A conversation with Leslie Laird Kruhly

Vice President and University Secretary Leslie Laird Kruhly discusses her career and the work of her office. After 19 years, Kruhly will retire from her role in June.

Leslie Kruhly
Leslie Laird Kruhly, vice president and university secretary, inside College Hall.

Since 2000, Leslie Laird Kruhly has served as vice president and university secretary in the Office of the President, working with the University Trustees to plan meetings and set priorities, cultivate volunteer leadership, help plan Convocation and Commencement—and, yes, carry that four-pound University Mace in Commencement’s academic procession.

But May’s Commencement will be her last: At the end of June, Kruhly will retire and pass the baton—the mace—to Medha Narvekar, currently senior associate vice president of Development and Alumni Relations. It will be the close of her three-decade-spanning career with the University. 

Here, in a Q&A with Penn Today, Kruhly reflects on her time at Penn, the values it has instilled in her, the ins and outs of her admittedly misunderstood position, and what element of Commencement she feels that students should pay a second look. 

We know how your story at Penn is ending, but how did it begin? How did you first end up at Penn?

I first came to Philadelphia in the late ‘70s, and I used to play squash and swim at what is now the Pottruck Gym, so I knew Penn primarily as a place where I could use the athletic facilities. Fast-forward 20 years, and I was back in Philadelphia after I’d moved away. I started at the Penn Museum in charge of development, membership, and special events. It was a great time to be at the Museum because the curators were coming to understand that the Museum should be open to the public, instead of being just for a small group of academic specialists. So, that was part of my mandate, and I raised money for the Mainwaring Wing, which is part of the Museum’s facility where organic objects are now stored. The wing was named after Bruce and Peggy Mainwaring, both of whom were Trustees at different periods.

Do you still spend time at the Penn Museum?

The great part of this job is I spend time everywhere at Penn. And yes, I do spend time at the Penn Museum. Julian Siggers and his team are doing an incredible job, and the reinstallation of the Egyptian galleries is going to be magnificent.

How did you end up in this job?

I was quite happy at the Museum and wasn’t even aware this job was open. But I was recommended by some people at Penn who knew my work at the Museum, and I was asked to interview. At the time, I wasn’t sure it would be the right job for me, but I met Judy Rodin and Jim Riepe, chairman of the board. I was really surprised to learn about the range of the work. One portion of it in particular interested me: the relationship with overseer boards.

Every school and center at Penn has an overseer advisory board appointed by the Trustees. In my work prior to coming to Penn, I worked with a fiduciary board, and I knew that dynamic well. But at Penn I was astounded there were so many advisory boards where people loved Penn Vet, or the Museum, or SAS. They were generous and philanthropic, but they weren’t being strategically positioned to be as impactful as they might be. So, that part of the job really hooked me and I realized, ‘Well, I want to do this job.’

Do people often ask you what the range of your job is?

Yes, and I would say very few people have any idea what I do or what my office does. They think stuff just gets done. And someone is doing it, and often it’s my office. I think a good way to answer this is to explain what my day might be like: In any given day, I can be planning Trustee meetings or board elections, or I might be presenting a University update at a University board meeting or I might be working on University Council.  

University Council is rare in the Ivy League. University Council is a monthly meeting and has a series of committees that meet throughout the year, where students, staff, and faculty can talk about issues important to the University. Once each month, participants have an opportunity to meet with the president and provost to discuss those issues. Conversations can be lively and, particularly for students, it’s a way for them to let the president and provost know what’s on their minds and often, what is worrying them. Council is the primary way I actively work with students. It’s a great part of Penn, because it does provide the University community direct access to the president and provost.   

This office is most known for the mace, and for Commencement and honorary degrees. So, we’re in charge of all the major ceremonies, starting with Convocation and then finishing up with Commencement. 

We also handle any issues that come to the Trustees. Most recently, it has included calls for divestment, but anything the Trustees as a group are thinking about or working on is coordinated through this office. 

I love the breadth and depth of the job. I think it’s the best job at Penn.  

Leslie Laird Kruhly sitting in office chair with mug
Leslie Laird Kruhly, vice president and university secretary, sitting at her desk in College Hall.


What would people be surprised to know about your job?

I think the range of it. I obviously work closely with the president, but I also work with almost every dean, with Penn Medicine on its board, and with development. 

Some of what we do may seem humdrum, but it’s important to people. We process all the University’s diplomas. When students need help after graduation, say they are moving abroad and they need a certification of the Penn diploma for their employer, we’ll get a message pleading for an immediate response. We fulfill hundreds of special requests each year.  

Is it strange to watch someone else enter this job with that sense of wonder?

Medha [Narvekar] is going to be superb in this position. I have worked with Medha since I became secretary because she’s such an important leader in Development and Alumni Relations. She knows the position well. I chose to retire, but if I were told I’d have to start it all again, that’d be fine. I really, really love it.

What is a fond memory you have?

