‘One of the highlights of my life’

As his time as dean of the Annenberg School comes to a close, Michael X. Delli Carpini reflects on the impact he hopes he’s had.

Delli Carpini stands in Annenberg lobby, in front of windows
Michael X. Delli Carpini’s last day as dean of the Annenberg School is Dec. 31.

For outgoing Annenberg School for Communication Dean Michael X. Delli Carpini, joining Penn 15 and a half years ago as an administrator was a full-circle moment. His experience has been nothing short of a “thrill” since, he says, while chatting in his packed-up office before winter break.

The first in his family to go to college, Delli Carpini initially landed at Penn in the early 1970s as an undergraduate student, commuting from his parents’ house outside of the city, working odd jobs, and studying English literature and political science. He would pursue the latter subject as a master’s and doctoral student, and eventually teach it with a media and communication focus as a professor at Rutgers, Barnard, and Columbia, and later Penn.

“One of the reasons I was so excited to come back to Penn and one of the reasons why I am still incredibly loyal to Penn as an institution is that my experience as an undergraduate did everything that we fantasize higher education is supposed to do,” says Delli Carpini. “It opened my eyes to the world, it made me realize who I was as a person, it made me realize what kind of professional opportunities existed that I was unaware of. It’s the reason why I decided to get a Ph.D. and go on and do teaching and research.”

Delli Carpini took on the role as Annenberg dean in 2003, after serving as director of the public policy program for four years at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia while on extended leave from Barnard and Columbia. At Annenberg, he followed in the footsteps of Kathleen Hall Jamieson and, before her, George Gerbner, two people the always-humble Delli Carpini credits to building such a world-renowned communication program at Penn. 

“When I first arrived, I said my main goal was ‘to do no harm,’” he says, laughing. “It was already such a good school.”

But, no matter the circumstance, doing harm is not in Delli Carpini’s blood. He’s not only kept the Annenberg School at the top of its game, but also built on its success—increasing the diversity of its researchers and faculty, the breadth of its areas of study, and its global reach as an institution.

“The most important thing a dean does is try to articulate a vision of the school that ensures the mission and vision by its founder continues to be met, even in changing circumstances,” says former Annenberg Dean Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. And Delli Carpini has certainly met that challenge by “keeping the school on the cutting edge,” she says.

Delli Carpini, whose official last day as dean will be Dec. 31, sat down with Penn Today to reflect on his time at Penn, the impact he hopes he’s had, and discuss his plans for the future.

Thinking back, what were your biggest goals when taking on this role as dean?

There are a couple of things I thought were really important. As great as the school was, I felt that we were living in an environment, even in 2003, where greater focus on global communication and looking outside the United States was going to be really important, so I wanted to make sure that everything from our curriculum to our faculty reflected that. The second important thing was the real importance of a greater focus on digital and social media, which was beginning to be apparent even in 2003. Again, in terms of our curriculum, our faculty, our students. Then, diversifying the faculty. It was a very prestigious faculty, but one that everything from age, to ethnicity, to areas of study needed to be diversified.

Do you think you’ve met them?

It’s interesting as you step down, you realize all the things you still want to do, but I would say that I feel like we’ve made great progress in all of those areas.

What are your plans after your time as dean comes to an end?

I am going to take my first sabbatical since 1995. That’s both for my benefit but it’s also because when a dean steps down but is going to stay on the faculty for a while, at least as I am, you don’t want to be looking over the shoulders of the incoming dean, so it will give John Jackson space. I’m available to him if he has any questions or wants some advice, but I really want to give him breathing room to take over the leadership of the school. I will take a sabbatical, I plan to return to some research, also to relax a little bit, then I plan to return to the faculty.

While dean, you’ve continued to teach, mostly political communication courses at the graduate level. Why has teaching been so important to you?

