Convocation 2016: Standing Together, Standing Apart, Remarks by Penn Provost Vincent Price
2016 Convocation Remarks by Provost Vincent Price
Standing Together, Standing Apart
As Provost, I have the great pleasure of welcoming you to Penn. To the countless things you will learn here, let me add one more: What a Provost is. I am Chief Academic Officer, and I’m also a professor of communication in the Annenberg School. A few other fun facts: I am Penn’s 29th Provost. Unlike William Smith, Penn’s first Provost, I was not personally recruited by Benjamin Franklin. And unlike our first Provost, I’ve never taught my classes from jail. Let me take just a minute to explain.
In 1758, Provost Smith—who was brought here by Franklin to teach philosophy and logic—was imprisoned by the Pennsylvania Assembly, in the Old Jail that once stood at 3rd and Market Streets.
Franklin and Smith shared a belief in the value of a broad-based, practical education, with classes in English and not just Latin, and training for vocations other than the clergy. But while they might have shared an educational philosophy, the two men did not see eye to eye politically. Franklin, as you know, was a revolutionary; Smith was widely regarded as a loyalist. And, in fact, Smith was eventually forced to leave Philadelphia.
The two men disagreed bitterly. They built walls. But those walls became classrooms. And those classrooms became this University—an institution that has thrived for nearly three centuries, longer than the nation itself. And a community that thrives not despite our differences, but because of them.
Why tell this story tonight? Two reasons. First, to illustrate a lasting truth: that successful communities are built by those who work together while still retaining their individualism, their essence. And second, to show that community does not mean uniformity, or even conformity. Here, you can be, or become, whomever you wish. And we promise not to run you out of town.
I’d like to talk about what it means to be part of a community, and the ways our community shapes who we are. And about what it means to be, simultaneously, part of a group and an individual. About standing together, and standing apart.
The Rev. Charles L. Howard, University Chaplain gave the Invocation.
Photographs by Eddy Marenco
If you’re like I was, you may be looking around wondering about how exactly you will fit in. Not long ago, the Huffington Postasked seniors what they wished they knew when they were first-years. Let me quote a few of the responses. “Get involved, right away.” “Don’t be a bum. Dress in somewhat of a presentable fashion.” “Don’t tell anyone you like Justin Bieber: it will ruin everything for you for three-and-a-half years.”
What do these words of wisdom have in common? They focus on reaching out, connecting, on making a good impression. Becoming part of a group, belonging. These are natural, and essential, ingredients to a good, happy, and productive life. We are social animals; belonging to groups is how we realize and define who we are. As you consider which groups to join and which classes to take, move beyond what’s comfortable. Choose classes that seem like a stretch, and join groups that seem different. If you don’t like what’s offered, start a new group. Perhaps a Bieber fan club.
One of the great things about your situation tonight is that you are all new. Your past achievements have brought you here; but your past does not define you. The admissions office has seen your file, but to everybody else, you’re unknown. Penn is a place for you to step out of those old social roles, and try on some new ones. Sort of like an audition for your future self. And not just one audition: you can try out for many different roles. You decide if you get the part.
Now, that comparison to acting is more than metaphorical. Many psychologists have concluded that the self is defined through our interaction with others, in groups. Playing new roles can be challenging at times. We probably all experience a little stage fright now and again. But it can be, and should be, liberating. And fun. So, go for it.
However, keep in mind that’s only half of the story. As you try on new roles, be sure to nurture that deeper, personal self who is you, and you alone. Revolutionary, or royalist. What do I want? What do I think? What should I do? You will have hours upon hours to read, and to study, on your own. Hours for introspection. That too is one of the great and rare things about college. Embrace that opportunity. And by the way, focusing on yourself also means staying healthy, and, especially, getting enough sleep. I mean that. Get some sleep. Invigorated, we like. Exhausted, not so much.
A final thought: All communities—this one included—require trade-offs, a balancing act between the group and the individual. When do you lose yourself in the crowd, and when do you stand out in it? When do you look for and express what’s common between us, or what is uncommon? The result is that communities face tension between the group and the individual: Between what we share and what makes us unique.
We hope—indeed, we expect—that you will share your talents—your differences—with us. We all succeed—individually and collectively—because of them, not despite them. Seek personal achievement, sure. But strive for collective engagement. Improve yourself to improve our community, and the world. That was the vision of Benjamin Franklin and William Smith almost three centuries ago. It remains our vision today.
Members of the Class of 2020, welcome to our community. Welcome to Penn!