Q&A with Interim President J. Larry Jameson

Penn’s leader offers a glimpse into his background; his thoughts on academic freedom, shared governance, safety on campus; and his priorities for the semester ahead.

J. Larry Jameson at a podium during the MLK Day of Service.
Named Penn’s interim president this past December, J. Larry Jameson addresses and thanks volunteers gathered for the MLK Day of Service at Houston Hall on Jan. 15, 2024.

This past December, J. Larry Jameson was named Penn’s interim president. Described by longtime colleagues as a unique leader who combines “strategic vision” with “steadfast commitment to excellence” and a “sincere dedication to fostering collaboration,” he takes the helm during an exceptionally pivotal time for the University and American higher education generally.

An accomplished physician-scientist, Jameson previously served for 13 years in a transformative administrative role at both the Perelman School of Medicine (as dean) and the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System (as executive vice president). He brings a wealth of expertise and curiosity to his new position and has already hit the ground running. Read his Jan. 17 New Year Message to the Penn community.

This week, he sat down with Penn Today to share a bit about himself, his first few weeks as interim president, and his views on issues facing Penn and other colleges and universities across the country.

Many of us know you as the dean of the Perelman School of Medicine and as the executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System. Can you tell us about your background and your pursuit of a career in medicine?

A career in medicine was not something I was at all aware of growing up. In many ways, the field and calling found me. My parents were not academics, and I went to school in the kind of environment where you kept quiet about and even hid ‘A’ grades. I was always curious and hungry to learn though, so I sought out opportunities on my own. If you can believe it, I was called to the high school principal’s office—for checking out too many unassigned library books!

Fortunately, at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was exposed to extraordinary teachers who opened my eyes to the power of knowledge and inquiry. Like most undergraduates, my interests changed over time. I initially focused on English, psychology, and anthropology, but after reluctantly taking a required science course, I became enamored by the beauty of biology, and I ended up with a chemistry degree. 

One summer, primarily to avoid going home and doing night shifts at a local warehouse, I answered a bulletin for a research project. I was deeply taken by research but also learned that experimental science is not for those who seek immediate gratification—discoveries are rare events, shared mostly with your research team, but their elusive thrill and satisfaction keep you coming back and asking questions.

I enrolled separately in M.D. and Biochemistry Ph.D. programs and had the opportunity to meet Nobel laureates and encounter role models, such as Dr. Francis Collins, who was a chief medical resident at the time. Dr. Collins later discovered the cystic fibrosis gene and led the Human Genome Project and National Institutes of Health. My clinical and research experience at Chapel Hill shaped where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. The very last journal club in my Ph.D. program covered the first cloning of a hormone gene. I became an endocrinologist and did lifelong research in the genetics of human disorders.

How does your background and training in medicine inform your approach to leadership?

Medicine trains you to listen and be empathetic. We are also trained to create what is referred to as a ‘differential diagnosis’—meaning that for each set of symptoms or tests, you begin with a comprehensive list of possibilities rather than jumping to a conclusion. This approach creates open mindedness for different possibilities—some common, some rare. Physicians are also trained to work in teams, to seek consultation, and ultimately to prevent or treat diseases. It is arduous, action-oriented training. Lastly, I would highlight the concept of professionalism in medicine. At times we encounter very challenging patients and circumstances and need to set aside our personal views and priorities to care for everyone—these principles are embedded in variations of the Hippocratic Oath.

What are you most looking forward to as interim president?

I look forward to exploring and learning more about the vast and wonderful place that is Penn. Like a first-year student entering college, I am curious and amazed by the incredible talent behind every office door and in every laboratory and classroom. The personal stories and aspirations of our students are inspiring and offer hope. Our Penn community also includes nearly half a million alumni and supporters. I am incredibly grateful for all the ways they make Penn stronger and ask for their continued support and partnership. I look forward to the many events that will connect me with the extraordinary people of Penn.

What can you share about your first weeks as interim president?

I have been overwhelmed by the messages of support I have received from people inside and outside of Penn. Understandably, they are also asking challenging questions, probing for my views on topics, such as academic freedom, safety and security, institutional neutrality, shared governance, and more. My understanding and approach to these issues will be informed by broad input, which I look forward to gathering from the Penn community as part of our journey together to position Penn for leadership in a rapidly changing world.

So how do you think about academic freedom and free speech?

I am an academic at heart and by experience. I deeply understand the importance of academic freedom and the value of open expression. These principles are fundamental to discovery, creativity, civil debate, and the emergence of new ideas. Some people outside higher education feel that our institutions are not always welcoming to different points of view. Though the specific concerns change over time, this criticism is centuries old, and we should listen to the feedback. 

As scholars, we know that challenging conventional wisdom leads to new insights. Few among us are assured that our views, our prediction models, will stand the test of time. Nor should we be. Twenty years ago, I didn’t think that mRNA was a likely platform for vaccines or gene therapy. Penn scientists Dr. Kati Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman discovered a workaround to the Achilles heel of mRNA delivery and ushered in a new era of biomedical innovation. This is a scientific example, but every field could cite the evolution of thinking based upon evidence or new ideas. In the arts, humanities, and social sciences, you also see the fields change in response to unanticipated, disruptive concepts, debate, and societal changes. At Penn, I hope we can welcome challenging ideas, while always rigorously, but civilly debating them and embracing discourse and disagreement with a goal of seeking truth.