From the day I realized as an undergraduate at Penn that you could have a job where you taught and did research, it’s been the most important calling that I felt like I’ve had. And I’ve loved it everywhere, at Rutgers, Barnard, Columbia, here. Teaching and doing research is how I identify myself. It turns out that I’m a pretty good administrator, so being dean has been a thrill. But I identify most centrally as a faculty member and I was lucky enough to become dean at a school that is of a size where, while it’s a lot of management that’s involved, it is still possible to teach one course a year and still possible to, at least slowly, do research, and that was important to me.

Over the past 15 years, what have been some of your biggest accomplishments?

It’s always a bit weird to talk about myself and my accomplishments. I can tell you the things that I feel proud of as I reflect on them. One [relates to] how we managed the turnover of the standing faculty. As some of our most prestigious faculty members retired and we hired new faculty we were able to do several things simultaneously. We maintained our research and teaching excellence. If anything, the quality of our faculty is better than it was, even though it was a great school before. At the same time, we were able to diversify the faculty demographically and substantively. While we still have a ways to go, we are much more diverse in terms of age, rank, gender, race, and ethnicity. A second and related thing that I’m proud of is that we are now considered one of the strongest programs in the areas of digital and social media, as well as global media and communications. Our international reputation is remarkably strong today compared to where we were 10 or 15 years ago.

Delli Carpini smiling and chatting in his Annenberg office


You’ve also managed to mesh Annenberg pretty well with other schools at Penn.

I bought in immediately to President Gutmann’s view that to do cutting-edge research, solve real world problems and be a global university, we needed to be interdisciplinary. One of the things that attracted me to Penn both as a student but especially as an administrator and a faculty member was that this is a place that not only talks the talk but walks the walk, that really believes in the importance of cross-school and cross-center and cross-department interactions. I took it as one of my goals, especially given how small a school we are, to make sure that programmatically, from teaching to research, that I tried my best to facilitate those kind of interactions. We have some kind of formal or informal programmatic relationship with I think it’s nine of the other 11 Penn schools. It could be jointly appointed faculty members, it could be secondary appointments, it could be grants that are shared, it could be teaching programs that are shared, co-sponsoring events, but we are really deeply integrated into the fabric of the University now. That’s extremely important I think for us as a school but also for the University.

Talk to me a bit about your research throughout the years.

My research is broadly in the area of small ‘d’ democratic politics and its relationship to the media and communications. I do a lot of work in the area of political knowledge—what citizens know about politics and how it influences their ability to act effectively as citizens. I’ve done work in that area throughout my career. It has become particularly timely again now with all the concerns about misinformation and fake news. I also do work in political deliberation, the various ways in which citizens talk with each other across divides and within communities, and how that ability to discuss and deliberate about political and public issues informs better decision-making. Another area has been looking at the impact of the digital media environment on the way in which information is constructed, disseminated, and consumed. The fourth area is the increasing role that popular culture and entertainment plays in political information; the way in which everything from ‘The Daily Show,’ to ‘Saturday Night Live,’ to the entertainment value of news has changed the way people consume information, in good and bad ways, I should say. And running through all four of those areas is always a focus on: Does this enhance or constrict the ability of citizens to play a role in democracy?

You have a unique perspective not only being here 15 straight years, but also being an undergraduate student here back in the day. What are the biggest changes on campus you’ve noticed?

Some of them are obvious, and some are more profound. The obvious one is just the physical plant of the University and of West Philadelphia has changed dramatically. Some of that’s true for all universities, but the physical, from everything including the buildings to the maintenance to the ability to have interesting restaurants and cultural things you can do just outside the University, that’s changed dramatically. The vast majority of these changes have been for the positive. I think Penn has done as good a job as possible making those changes while working with the West Philadelphia community. It’s always problematic at times, and you always have to be concerned about gentrification and simplifications, but overall I think Penn has done a great job with that and it is now, to my mind, one of the most beautiful and functional urban campuses in the United States. Part of that, this is not new, is because all of the 12 schools are continuous, which really helps with interactions across the campus. Another change is the way Penn is viewed, internally and externally. Penn was, when I was an undergraduate, and before I returned 15 years ago, always a great University, but it had a view of itself that was not as strong as the University itself was. A little bit of a ‘we’re not Harvard’ and ‘we’re not Princeton’ and ‘we’re not Yale.’ As the quality of the faculty, the students, and the leadership and central administration has gotten even stronger, as we have become an even better research and teaching University, our reputation has also grown nationally and internationally. Because of that, I think internally we’re more willing to acknowledge to ourselves and to others just what a great University Penn is. 

