A message from President Amy Gutmann on recent tragic events

Words cannot adequately convey the anger, grief and frustration that we are all experiencing during this difficult time for our city and country. The horrific killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others have shocked and saddened us all. These are grim manifestations of ongoing racism, repression, and inflammation of hatred in our society.

Yet out of our despair, we can also perceive hope. Those who are peacefully protesting have given voice to change that is long overdue. Our nation needs to reaffirm, in a unifying voice, that we all share a common bond, first as human beings, and as citizens, governed by the same laws and constitutional rights, deserving of equal protection and opportunity. We speak up in solidarity with our Black sisters and brothers, for the indignities and violence they have experienced simply because of the color of their skin. We speak up for every person who is subjected to cruelty, discrimination, and injustice. 

We must, as a country and community, resolve to find better ways forward to understand and address systemic racism and closely related economic, educational, political, and social inequities. We must work together to build more hope for the future. 

That work begins at home, in our beloved University. For every great stride Penn has made in addressing educational inequities—more than doubling our proportion of first-generation and low-income students, tripling financial aid, substituting grants for loans, creating our Penn First Plus programs, and partnering with our city to help over 250 local public schools and hundreds of social service organizations—we recognize how much more remains to be done to better address systemic racism and educational disparities. 

Our work radiates out, in partnership with our beloved city, and further still, to help heal the wounds and overcome the injustices of our deeply polarized society and world. 

We are social beings whose lives and psyches are strained by the distancing that we must practice to protect everyone around us from the novel coronavirus. The ravages of that virus—the death toll and the economic toll—exacerbate pre-existing health disparities and health care inequities of our society. Here, too, our work radiates out into our city, country and beyond. Penn is home to a world-class academic medical system with top-ranked nursing, dental and veterinary schools whose faculty, students, staff, and alumni have been toiling tirelessly to care for vulnerable individuals and communities. Yet we must pledge to do more to address health care disparities and inequities in the months and years ahead.

We thrive when we join together, when we care for one another, when we speak and act with empathy for and in solidarity with one another. Today is not the first time—and it will not be the last time—that we speak up and stand up with our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and entire community of caring, loving, hurting human beings. 

As events unfolded this week, my thoughts have constantly returned to how grateful I am to be a part of the University of Pennsylvania. To the pride I feel at working with such extraordinary students and colleagues. To the hope I have for our great city.

We know that we are all in this together. And we will get through it, helping each other, working for a better community and country. 

Today, Provost Wendell Pritchett and I announce Penn’s support for a set of collaborative and innovative projects—to be created by our students, faculty, and staff brainstorming together—that will propel progress in our University, city, and society toward a more inclusive and impactful university and community. We speak for everyone at Penn in resolving to do our part to help heal wounds, strengthen community, and create hope in our world. These projects include: 

Penn projects for progress

As an institution dedicated to addressing society’s most intractable problems, Penn will establish a new fund, intended to encourage students, faculty, and staff to design and implement pilot projects based on innovative research that will advance our aim of a more inclusive university and community. We seek to seed impactful projects, grounded in outstanding Penn research, that will offer new ideas to enhance the quality of life for members of our community now and in the future. Proposals for projects from individuals will be considered, but those from diverse teams—broadly conceived—will receive priority consideration. Initially, project proposals are to be related to one or more of the following challenges: 

  • Eradicating or reducing systemic racism
  • Achieving educational equity
  • Reducing health disparities based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or social determinants of health

A selection committee will make recommendations to the President and Provost based on their judgement of a project’s potential to make an immediate and sustainable impact. The initial fund will be $2 million—with the possibility of raising additional resources—to support compelling projects and promising proposals. A follow-up communication to our community will provide details, including how to apply for funding. 

A Year of Civic Engagement

Civic engagement, in the year ahead, will be more essential than ever. We made a commitment, as we wrote last month, to begin our fall semester as scheduled. We must now make an equal commitment to sustaining our community. As a first step in this direction, we are announcing a Year of Civic Engagement for our University. The 2020-21 academic year will include programs, workshops, student-led dialogues, and opportunities to engage with the communities outside our campus, from our immediate West Philadelphia neighborhood, to our surrounding city as it recovers from the pandemic, to the wider circle of our nation and our world. These activities will acquire particular potency in our U.S. election year, in which we know many of you will be involved, which will span from the campaign and election in the fall semester to the inauguration and its aftermath in the spring semester. 

At the same time, the year will draw on Penn’s historic tradition of civic engagement. We were founded by Benjamin Franklin with a vision of a nonsectarian school to educate the leaders of a growing city, with a focus on practical impact on contemporary life. We continue this mission in the Penn Compact 2022, which articulates impact as one of the three core goals that guide our campus. And it is embodied in a group of dynamic ongoing programs at Penn that will drive the Year of Civic Engagement: Civic House and its pioneering Civic Scholars Program, the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, the Fox Leadership Program, and the exciting new SNF Paideia Program, which creates a hub for civic dialogue on campus, integrating service, wellness, and citizenship to educate the civic and community leaders of the future.

We welcome suggestions from every member of the Penn community as we develop activities for the year ahead. For our incoming Class of 2024, the Year of Civic Engagement will begin in New Student Orientation, with a Penn Reading Project that includes texts from Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr., along with small group discussions and larger presentations. For all of us, we can expect to learn from, engage with, and enrich each other as we together navigate the months to come. We will continue to share more information as plans for next year move forward. 

The Campaign for Community

The Campaign for Community was launched in 2015 to strengthen our Penn community by finding ways to discuss and understand the vital social issues that may appear to be the most difficult or intractable. In the past five years, it has sponsored hundreds of campus events devoted to its three core goals: 

  • To promote understanding of and respect for multiple points of view on important topics related to the University community
  • To encourage dialogue and discussion among members of the community about issues with the potential for difference and disagreement
  • To create opportunities for all members of the University’s community to participate in conversations about important topics

As issues of racial justice and social equity become ever more important—and yet ever more polarizing—we want to encourage all members of the Penn community to use Campaign funding and sponsorship for events in the coming year. We especially encourage small-group events, with consideration for physical distancing, that help us discuss the vital issues that we share and try to heal the divisions plaguing our world. We will circulate more specific information about Campaign grants and proposals in the upcoming week.