The story of Penn—through the lens of the city

The histories of Penn and West Philadelphia are closely intertwined. Just as it could be said that Penn has directly informed the development of West Philadelphia, it’s also true that West Philadelphia has largely shaped the evolution of Penn.

So closely linked are the city and the University that when John Puckett and Mark Frazier Lloyd sought to write a definitive history of the University in the last half of the 20th century, they quickly realized that their history would not simply be a story about Penn. Rather, it would also be a story about Penn specifically in the context of the city.

“Penn is a reflection of the city in its own way,” says Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records Center. “We are an urban university, even if we like to call ourselves an ‘urban garden.’ If you go back and look at the University planning efforts, even from the plans being drawn up in the 1910s right on up through the current plan under [President] Amy Gutmann, you’ll see that all of those plans concern themselves largely with how we should be responding to the city around us.”

With that context in mind, Lloyd and Puckett’s new book, “Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000,” is best described as a “shared history of University politics and urban policy.” This comprehensive history, seven years in the making, is the first to delve so deeply into the University’s evolution throughout the 20th century, as it developed into one of the world’s leading research institutions while simultaneously redefining its relationship with West Philadelphia.

“It’s a story of the American research university in the second half of the 20th century,” says Puckett, a professor in the Graduate School of Education. “It’s a social history and an institutional history.”

Drawing on historical records from both the city of Philadelphia and the University, Puckett and Lloyd explored the dynamics, both political and social, that helped to drive decision-making processes, policies, and ambitions of the four presidents who led Penn in the last half of the 20th century: Gaylord Harnwell, Martin Meyerson, Sheldon Hackney, and Judith Rodin. Each of these presidents faced challenges unique to their time, and the ways each responded to those challenges ultimately defined what the University would become.

“One of the things that surprised me the most was how well-matched these four presidents were to their times,” Puckett says.

Puckett says he was particularly interested to learn more about Meyerson’s tenure. Before working on the book, he admits he had largely believed Meyerson’s time at Penn to be one of mostly turmoil and stagnancy. In the course of his research, though, he gained newfound respect for a president who inherited a university facing a financial crisis and crippling crime issues.

“I got into it a bit and realized that while Meyerson made some mistakes, he was playing with the difficult hand he was dealt and he ultimately did it very well,” Puckett says. “He kept Penn afloat at a time when the University was running huge budget deficits, and then managed to turn that around in only four or five years.”

Meyerson’s unheralded but important work formed a crucial bridge to the transformative presidencies that would follow. Hackney, who Puckett describes as a “Southern progressive,” arrived in 1981 and was the first Penn president to push the University to think differently about its relationship to West Philadelphia and its responsibilities as a social change agent. He was responsible for the launch of the Center for Community Partnerships and was the first Penn president to live in Eisenlohr Hall.

After Hackney came the hugely important tenure of Rodin, who after a couple of years in office realized that simply adding more personnel to the University police force was not the answer to solving the many problems plaguing West Philadelphia and Penn.

“Rodin’s West Philadelphia Initiatives were truly transformative,” Puckett says. “They were multi-pronged, and they had to be. They were about commercial and retail development, and the creation of the University City District and the safety ambassadors, and the greening effort the University made. She knew Penn’s very survival was at stake, and that if we could not do something about the social problems that were spilling out of West Philadelphia all over campus, we would be in real trouble. If you look around today, you will see plenty of monuments to her success.”

Those successes paved the way for the major initiatives that have since helped define the Gutmann administration—including the hugely ambitious push to redefine the eastern edge of University City. From the redevelopment of the Hajoca building, to the creation of the spectacular Penn Park, to the ongoing effort to forge greater connections between West Philadelphia and Center City, Penn under Gutmann has continued to exert its influence to help drive positive change in the city.

Without question, the Penn of today is a very different place than the Penn of 50 or 25 or even 10 years ago.

The book, Lloyd says, tells the story of how that evolution unfolded, and of the remarkable leaders who made so many impactful changes happen.

“I would say that I have gained more respect for the leaders who are truly gifted at pushing forward institutional change,” Lloyd says. “Moving an institution as large as Penn forward is a very difficult thing to do, and the people who successfully change things in  accordance with their vision are truly remarkable people. At Penn, you can just name one after another—the Rodins and the Harnwells and the Gutmanns—and Philadelphia is a better place because of those people.”

Becoming Penn