You were a first-generation, low-income college student. How has that personal experience had an impact on you as dean here?

I’m also the son of an immigrant. It’s had an impact on every aspect of my life. The way it’s affected my job as dean is everything from having a deep appreciation for the graduates and the undergraduates that we bring in or work with to understand that, while this is an elite Ivy League school, a lot of those students are like I was and don’t really know what it’s like to be a college student or a Ph.D. student, and I feel like we have a special obligation to make that clear and work with those students. And it’s just increased my commitment to the importance, especially given how expensive schools like Penn have become, of making sure that we do everything that’s possible to make it a place that is accessible to students from wide swaths of life, regardless of their ability to pay, because there are lots and lots of smart, capable, promising students who, without the opportunity to go to a place like Penn, are not going to be able to really fulfill their capabilities.

What is the impact you hope you’ve had on Annenberg students, faculty, researchers, and staff?

I hope I’ve modeled the fact that no matter how hard our jobs are sometimes, and they can be really hard and really stressful, that it’s a privilege to do what we do as faculty, students, and staff at a university, and it’s a privilege lots of people don’t get, and we should always be conscious of that and grateful for that. Another thing I actually learned from my dad, who had passed away before I got this job, unfortunately. He would have really thought it was cool that I have this job. I realize that I learned this from him even though he never expressed it in these words, but that whatever you do in your private or public life, you try to leave the place a little bit better than you found it. I think I’ve done that and I feel good about that. I feel like there’s a lot more that John Jackson, who I think is going to make a great dean, can do, there were a lot of things that I benefited from the former deans like Kathleen and George Gerbner. But I feel like in my time here, I’m leaving the Annenberg School and Penn generally a little better than it was when I got here and I’m very proud of that.

You worked pretty closely with John Jackson, who’s currently dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, and the other deans, didn’t you?

One of the things I did not expect because I was naive was how much of the job of dean is also working with the deans of other schools, and with the president and the provost. That has turned out to be one of the most special aspects of the job. Penn is such a great place and its decentralized nature means that the people that are recruited and willing to do the jobs of deans across the University are really special people who can be entrepreneurial, they are great at their scholarship, they are great at administration management, they are creative, and each dean cares about their school but also cares about the University. That combination has really been one of the best parts of my job, the experience working with them. And I have worked with a lot of them. I think I calculated not that long ago that in my time here, I’ve worked with two presidents, I think five different provosts, and 33 different deans. Just longevity makes that happen.

Are you ready to pass the torch?

It has been one of the highlights of my life to be able to be here, but I am definitely ready to step down. I don’t think you should do this job for much longer than I did it because it’s not good for you and it’s not good for the school, you need some new blood. I think John Jackson is the ideal choice, he knows us, he’s been a dean here at Penn, he’s worked with the Provost’s Office, with other deans, he’s been on Annenberg’s faculty—he was one of the faculty that was hired while I was dean; that’s an exciting fact that he’s coming back to be dean. I’m really confident in the future of the school, and I am looking forward to going back and being a faculty member.

Do you think your time as dean has gone quickly or quite slow, in reflection?

It’s amazing how quickly 15 and a half years can go, and I’ve noticed the older I get the quicker the years go. But there are also parts of it where I think back on who I was and where we were in 2003 and that suddenly feels like a long time ago. So, a little bit of both.