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Convocation 2005

Below is the Convocation address given by Provost Ronald Daniels to the Class of 2009 on College Green, Tuesday evening, September 6, 2005.

An Architecture Free of Moats  

by Ronald Daniels

Members of the Class of 2009—let me join the President in welcoming you to the University of Pennsylvania.

Like you, I am new to Penn, having just arrived here in July from Toronto. 

Like you, I am still trying to find my way around, still trying to figure out which food truck I will favor for a fast lunch, still trying out new combinations of flavors at Scoop D’Ville, and still deciding which cereal goes best with which topping at Cereality.  You can see that I have been busy.

In truth, however—and on a less mundane note—like you, I am also still trying to learn the soul of this magnificent university. 

And, like you, I am tremendously excited and grateful to have the opportunity to become a member of the Penn family. 

We will be learning about Penn together.

Of course, one of the best ways to explore the magic of Penn is by foot. 

And so, this past week, under the tutelage of Professor David Brownlee, I was introduced, building by building, green space by green space, to the geography, to the history, and to the ideas of the Penn campus. 

One of the most interesting stops during our campus tour was Hill College House—a place where many of you have been living for the past few days. 

Originally, Hill House was the women’s dormitory, and the University wished to make it clear that men were unwelcome there. 

To achieve this goal, Eero Saarinen, the building’s gifted architect, was characteristically creative and incorporated several allusions to a medieval castle in his design.  

He surrounded Hill House with a moat and made the only entrance a drawbridge. For good measure, he also put up a rather imposing spiked fence. 

Needless to say, the male students got the message.

But consider that moats can serve a dual purpose: not only do they keep some people out; they also keep other people in. 

The design of Hill House reflects a philosophy that women should be kept apart. 

Fortunately, the days when women were sequestered are far behind us.  I think we would all agree that it is to the university’s enduring benefit that women are now fully integrated into the marrow of Penn life. 

Whereas once those kinds of boundaries were simply part of everyday life, today, without a map or a guide, it would be hard to discern where those divisions once stood and the pain and disappointment they inflicted on members of our community. 

You, the incoming class of 2009, exemplify the benefits of crossing borders and erasing boundaries. 

You come from 74 countries and from all fifty states. You have homes in Murray, Utah; Kimball, Nebraska; and Boston, Massachusetts. You speak languages from Turkish to Kiswahili.  You bring experiences from as far away as Zimbabwe and as close as 54th and Woodbine. 

And you bring all of that together here—at the University of Pennsylvania.

In your classes, in your activities, in your dormitories, you will see the benefits of that diversity of experience and perspective. 

Socrates once declared that he was not an Athenian or a Greek, but rather a citizen of the world.  While Socrates’ embrace of the world is stirring, I have always wondered whether it was really necessary for him to have opted for one identity over another.   

Here, today, at Penn, while we are eager to dissolve geographic boundaries, we are also firmly committed to the idea that the experiences and the values that have shaped and defined you as unique individuals command our respect and our protection.

In other words, don’t feel compelled to suppress or deny your unique histories in order to become fully fledged citizens of our community.   

I don’t know what you have come to Penn believing, nor can I say with any confidence what you will leave here having learned. 

But, I can say for certain that your experience will be richer, your critical thinking skills will be sharpened, and your ideas will be challenged and refined because you are studying in an intellectually diverse and robust environment.

Cross over the moat that separates your culture, your ideas, your values from that of your classmates, and you will find much to appreciate on the other side.

But also bear in mind that your good fortune in being able to obtain the precious gifts of higher education triggers, I believe, corresponding duties. 

The privilege of studying at such an intellectually and culturally diverse university carries with it the responsibility to engage in some difficult conversations and to act on the ideas taken from those conversations. 

So while you are here, talk to one another about the West’s collective responsibilities in a world where more than one billion people live on less than $1 a day. 

Talk about the meaning and the implications of the disparate impact that Hurricane Katrina has had on this country’s least advantaged citizens. 

Talk about the balance between freedom and security that must be struck in responding to the threat of international terrorism. 

And, of course, through all of these conversations, talk, too, about your own place in the world.

Your education brings with it the obligation to weigh carefully how you can best contribute.  Conversations with other members of our community will help you to have that conversation with yourself. 

It is true there are many reasons why people once thought moats and spiked fences were a good idea. Things are certainly less complicated when everyone is kept separate. 

More boring, to be sure, less innovative, but less complicated.  

Diverse communities like ours present their fair share of challenges.  I can promise you that there will be debates and there will be disagreements, and some of these will surely inflame you.

What is critical, however, is that we maintain our strong collective commitment to not merely tolerating these disagreements, but to engage them vigorously and respectfully in an effort to see whether there is within opposing positions some hidden truths, some common ground.

In your four years here, I invite you to build upon those opportunities for informed and passionate conversation and to design a legacy for the Penn students who will follow.  

Create an architecture free of moats and rich in bridges.

This is not easy. Very little worth having is. 

However, you are Penn students, which means that you are up for a challenge. 

You came here by dint of hard work, and you are not likely to embrace the easy way out.  While you are here, you will surely meet with the temptation to take shortcuts, perhaps even academic ones.  I hope you will live up to our collective faith that you will eschew those shortcuts in favor of hard work. 

While you will face many academic challenges, the task of engaging across disciplines and cultures is one of your most exciting opportunities. 

As Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” 

An opportunity is in front of you, but it is indeed wearing overalls. 

So, I encourage you to don your overalls, grab a hammer, and get ready to build together. 

I, for one, cannot wait to see the bridges you will build.

To the Class of 2009, bon voyage.


  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 3, September 13, 2005


September 13, 2005
Volume 52 Number 3


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