Inaugural Address of President Liz Magill
The University of Pennsylvania
October 21, 2022
Draw Down the Lightning
Let the experiment be made!
Let the experiment be made.
With those words, Benjamin Franklin put his pen down for the day. I imagine him looking over his personal notes, waiting for the ink to dry. The date at the top of the entry was November 7th, 1749.
Up to that time, for many years, a debate had raged among great scientific minds. What, they argued, was the nature of electricity?
Top thinkers of the day went back and forth. Electricity was mechanical. No, it was a form of fluid. Or was it two fluids? The phenomenon and the controversy intrigued Franklin. But he rejected the craze for toys, like static electricity sticks, used in public demonstrations. And Franklin was impatient with the abstract nature of the investigation by natural philosophers. He thought rigorous experiments were the way to make progress in understanding electricity.
Before long, he looked up to the sky.
If we could hold his personal notes in our hands, we'd see that Dr. Franklin was laying the groundwork for his famous kite and key experiment. Within the next few years, he would fly that kite and prove that lightning and electricity are one in the same. Today, it may be difficult to comprehend just how foundational his discovery was. It would be a century and a half before the Nobel Prize in physics was first awarded (1901), but, had it existed, it would have been his. And in Franklin fashion, his experiments produced both fundamental discovery about the properties of electricity and something so practical—the lightning rod that protected homes and cities from devastating fires.
Soon, a lightning rod was on the belfry of Independence Hall. A few blocks away, another rod was installed on a young University of Pennsylvania.
But let's go back for a moment to 1749, to Franklin's notes. Only two weeks before he wrote those words, he published something just as profound with his printing press. It was a pamphlet. Titled "Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania," it was to become Penn's founding manifesto.
This timing is not simple coincidence. Franklin knew that knowledge solved problems. It is the single most powerful force for improving life and our understanding of it.
And so, Let the experiment be made!
There's a wonderful urgency there, don't you think?
What do you hear in that phrase?
I hear the enterprising spirit of invention that defines this University as much as our founder. I hear restless curiosity and tenacious investigation. More than anything, I hear the call that Franklin answered his whole life: The call to meet the moment to make a better future.
Through the centuries, this University has answered that call as well.
We are the latest in a long and celebrated line of individuals who have been given the privilege—and the responsibility—of determining how Penn will meet this moment. How can the future be made better by what we do in the days to come?
It is in that sense, then, that today is not a moment when we gather to mark the inauguration of Liz Magill. Today, we come together to celebrate Penn.
I can think of no better place to start than by acknowledging two giants in the history of our university who join us on stage today. Dr. Judith Rodin directed Penn's sight outward and upward, embracing our community and our destiny for greatness. Ambassador Amy Gutmann advanced our university from excellence to eminence in all that we do. Their leadership utterly transformed Penn to become the globally renowned institution we know it to be today. I also want to acknowledge and thank Dr. Wendell Pritchett, who as Interim President steered Penn with a steady hand, upholding our preeminence while supporting my arrival. We owe these three leaders so much. I hope you will join me in thanking them now.
Thank you, President Ryan for your very kind and too generous remarks on my behalf. And my thanks as well to all our speakers who offered words of welcome and inspiration earlier in the program, as well as our amazing student performing groups. To raise a child, it takes a village. To successfully plan and flawlessly carry out a multi-day event of this scale and scope, it takes a good-sized town. I thank everyone, most sincerely, who helped bring this all together.
When you are the fourth of six children – who have then gone on and had children of their own – names can sometimes be an issue. There are many Magills here in attendance today, and Trousdales and Shines, and not a few Szeptyckis as well, including my husband Leon and our children, Alex and Claire. I will not pause here to name each of our family members present. Or the very many people in attendance who are dear personal and professional friends, former teachers (from high school to college to law school), former students, and even former bosses. I will only say that you have come from near and far, and I am so grateful to have you here today.
I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, a place that sometimes proudly identifies itself as 'north of normal.' The weather app says that Fargo has a cold season that lasts for three-and-a-third months, but I can tell you from personal experience it can feel upward of three years. The average high temperature in January is 19 degrees, and the North Dakotan in me wants to point out that is without windchill. But I don't remember the cold. More than anything, I remember growing up in the warming embrace of a loving and supportive family and community. The values of high plains pragmatism and caring for others had a formative influence in my early life. The fundamental importance of community is at its core. Which is what I see as being so special and potent about Penn and Philadelphia today.
Great urban universities are like great cities: They never press pause on their own reinvention. Times change. The needs of the people—and the world—also change. To meet the moment, the university must evolve as well.
You can find this truth in every square foot of our campus and at each location Penn has called home. There is a distinctive feature of our architecture, art, and outdoor space. They are not stuck in one single style or historic period. We rightly cherish and celebrate our history. Franklin's genius and spirit remain every bit as foundational today. They define who we are. And they suggest where we are headed, but they do not dictate it. At Penn, we respond to the opportunities of the present and the needs of the future.
