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A Social Contract for Scholars by Robert L. Barchi

 Let me echo the Presidentâs welcome to the members of the Class of 2006 and those who have transferred to our other classes this year. What a fantastic time to be joining our community of scholars; a time both of intellectual discovery and of eager anticipation of discoveries yet to be made. A time ideally suited to curious and creative minds like yours.

Benjamin Disraeli once described the modern university as a place ăof life, of liberty and of learning.ä This has never been more true, or more essential, than in these complex and difficult times; times in which many of the current conflicts among nations and peoples can be traced to a lack of mutual understanding, lack of tolerance for the ideas of others and lack of appreciation for the cultural diversity that makes each of us unique. Universities provide a precious environment in which all individuals are valued; all ideas can be debated without fear, all views examined without prejudice. But making this environment a reality requires active participation from each and every one of us.

A great University is a living entity, not just a place. It is a dynamic society built on mutual consideration and respect for knowledge. It is truly a community of scholars. The Penn family is wonderfully diverse and cosmopolitan, comprising students from every state in the Union and from 65 countries. That inclusiveness is part of our intellectual and moral strength. On this campus, people from widely different backgrounds and heritage work, play, argue and learn together: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and persons of no organized religion; Marxists, democrats, socialists, and libertarians exchange ideas and opinions on the common ground of a shared commitment to this scholarly community.

The political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that small communities and great nations alike forge their cohesiveness through the mutual consent of their members. As many of you will recall from your high school government classes, Rousseau termed this mutual consent ăthe social contract.ä As you join our community of scholars, you too enter into a social contract.

From our community, you should demand respect for your independence, and for your autonomy as you explore new intellectual and social pursuits. As a community, we commit ourselves to support you in these pursuits, and to provide you with resources and opportunities to grow. We will urge you to stretch your talents and your character as far as you possibly can.

From you, we expect tolerance for new ideas and for one another. We expect you to give as well as to take; to reach beyond your College Houses and classes as an active contributor to the broader Penn community÷a community that is committed to the ideals of intellectual freedom and discovery, and to the transforming impact of new knowledge on our society.

The next few years will be among the most exciting of your lives. For the first time you will have complete freedom to make choices about when and how and even what to study. In order to take the greatest advantage of the wealth of intellectual resources at Penn, you must seek out the opportunities available, driven by your own curiosity and energy. Faculty, graduate students, and resident advisors can serve as mentors, counselors, and role models; but the final choices about how you will become intellectually engaged are ultimately yours alone÷the energy to pursue your dreams must come from within.

When you chose Penn, you chose a University with a deep commitment to teaching and research; and, thanks to Ben Franklin, an institution with a commitment to the translation of knowledge into practical application. Here at Penn, we are also committed to addressing the challenging ethical questions that this new knowledge provokes.

As faculty, we apply high standards to our own academic enterprise, because we recognize that academic freedom carries with it a responsibility for rigorous and unflinching ethical behavior. You are now a part of our academic family. During the next four years, you too will confront choices about ethics and academic integrity. We expect, and indeed demand, that you, too, will be judicious and wise in your choices.

But the ethical conduct that should characterize your years at Penn is not something to be left behind at graduation. It should become a steadfast internal compass that helps you find the moral high ground throughout your career and your life. Consult it often and have confidence in the fidelity of its direction.  

Both the challenges that we face in our daily lives, and the crises that strain the fabric of our global society, present us with problems whose causes and origins are so twisted and tangled that they often remind us of a Gordian knot. Yet in retrospect, the most brilliant answers to these difficult problems can appear elegant in their simplicity, whether it is the proof of a mathematical theorem or a creative compromise to a volatile international dispute.

This clarity of wisdom is not easily won; it must be built on a broad foundation of knowledge and a thorough analysis of the problem at hand. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Supreme Court justice renowned for the clarity of his decisions, once said, ăI would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexityä. You should strive for this clarity of understanding, but at the same time appreciate that the simplifying insight only comes to the prepared mind and then only after hard work and deep thought. While there are no shortcuts to wisdom, you will find here at Penn many who will help you make your way through the complexity of ideas and assist you in finding the elegant simplicity on the other side.

In your future, the truly valuable contributions to our society will come from those who seek this simplicity in wisdom, and who are willing and able to engage in vigorous and open debate over tough questions that impact the entire community. This level of engagement requires a thorough appreciation of the why of living as well as the how of life. In short, it requires a well-rounded, liberal education.

I hope that each of you, no matter what your primary area of interest, will pursue the breadth of education needed to put your own field of study into a global perspective. Seek for yourselves an education that will not only make you skilled entrepreneurs, economists, nurses or molecular geneticists, but also engaged and vital members of your local and global community.

As faculty, all of us on this podium, and our colleagues throughout the university, will take pride in assisting you in this learning experience. But the people who will have the greatest impact on your experience here will not be us; it will be your peers. As you sit together tonight on the brink of so much exciting discovery, look around you at your most important teachers÷for no one will help you learn more than your roommates, your teammates and your classmates.

In the next seat or the next row may be a future business partner, a coinventor, a co-author, or even a spouse.

Remember, too÷although I donât think youâre likely to forget this one÷that college should also be fun! The sports, the parties, the new social experiences, and the cultural venues, are as much a part of the learning environment as the classroom and the lab. Immerse yourselves in the rich cultural diversity that you will find in our Penn community. Take the time to get to know this terrific city and its vast cultural resources as well as those found right here on our own campus.

Although these four years will merely set the stage for your professional lives, these are times to be cherished for the friendships you will make, for the victories you will share in the Palestra and on Franklin Field, and for the awesome good times that you will have. Never in your life will there be another time quite like this one. Work hard, but donât forget to enjoy every single moment that you can!

Tonight, as you formally join our Penn family, what I wish for you is this:

That in four years you will say that you have learned and grown beyond your wildest expectations;

That you felt a true sense of community with your peers and with your faculty colleagues.

That your intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge reached new heights.

That you were given the tools you needed to confront tomorrowâs complex ethical and societal issues.

That you gave back to your community every bit as much as you were given.

And that you have had at least a glimpse of that elegant simplicity that lies beyond complexity.

Welcome to the Penn family. Be safe; care for each other; and have a great time.  


Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 3, September 10, 2002


September 10, 2002
Volume 49 Number 3

A Major General in the U.S. Marines has been named as Penn's EVP.
Civic House--the community service hub--has a new Faculty Advisor.
9/11 Remembrance
Senate Agenda
At the Convocation last Wednesday, the President and Provost welcomed the new students to campus with words of wisdom.
PennERA--Electronic Research Administration--is intended to streamline processes related to sponsored research.
PennKey, a new authentication system is coming to campus to improve network security and protect privacy online.
Remember last academic year? The Models of Excellence program seeks nominees whose notable achievements went above and beyond the job expectations.