One of the fondest memories, because it’s seeing history unfold, was when Amy Gutmann delivered her inauguration speech. My office organized the inauguration—it was a several-day event, with the accompanying work in the communities, symposia, an arts night at the Kimmel Center. At her inauguration ceremony at Irvine, the president gave her inaugural address and in it she introduced what she called the Penn Compact. This was October 2004, and three months into her job, and 15 years ago, she articulated what has been the strategic vision for Penn ever since. You can say that, and people think ‘Uh-huh,’ but it’s amazing that it’s so well-articulated and clear and has held. And we haven’t deviated. It’s been inspiring to see the tremendous changes at Penn that have come since that moment. And it was clear at the time that it was an extraordinary address. For me, that is one of the most compelling memories. 

Certainly, walking into Franklin Field on Commencement day is an extraordinary experience, too. As one Trustee says, it’s the only place you can go where 25,000 people are happy at the same time. It’s the start of a new phase of life for 6,000 graduates, based on what they’ve learned and done at Penn. You really get the sense of Penn as not only an incredible institution, but also the history of that institution. This year is Penn’s 263rd Commencement; I’ve been involved with 19 of them. It’s a rare experience.

How is planning for this year’s Commencement?

Planning is great because we always start a year ahead. At this point we’re planned, we’re ready. Choosing the Commencement speaker and honorary degree slate is the major work of my office, and that process does start at least a year ahead. We get input from students, and we have a Council committee, and then the Trustee committee makes a final decision. But all that is wrapped up by December prior to Commencement.

My office gets the benefit of ‘managing Commencement,’ but it is the President’s Office of Special Events who tirelessly organize logistics. And we have hundreds of volunteers as well. 

Do you like carrying the mace?

Of course. So much in life now is transactional or quick and fleeting, and when you walk into Franklin Field, and you think ‘This institution, this event has happened in some way, shape, or form 260 times,’ and of the hundreds of thousands of people who have come through Penn during those years, you have a sense of the institutional impact. The mace is relatively lightweight, and I have no problem carrying it. On occasion, it has been suggested that I twirl it, but I don’t think that’s going to happen during my tenure.

Sometimes when people take a job they talk to people who have previously held it for advice. Have you done that along the way? 

When former secretary Barbara Stevens left Penn, she went to the search firm Isaacson Miller. When it was time to do the presidential search for Amy Gutmann, we hired her firm. I worked very closely with Barbara on the search, which was great. I learned a lot from her. 

Is there an accomplishment you think of that you’re really proud of?

It goes back to the overseer boards I mentioned, and the benefits of shared input between schools and centers and the central administration. There are about 440 overseers across the University now. Most other institutions have visiting committees or advisory boards, but at Penn, the overseer boards have a strategic focus with term limits, rotations, and evaluations. Members are extremely engaged and philanthropic. Since overseers have become so much more tied to the life of the University, we now use the overseer boards as a place where we look for Trustee candidates. We have the opportunity to see what overseers do, their actions, and if they are thought leaders well before we consider them for Trustee election. 

We have great overseer boards and we have a great Trustee board. We always say Amy Gutmann is the best university president in America, and I think the Trustee board is the best university board in this country. Almost all are Penn graduates, which was not always the case. Many are Penn parents. Many came on scholarship, so they’re so committed to all-grant, no-loan financial aid. 

And then the other component, all tied together, is that with Amy Gutmann and current chair David Cohen’s strong encouragement, I’ve been really active with colleagues working to diversify Penn’s boards. Since I’ve been here, the number of alums of color both on overseer boards and the Trustee board has more than doubled. And that’s important, to more fully represent what Penn is and the values it holds.

What does retirement look like?

I love my job, and it wasn’t easy to choose to retire. Not walking into College Hall every day is going to be a huge shock to my system. So, I’m moving to Paris for five months, in January of 2020. I speak French, but I intend to become fluent. Following Paris, I’ve been approached about consulting on how to develop boards, choose board members, and how governance works. 

I am also going to work—and this is work I’m already doing individually—on issues of clerical abuse of power in the Catholic Church. I want to see women priests, married priests. I also am going to spend more time with my twin children, who are Penn 2013 graduates and live in New York. 

Any uniquely Penn quality you’ll carry with you?

At the bottom of Penn Today there is the Benjamin Franklin quote, ‘The noblest question in the world is: What good may I do in it?’ My observation is that everyone working at Penn is really dedicated to doing good. That’s a value I’ve had all of my life and will stay with me. 

Anything to add?

We’ve had some incredible Commencement speakers and honorary degree classes during my time, but I think there’s so much attention paid to who the speaker is that often the accomplishments of the other six or seven recipients get lost in the shuffle. I’d encourage people at Penn to not only look at the speaker, but also really study the recipients. In particular, our women recipients. Several years ago, in the same year we honored Aretha Franklin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Shirley Franklin, who was a Penn alum and the first woman elected mayor of Atlanta. More recently, we honored Asma Jahangir, a civil rights and women’s activist in Pakistan, who was just incredible. Sadly, she died of a heart attack about 18 months after she received the Penn honorary degree. We pick our amazing recipients because they model the achievements and behavior that we want our students to value.