WELCOME BACK -- From the President

A Roiling and Robust Exchange of Ideas

Dear Colleagues:

Two years ago, I wrote in this space that "the University administration's job is to support . . . dialogue and debate, not to cut it off; to create an environment in which we can educate each other, not one in which doctrine or orthodoxy is legislated from on high." The start of a new semester is an especially appropriate time to reflect on the educational value of such a vibrant, ever-stimulating campus community, an environment in which the exchange of ideas is roiling and robust.

A diverse, excellent, and intellectually-engaged faculty and student body are essential elements of such an educational environment. As I wrote two years ago, "we are a community of different identities, and we must create a context in which a true diversity of views and opinions, persons and groups, politics and perspectives, is nurtured, valued and shared." Creating together such a model community, in which individual and group differences form a mosaic (not a melting pot), enriches the education Penn offers.

Penn's efforts to recruit and retain the most excellent and diverse students and faculty contribute directly to the vitality of campus discourse and the quality of the educational experience. Diversity in all its forms--diversity of academic interests, religious beliefs, political viewpoints, cultural heritages, social attitudes, geographic origins, races, and ethnicities--is an essential component of the collegiate experience of our students, the educational mission and resources of the University, and Penn's strategic drive toward comprehensive excellence.

There are, of course, those who doubt that we should pursue this conjoined goal of excellence and diversity. I believe that they have failed to recognize the real, educational value of faculty and student diversity to Penn and to our students, today and into the next century. Diversity in the composition of the faculty and the student body is an educational asset of the first order. We all learn most from those who see the world differently than we do, from those whose life-experiences, heritage, beliefs, and attitudes may seem--at first--strange and inexplicable. Only in exploring those differences do we truly come to understand ourselves and our own heritage and beliefs. That is why our commitment to diversity is an essential component of Penn's strategic commitment to educational excellence.

But even as we appreciate the value of a diverse and stimulating educational environment, it is important to remember that the goal of such diversity is not to achieve or impose some sort of politically-correct orthodoxy--of the left or the right. Quite the contrary. Diversity on campus will only achieve its full educational potential when it leads to intensified debate, engagement, and encounters across the boundaries of our differences. Ideally, such encounters should be occurring with greater frequency, not less, as the excellence and diversity of our faculty and student body continue to increase.

We do not seek an educational environment of bland conformity or cloying consensus, but a stimulating, challenging environment of civil, but energetic, contention and even confrontation, in which ideas and perspectives are robustly debated and compellingly argued, in which preconceptions are challenged, individual and social isolation impossible and experiential learning maximized. We seek to create an energetic educational environment, full of conflicting ideas and differing opinions.

To achieve this ambitious vision, we must all work together. Each of us has a role: I have made the institutional commitment as clear as I know how. The Deans and senior administrators are pledged to do their part. Our students play a critical role in telling the Penn story and bringing it to life on campus.

Every faculty member and department chair must also lend a hand: in identifying and recruiting outstanding and diverse colleagues and students; in making Penn a place where diversity is not only valued but put to work as an educational resource; and in overcoming cynicism and inertia. We all have a stake in this strategic commitment. We all stand to gain from Penn's greater diversity of students and faculty; it does not have to be a zero-sum game in which we take from one group to give to another, but a "win-win" from which every student and faculty member stands to gain.

Last month, the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community convened on campus to consider the deepening pattern of social fragmentation, ideological extremism, and "in-your-face" incivility that seems to have become a dominant feature of our culture, social interactions and politics as we close the 20th century. Though the Commission is only beginning its three-year investigation, it is already clear at this very early stage that alienation from institutions and isolation from those who are different from us play major roles in fostering the indifference and insensitivity that is expressed in hostility, incivility, extremism, and fearful absolutism.

On the other hand, cross-cultural contacts, shared experiences, and honest communication build a sense of community that leads--not necessarily to agreement or compromise--but to a "reasoned and reasonable discourse" in which substantive arguments can be made, reasons advanced, and new ideas generated. Such a discourse, in which mass participation, leadership, and academic expertise all have important roles to play, will be an essential feature of a successful democratic society in the complex, culturally-diverse world of the 21st century. And Penn must prepare its students for the dual roles of citizens and leaders that they will play in that world.

To that end, the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community plans to sponsor activities during 1997-98 to demonstrate that campus diversity, robust competition of ideas, and civil discourse are necessary concomitants of the educational experience--not competing priorities subservient to a pragmatic, short-term interest in quietude and consensus. The Commission will then use the Penn experience as a model for a program of outreach to campuses across America.

This will be but one way in which Penn puts its growing faculty and student diversity to work in the service of its educational mission. I encourage each of you to think about other ways in which you can further that end, both within and outside the classroom. We will all be better educated for the experience.

To each of you, too, go my best wishes for a productive, safe, and successful semester.

Judith Rodin


Volume 43 Number 17
January 14, 1997

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