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Convocation 2009
September 15, 2009, Volume 56, No. 03

Below is the Convocation Address given by President Amy Gutmann to the Class of 2013 at the Palestra on Tuesday, September 8, 2009. The Penn Band, Off the Beat and the Glee Club performed. Chaplain Charles Howard gave the invocation and Dean of Admissions Eric Furdapresented the Class of 2013. Alumni Trustee Lee Spelman Doty, W’76, president of the Penn Alumni, also welcomed the future alumni. To watch the Convocation, visit www.youtube.com/univpennsylvania

Keeping Penn’s Community of Scholars Forever Young and Forever Strong

My warmest welcome to the great Class of 2013!

I extend equally warm greetings to our transfers from other colleges and universities. Transfers? Smart move!

Smart only begins to describe all of you assembled here today. You are the most talented and diverse mix of students we have ever enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. And that’s saying a lot.

Tonight’s convocation is doubly special. Not only does this ceremony mark that special moment when you officially join Penn’s community of scholars; you are also the first class in history to do so in the cathedral of college basketball, the Palestra!

I look forward to joining you here at Penn basketball games, where I can count on Penn students to make quite a spectacle and lots of noise.  

Which reminds me of Jon, who was a double major in economics and classical studies … and leader of the Quaker cheering section my first year at Penn. As a freshman, Jon won $250,000 on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

He graduated summa cum laude from Penn and then from Yale Law School, and is now a rising star at a prominent New York law firm. But you would never have suspected Jon’s intellectual eminence from the costume he wore at Penn basketball games: He always appeared—I kid you not—as a hot dog … with mustard.

Just your typical Penn student who made a lot of noise from the get go.

Members of the Class of 2013, you cut quite an impressive sight tonight. How about it! Show us how much noise you can make!

Yes, we at Penn are a bold bunch. We make our share of noise ... as we seek to make the greatest positive difference in the world. And we stay forever young and forever strong because, as Alfred North Whitehead understood, great universities “preserve the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.”

We admitted you to Penn not simply because you are smart. Most of our 23,000 applicants had impressive transcripts. Yet most are not here.

You are here … because you have the creativity, the drive, and the leadership potential to keep Penn’s community of scholars forever young and forever strong.

So you have no further reason to wonder why we admitted you to Penn.

But you have many reasons to ask yourself a much trickier question:  What am I here to accomplish?

Is it:

A. To avoid the job market for 4 years?

B. To find great friends and maybe even a spouse or partner? 


D. All of the above.

No doubt you recognize a grain of truth in at least one of these answers. 

But I am confident that you will find far more creative answers to the question: “What can I best accomplish here for myself and for Penn, and for our society and our world?”

Nobody else can answer that question for you except you. But let me offer three tips on how to find the right answer that I wish someone had given me before I started college, 

Tip number one: Ask good questions.

As a freshman, I found my voice once I learned the value of good questions—which enliven every discussion, fire the imagination, and lead to important intellectual breakthroughs. As Paul Samuelson noted, “Good questions outrank easy answers.”

Tip number two: Resist the lure of easy answers. As H.L. Mencken understood, “For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat, and wrong.”

When the public debate on health care reform degenerates into a mud-wrestling match of shrill, superficial and extreme rhetoric, nothing good is gained.

Succumbing to the temptation of easy answers would be fatal to your intellectual growth. You did not come to Penn to regress into what Michael Oakeshott called “the clamorous and conflicting absolutes of adolescence.” Rather, you came here as intellectual adventurers who, by wrestling with complexity, will raise the caliber of discourse in our society.

You also will do well on your research papers and exams if you face up to the complexity of the problem head on. Consider the strongest alternate answers … before you settle on your own. 

Which leads me to…

Tip number 3: Fearlessly develop your own unique talents, personality, and passions to their utmost.

This is the one time in your life when, as Whitehead observed, you are “free to think rightly and wrongly, and free to appreciate the variousness of the universe undisturbed by its perils.”

Penn offers you a safe haven to make every non-life-threatening mistake from which you can grow, intellectually, socially, and ethically.
Your professors will be tough on you at times—as were mine.

I confess to having such a good time my senior year that I kept putting off writing my senior thesis … and putting it off … until I had only four days to finish what was supposed to be my crowning undergraduate intellectual accomplishment.

I pulled three consecutive all-nighters and went four days without sleep. So I handed in a senior thesis that was far from polished—and I promptly crashed on a couch, sleeping nonstop for so long that I woke up in the next decade.

Needless to say, my senior thesis did not turn out to be the magnum opus I had originally envisioned. Nor was I thrilled to receive a rather harsh critique by one of my faculty readers. But the experience taught me a very valuable and enduring lesson on the perils of procrastination.

A very successful Penn alumnus still vividly recalls how the head football coach was on his case all the time. Bob finally got up the gumption to complain to the coach. “Bob,” the coach replied, “you should worry when I’m not on your case anymore, because that will mean I don’t care about how you play.”

Penn is forever young in no small measure because we passionately care and take pride in helping one another learn from our mistakes as well as from our successes.

Whether we are exposing falsehoods in mathematical proofs … or flaws in a musical performance; whether we are seeking new insights and truths, or defending old ones, we don’t believe in coddling one another or standing on ceremony. We push one another to excel.

But as a community of scholars, we always stand by one another, and we keep an eye out for each other.

Remember: From this day forward, you are more than students of the College of Arts and Sciences…

More than Penn Nursing students …

More than Penn Engineering students ...

More than Whartonites!

You are also citizens of our great University community, with the opportunity—and the responsibility—to answer a very basic question: “What can I best accomplish here at Penn?”

 We promise you a lot of intellectual adventures, and much fun along the way. You will form many lasting friendships with your new peers. Your professors will help you to cultivate your mind, to develop your character, and to find your place of leadership in the world.

Just ask good questions, resist the lure of easy answers, and fearlessly march to the tune of your own personality, your own unique talents, and your own deepest passions, and you will do exceedingly well at Penn and beyond. Members of the great Class of 2013: You are among friends. Welcome to Penn, and may you keep us forever young and forever strong!

Related: Penn's Novel Possibilities;
New Graduate and Professional Students


Almanac - September 15, 2009, Volume 56, No. 03