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COUNCIL: State of the University
November 3, 2009, Volume 56, No. 10

Provost Vincent Price

It’s my pleasure to give you a brief overview of the state of the University today.

As Penn’s new Provost, one of my first priorities has been to take a consultative role in academic affairs.

To this end, I’m in the process of conducting half-day site visits to all of Penn’s 12 schools, meeting with Deans, chairs, and faculty, as well as touring buildings and other facilities. The purpose of these visits is to learn, first-hand, not only what we are doing well—which fortunately is most things—but also where we have some challenges. They have provided an opportunity to discuss coordination of academic programs and staffing, new initiatives, finances, and communication within and among schools.

In essence, it’s a learning tour, with the goal of having a dialogue with as many University stakeholders as possible, so we can make informed decisions going forward. These site visits should wrap up in the spring.

I’m happy to report that Penn’s world-class faculty remains as strong as ever, and we’re in the process of adding some new programs and initiatives to enhance our core strengths and continue to increase and support diversity.

Naturally, we’re increasing diversity through recruitment: Among faculty, the overall percentage of minority members has grown in the past 15 years from 8.9% to 16.6%. Well over a quarter of new faculty hires in recent years have been members of minority groups. The percentage of women faculty has also grown, from under 20% to nearly 29% over the same period. And this year we are launching a new Women’s Faculty Forum.

We’re also concentrating on developing our faculty across the ranks and throughout the professional life-span. We’ve mandated that all 12 schools develop mentoring programs for junior faculty and enhanced annual reviews for all faculty members. We’ve also instituted year-long leadership training programs for our chairs, to help them better lead and manage their departments effectively.

We’ve added a program of workshops for faculty search committees, to encourage best practices, offer them resources for dual-career couples, and help them recognize and address unconscious bias in hiring. 

We have also pursued a number of new family-friendly policies, among them adjustment of mandatory review periods for faculty bearing children, increased flexibility for reductions in duties, and an adoption benefit.

I’m happy to report that Penn continues to be at the forefront of critical interdisciplinary research. Addressing research from a broad and varied range of viewpoints reflects Penn’s strong belief in diversity of thought: Not only for its own sake, but also because tackling complex problems demands that we avoid narrow disciplinary perspectives.

Let me give just two brief examples. First, our new Center for Neuroscience and Society is an outgrowth of our strong and expanding programs in neuroscience and is a coalition of a number of schools and departments, focusing on the complex social, ethical, and legal challenges posed by scientific advances.

Along similar lines, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, working closely with several other schools, has just begun a pioneering program in Market and Social Systems Engineering, which analyzes new technologies— such as Google and Facebook—from cross-disciplinary perspectives.

Penn has received significant funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, approximately $160 million in stimulus funding for research grants. While this is obviously a welcome development, we also recognize the importance of being prepared for some decline in funding as the stimulus money works its way through the system.

Let me now turn to initiatives on the student side. As you know, Penn welcomed its strongest and most diverse freshman class in our history this fall. Just a few numbers: Forty percent of our incoming freshman identified themselves as African American or Black, Latino, Asian or Asian American, or Native American. Thirteen percent of the class is from countries other than the US, and about 9 percent are the first in their family to attend college.

I’m pleased to report that the Provost’s Summer Undergraduate Research Mentoring program—which pairs faculty mentors with undergraduate researchers—increased its fellowships by more than a third, to 38, this year.

On the graduate side, last month seven masters and doctoral students presented research funded over the summer by the GAPSA-Provost Award for Interdisciplinary Innovation, with projects ranging from the creation of a magnetic resonator piano to a study of Chinese nationalism and the media.

In support of Penn’s graduate and professional students, this past year we increased stipends and expanded family leave policies, and we placed a greater emphasis on supervision and graduation rates for PhD students. 

On the global front, the Hewlett Award for Innovation in International Offerings funded five research projects this summer, in countries ranging from Mongolia to Uganda and Ecuador to China. Since 2008, Hewlett awards have provided support to almost 100 undergraduate and graduate students for international summer experiences.

This past January, we launched the International Internship Program, which has developed partnerships with global NGOs, charities, and public-private ventures. Over the summer, 32 Penn students worked for these organizations around the world, and we expect at least that many this coming year.

As part of the Penn Global Forum, next month we will welcome Rory Stewart, who will speak about his time creating an NGO in Afghanistan, as well as his work for the British Foreign Office in post-war Iraq.

Closer to home, our local engagement initiatives this year center on Arts & The City, our year-long celebration of arts and culture across our campus and throughout our city, neighborhood, and region.  

For example, the Arthur Ross Gallery just closed a wonderful show called West Philadelphia: Building a Community, on the development of our neighborhood since the latter half of the 19th century. The Gallery worked with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Penn’s own archives to feature a wide range of historical documents, including maps, photos, oral histories, and watercolors with scenes from some of the neighborhood’s earliest years.

This exhibit is just one piece of the many programs and initiatives in our theme year on Arts and The City. We began organizing theme years three years ago, as an outgrowth of the Penn Reading Project in New Student Orientation, and this is our most ambitious one yet. 

To tell us more about the history and purpose of our academic theme years, I am pleased to turn things over to Andy Binns, Vice Provost for Education. Following Andy, we will hear from David Fox, director of Academic Initiatives in the Office of College Houses and Academic Services, who will tell us about this year’s highly successful Penn Reading Project on The Gross Clinic. Then from Ty Furman, director of Arts Initiatives in the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life, who will talk about the exciting student initiatives and local partnerships that are such a central part of the Arts & The City Year.

Ed. Note: More to come on the academic theme years in a future issue.

Almanac - November 3, 2009, Volume 56, No. 10