Staff Q&A with Leslie Laird Kruhly

Anyone who has watched a Penn Commencement in the past dozen years knows Leslie Laird Kruhly’s work. She leads the procession of senior administrators, Trustees, and graduates down Locust Walk each May, carrying the University Mace—an ornate, four-pound ceremonial staff.

Kruhly doesn’t mind people associating her with the Mace at Commencement, but her duties as Secretary of the University actually run much broader and deeper than the events of that day. It’s Kruhly’s office that manages Penn’s relationship with its Trustees and boards of Overseers, organizing meetings and coordinating all communications. Kruhly also administers the use of the University seal and shield, arranges University Council meetings, and runs any other ceremonial events that arise, from the 2004 inauguration of President Amy Gutmann, to the recent memorial service for former President Martin Meyerson.

Kruhly says she interacts with people from every corner of Penn—which definitely makes it one of the best jobs on campus.

Twelve years ago, Kruhly was recruited to the position by then-President Judith Rodin. At the time, Kruhly was working as the associate director of development and special events at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “I was encouraged to have an interview with [President Rodin] and my first thought was, ‘My goodness, I wonder what [the Secretary of the University] is or does.’”

We sat down with Kruhly to learn more about her role working with Penn’s Trustees and Overseers, how her office picks the Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients each year, and what it’s like to carry the Mace all the way down Locust Walk.

Q. What are your main duties?
A. My office manages institutional governance. Penn is a not-for-profit corporation and the legal entity of Penn is the Trustees who, as a group, hold fiduciary responsibility for the University. My job is to be a liaison between the administration and the Trustees. We have a large board—Penn has 56 voting members and about 18 emeritus and two ex-officio members—the President and the governor. The full board meets three times a year and we have an executive committee, which is a smaller group within the Trustees which can act on behalf of the full board on passing resolutions and making decisions. Part of the job is planning the meetings for board members.
We have 11 standing committees and each of them has an administrative liaison so [planning meetings] means [deciding] what topics should be discussed, where we are in our strategic planning, or on any governance issues where it is time for Trustee input, advice or feedback, and what questions we would like the Trustees to consider.

Q. What are Trustees charged with?
A. They’re basically tasked with the long-term financial and programmatic health of the University. They’re not making day-to-day decisions. As we have moved into a number of new areas, like the no-loan policy, the creation of the PIK professorships, there have been a number of new initiatives that President Gutmann has brought forward, that the Trustees need to understand and support.
The board meetings run for a day-and-a-half and the first day is all committee meetings. There’s an enormous amount of work done by the administrative groups, but the final synthesis and decisions about meeting content land in this office. We also plan what we call plenary sessions [where] we will plan presentations around academic issues, fundraising issues, or special events. The next day is the Stated Meeting, where resolutions are officially passed, and that’s a very formal proceeding. At many meetings, we’ll pass between 20 and 30 resolutions.

Q. Who is appointed to the Board of Trustees?
A. The Trustees are a fabulous group. With two exceptions, they’re all Penn alums. Many of them are also Penn parents, either currently, or in the relatively recent past. A number of them serve on Overseer boards so they may be very involved with what’s happening at SAS, Wharton, Engineering, or Design. Individually and collectively, they have a really broad base of knowledge about Penn, so we do our best to think of sessions that will be intellectually challenging for them. They’re all very active in their professions. They’re doing this as volunteers. They want to help Penn, but they also want to learn something new, get something out of it. One of our most well-received sessions, and something we do annually now, is ‘speed dating’ with the faculty. There may be eight Trustees seated at a table and during the two or three courses of a meal, a faculty member will come sit with them for 20 minutes and talk about their work. The Trustees love that because they’re here to support the academic enterprise that is Penn.
Penn has been blessed with two very engaged chairmen since I took this position. The first was James Riepe. The Trustees elected David Cohen as his successor and they bring different Penn experiences to their chairmanships, but they are both really esteemed by their colleagues on the Board and they both devote enormous time and energy.

Q. How is your job different than that of secretaries at other universities?
A. Some secretaries are also the general counsel of the corporation, some are chief of staff to the president or manage the president’s office. Those duties are not the same at Penn. For secretaries, the main responsibility is working with the president and the board. It is always running the major institutional events, so those are the two key aspects that are common.
My job—and I think I’m so fortunate in this—is different because no other school has the system of Overseer boards that Penn has. Each is an advisory board to a given school or center. ... I attend many of their meetings just to get a sense of what issues are hot, what those volunteers are concerned about in conjunction with their dean. I’ll give a University update, so I have an official role in some of the meetings. 

Q. You also work with University Council. What is your role there?
A. University Council is the only entity at Penn in which faculty, students, and staff can meet on an ongoing regular basis to discuss topics of interest to the University community. … I work very closely with the faculty tri-chairs and the Faculty Senate office [to] pick four or five focus issues a year on which we want to go into depth. It’s very substantive work. This year the focus issues have [included] how Penn interacts with government. We just had a presentation on counseling and psychological services, and if there are adequate services available for students who need counseling or assistance. We’ve talked about Penn’s relationship with West Philadelphia.

Q. Has your job evolved over time?
A. At some point in time, this office used to have responsibility for dean searches. That changed prior to my time. Under my direction, there’s been a lot more engagement. That was something that was important to [former Penn President] Judy Rodin when I was recruited. The Overseer boards really are the course for candidates for Trusteeship. It’s impossible to be an elected Trustee unless you have some substantial volunteer history, and the vast majority we get to know through their work as Overseers.

Q. You have a background in development. How did that help you prepare for this job?
A. Before I came to Penn, I worked for the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, which is a nonprofit, and I was Executive Vice President there. Part of that responsibility is working with that board, which is much smaller, but it [was] setting the agenda, making certain the Trustees felt engaged, that they, in their own way, were supporting the work of that organization. I did that also at the Penn Museum.

Q. Can you talk about some of the more ceremonial aspects of your job? I’m thinking specifically of the Mace you carry during every Commencement procession.
A. The Mace is basically a symbolic representation of the authority of the University. I should start by saying it’s not heavy. It’s rather light, which is good since I carry it for some distance. I would encourage anyone who is a Penn employee who’s not been to Commencement, to go, because it is such a fabulous day in the life of the University and in the life of the graduates and their families. On that single occasion, you really get a sense of how critical and formative the college or professional experience is, how dedicated the faculty are, how lucky the graduates are to have had the Penn experience. As one of our Trustees is fond of saying, he loves to come to Commencement because it’s the only place he can be where 25,000 people are all happy at the same time.

Q. How does your office choose the Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients?
A. Our goal is to identify people—as President Gutmann likes to say—who are ‘best in class.’ Whatever their professional or academic or intellectual or public life pursuit is, we want to recognize the best and to have a speaker who represents the best of whatever their activity is, and be able to speak well in a football field and be someone who will be known. We’re not shy about it—we like to pick people who students, both undergraduate and graduate, will want to hear from and people we believe will have something to share.

Q. When do you expect to announce this year’s speaker?
A. We usually announce right before Spring Break, so the end of February, early March.

Q .What are your favorite signature events at Penn?
A. Commencement is certainly a standout. Convocation is up there as a near-equal—and people don’t realize this—Convocation is the only time that a given class will be together as a group until Commencement. Convocation, when you sit on the platform and look at the students’ faces, they’re excited and curious. They haven’t yet started classes. They’re just figuring out what dorm they live in. There’s so much anticipation.

Leslie Kruhly - slideshow