on Penn's vision of our collective future, Agenda for Excellence, which was published for comment here in Almanac last November (see Almanac November 21, 1995, pp. S1-S8). We appreciate the many thought-provoking comments we have received, which are now being discussed by the Academic Planning and Budget Committee (which includes faculty, undergraduate, and graduate student representatives).After consideration by the University's Trustees later this month, Agenda for Excellence will become the framework in which each of Penn's School's will either revise or develop its own strategic plan during the spring semester.

Thus, by the end of this academic year, Penn will have in place a coordinated series of strategic plans at both the School and University levels that will guide Penn to even greater eminence in the 21st century. No wonder the sense of formative possibility is particularly strong.

To some, the whole notion of strategic planning may seem to be merely a matter of imaging some ideal "self" we would like to be, but will never achieve. By contrast, I believe that good strategic planning requires much more than merely an exercise in articulating our most desirable institutional self-image. As in the major life choices of individuals, effective planning has also to be realistic and contextual. It must take full account of the internal resources and external conditions which inevitably define the choices and opportunities before us. Planning that simply compiles unrealistic wish lists, or merely identifies incremental improvements, defaults on the strategic opportunities and choices that will largely determine what Penn will look like ten, twenty, and fifty years from now.

Thus, Agenda for Excellence is an effort to identify the critical tasks that this University must undertake in the next five years to fulfill its most fundamental commitments--taking account of both our collective ambitions and desires and the resources and conditions that constrain our choices.

The consideration of an Agenda for Excellence and development of the School plans that will complete it mark a real and two-fold opportunity for Penn: first, to seize the strategic opportunity that exists for Penn as an institution to secure its role as one of the leading educational institutions of the 21st Century, and second, to resolve some of the most important challenges forced on all institutions of higher learning by the diminished economic resources available to us in the foreseeable future.

These opportunities cannot be successfully realized by any of us acting alone. Only the combined efforts of faculty, administrators, trustees, staff, and students can realize the vision of Agenda for Excellence and turn strategic possibilities into academic realities.

In each generation since World War II, Penn has successfully rallied to meet this sort of strategic challenge, going back all the way to the "Educational Survey" of the Harnwell years, the University Development Commission of the Meyerson administration, and "Choosing Penn's Future" during Sheldon Hackney's tenure. Remarkably, each of those strategic planning efforts shared a fundamental consistency of vision and direction which continues today with Agenda for Excellence. The Agenda builds on the foundations of the past to face a new and challenging future.

Central amongst its themes and strategic initiatives is the recognition that Penn can and should be an ambitious and aggressive institutional competitor. This has not always been the case and may be an uncomfortable emphasis for some whose vision of academic life is shaped by different values and expectations. Yet, it is becoming evident that institutions that are not willing to compete aggressively--for the best students, for the best faculty, for private and public resources, for strategic institutional advantage--may fail to attract the human and financial resources needed to successfully accomplish their fundamental academic missions in the era of diminished resources that is now upon us.

Our task is to see not only that Penn competes aggressively and successfully with its peers, but that Penn competes on the right basis-- on the basis of academic excellence in research and teaching. That is why a commitment to comprehensive excellence in every area of academic activity that defines Penn strategically is one of the central imperatives of Agenda for Excellence.

Competing successfully also requires that Penn's identity as an institution be more clearly defined and effectively presented than has sometimes been the case in the past. For many years, Penn has stressed the interaction of theory and practice as an essential and valuable feature of our academic programs, our campus life, and our intellectual style. Theory and practice are, as I said in my Inaugural Address, a part of Penn's "genetic material." Penn is deeply endowed with a commitment to education that is both intellectual and utilitarian. We desire to know and to teach, not only "why," but also "how."

As we all know, Penn has good and unique historical claim to the theme of theory and practice. From its very start, Franklin pushed for Penn to offer professional as well as scholarly studies. His famous statement, "learn everything that is useful, and everything that is ornamental," has since become a familiar institutional theme.

It has been Penn's willingness to acknowledge the claims of pragmatic considerations as well as to value the theoretical, the willingness to put our knowledge to work, and the willingness to learn new theoretical insights from practical experience, which have enabled Penn to be "first" in so many areas: the first American "university," the first American medical school, the first business school, the first journalism curriculum, the first institute for the study of anatomy and biology, the first psychology clinic, the world's first all-electronic digital computer, to cite only a few.

Today, as we move from the "modern," industrial societies of the 19th and 20th centuries, to the "post-modern," computer and information- based, global, society of the 21st century, this ability to span the continuum from fundamental to applied takes on even greater significance. The challenges of our "pragmatic" age cannot be adequately answered by pragmatism alone. Only theory and practice together can fully respond to the challenges of the 21st century.

Strategic commitments such as this, rooted in Penn's unique institutional history, yet timely chosen to respond appropriately to the mandate imposed on us by an era of diminished resources and social support, demonstrate the critical importance of the strategic planning process at this particular moment in Penn's history. Effective strategic planning requires us to make real commitments that will position Penn in relation to the external challenges and opportunities we face.

While profoundly consequential, such planning stimulates a powerful sense of direction, commitment, and identity from which we can all benefit. No wonder the sense of opportunity is so strongly felt.

I hope that each of you will feel a similar sense of propitiousness and possibility as you and your Schools engage in the next stage of setting out Penn's Agenda for Excellence.

Judith Rodin