How does free speech intersect with Penn’s conduct policies?

Our codes of conduct are intended to reinforce a culture and environment that is conducive to learning, scholarship, and personal growth. At Penn, I hope that we hold ourselves to high standards, whether academic, moral, or behavioral. 

In addition to establishing policies, it is important that they are communicated, understood, and clear, while leaving room for judgment since you cannot anticipate every possible circumstance. While our values are steadfast, we revisit our policies on a regular basis, for example to align with government regulations or to adapt to emerging technologies, such as AI or social media.

How do you view governance at Penn, and how will you work with the University’s Board of Trustees and new Chair Ramanan Raghavendran?

Like other universities, Penn has a model of shared governance with our Trustees, who delegate management of the University to academic leaders and to the faculty. The Penn Trustees are a distinguished group of volunteers who love this institution, have extraordinary expertise in fields outside of academia, provide a sounding board for University leaders, and are committed to ensuring that Penn thrives as an institution now and in the future. 

I look forward to working closely with Ramanan. He is a consummate University citizen, with three Penn degrees, and his venture capital support of companies involved in sustainability highlight his commitment to mission-driven work. He is naturally curious, which led him to seek three Penn degrees, beginning in SEAS [School of Engineering and Applied Science], then Wharton, and then SAS [School of Arts & Sciences], and his interests evolve over time, while being grounded in rigor.

The other thing people consistently note about Ramanan is his personal warmth and undivided attention to the person in front of him. Like so many Trustees, Ramanan is a champion of Penn’s faculty, students, and staff. He has a global perspective and a long-term view for Penn.

Will the University Task Force on Antisemitism and Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community continue? What’s the status of this work?

The Task Force and Presidential Commission are hard at work. The Task Force provided me with an early report on their work, which you can read more about on their website. I also met with and charged the members of the Presidential Commission, which was just announced. I have asked the chairs of these important groups to provide interim updates, with actionable steps we can take now, as well as to offer recommendations that will serve Penn for the long term.

We have stated repeatedly that hate has no home at Penn. But I want us to aspire to more than the absence of hate. I want us to model respect, tolerance, excellence, and civil inquiry that provides a supportive and objective atmosphere for learning and scholarship.

Many students have expressed concerns about feeling safe on campus. How are you thinking about safety and security as students return to campus?

It saddens me that we live in a world where physical safety is a pervasive concern. I want everyone at Penn to not only be physically safe but to feel safe as well. We are fortunate to have one of the very best public safety divisions in the country. For years, Penn has led the way with training, alert systems, visible uniformed officers, as well as non-uniformed officers, and video-monitoring. This dedicated workforce is deeply committed to our students, faculty, and staff. They chose their profession so we could do our jobs. In recent months, we have increased staffing, increased monitoring in areas of potential risk, added escort services, and ramped up communications about resources. 

We are also focused on enhancing our system to report concerns, particularly from those who might be quietly reluctant to share them. We also want to be transparent about events, when they do happen, in part because, without clarity, the perception of risk may seem greater than the reality.

Do you have advice for our community about how we can navigate the challenging national and global issues facing our society?

As I mentioned before, at Penn, we hold one another to a high standard. This is not arrogance; it is aspirational. The students and faculty selected to join this institution are among the most accomplished and talented in the world. We should start from a position of respect for one another, being willing to challenge ideas, but avoid crossing boundaries that stifle open dialogue, or worse, are threatening or hurtful. To succeed in our missions, we must champion civil discourse, rigorous assessment of data, and the search for truth, with a goal of spreading knowledge to improve the world.

How have you been thinking about In Principle and Practice, the University’s new strategic framework?

While president, Dr. [Amy] Gutmann launched the Penn Compact nearly 20 years ago. The themes of Inclusion, Innovation, and Impact served as guiding lights and are recognized by everyone at Penn. President [Liz] Magill charged a group, led by Provost [John] Jackson, to engage broadly with the Penn community and to offer a set of recommendations to build upon Penn’s progress, while adapting to the many external forces relevant to our missions. With the benefit of this work, the University launched In Principle and Practice in November. In the coming year, we have an opportunity to put this plan into action. I am asking every school and center to consider how their unique and complementary skills can be leveraged to help Penn lead in a changing world. Provost Jackson and I will be partnering with the deans and other academic leaders across campus to identify and support new initiatives that align with this strategic vision.

Any final thoughts for the Penn community?

I hope we can all find joy in the Penn experience—whether on campus or as alumni. Friendships, learning, discovery, and fun—these are just a few of elements that drew all of us to Penn. While we must and will address and manage the many challenges facing our University, I encourage each of us to also appreciate the incredible privilege and opportunity afforded to us by being at Penn.