In our early years, Penn chose 4th and Arch Street as home. This was a choice, and it was a tough decision. A wealthy Philadelphian offered a tempting gift of land. It was on 6th Street, across from the State House. This would locate the academy at the heart of power and wealth in the city. But that was not our founder's egalitarian vision. Instead, Franklin purchased the property on 4th Street.
Up to and through the American Revolution, Penn grew. By 1779, we had the first medical school and the first hospital in the country. We were also the first to combine college and professional schools. By 1800, we had more students, more faculty, more need for what Penn offered. Philadelphia had grown, too. So, the Trustees purchased a structure at 9th and Market Streets in 1801. It was once intended to be the house for the U.S. president.
Before long, we outgrew that as well.
Penn's last and greatest move was in 1872 to our present location, across the Schuylkill River. This move came at just the right moment, giving Penn the ability to expand just as American universities were being transformed. Lab work, scientific investigation, and clinical training were becoming an integral part of the University's efforts. Graduate studies ushered in the modern era of advanced scholarship and original research. The bold move to West Philadelphia kicked off Penn's pioneering transformation into a modern urban research university.
There is one move we considered but did not make, which is revealing. In the 1920s, many alumni supported the idea of relocating the University to Valley Forge. Their campaign was meant to address what some called "The Problem of a College in a City." In the 1930s, President Thomas Gates even offered a formal vision for a Valley Forge campus. The debate continued for decades and was not finally put to rest until 1959. A Board meeting resolved, "That the proposal to establish a College […] near Valley Forge is hereby abandoned."
I trust the Chair of our Board of Trustees still agrees with that decision. Right, Mr. Bok?
I think we all agree it would have been a grave error. Penn's move to Valley Forge would have been a flight away from who we are. Being directly involved in—and informed by—our great city has always been Penn's catalyst. Without Philadelphia, we would not have arrived as a leading research university; home to top schools in the liberal arts, sciences, and professions; and a leader in academic medicine. A home for the world's sharpest thinkers and sturdiest doers, from the poets and the physicists to the professionals and the public servants. An institution grounded in and whose greatness depends on and rises hand in hand with its diversity and inclusivity. A dynamic collective whole, energized across our many backgrounds and fortes. The decision to stay came from knowing who we are, knowing what fuels our vitality, and committing to it.
At every step, and with every brick, this University confronted the challenges of the time by declaring, "Let the experiment be made." Not just for us but, in, the spirit of our founder, for the good of all.
Now, I'd like to make a confession. While preparing for today, a thought has kept me up at night: How does a person capture in one speech the breathtaking scope of what Penn is and does in our world today? I could cite Penn's nearly 300,000 alumni worldwide and 28,000 current students, or the 600 undergraduate students who hail from this great city, 100 of whom call West Philly home. Or our University and health system faculty, physicians, and staff, more than 47,000 strong. Or cite Penn's translational breakthroughs—more than 1,800 patents issued in the last five years alone. Or the many honors and awards our more than 5,000 faculty have won for their remarkable scholarship, teaching, and engagement. But numbers alone don't do it. There is a better metric.
A highlight of my job has been getting out to meet students, faculty, and staff. On Move-in Day, I went out with a pad and pen and asked our newest students, the Class of 2026, for 26 top things to do on and around campus. While they were giving me fantastic suggestions, I was learning about them. The new class in many ways captures the vitality, breadth, and reach of Penn. They come from 84 countries and 49 U.S. states, and they look like the world: encompassing race and ethnicity, gender, walks of life, faith, and points of view. A significant number will be the first in their families to graduate from college. They say they're most motivated by community impact, a commitment to learning, cultural engagement, and personal development.
Our students learn and engage with a faculty second to none. A diverse faculty that contributes to our fundamental knowledge, deepens our understanding, and shares discoveries with the world. Their contributions range from ingenuity that saves lives—such as mRNA technology and CAR T therapies—to new insights that sing to us all.
Take the work of Penn scholars like Dr. Emily Wilson. She is the first woman to publish an English translation of Homer's Odyssey. Dr. Wilson has garnered every imaginable honor for her translation and is lauded for breathing new immediacy and fresh relevance into one of the oldest epics we know. Her latest project is a new translation of the Iliad. Thinking on scholarship like hers, it is clear to me that, just like any longstanding theories and other orthodoxies, translations need reexamination with fresh eyes. That's what it takes to understand the human condition anew in a world that only spins forward.
It's also a world and a reality that we still know so very little about. That is just one reason why basic research at Penn is so critical. Solutions to even the greatest challenges such as climate change depend first upon fundamental understanding—like the scholarship of Dr. Joseph Francisco. He applies novel tools from experimental physical and theoretical chemistry to enhance our understanding of the atmosphere at a molecular level. Illuminating the secrets of those chemical processes is essential to ensuring a sustainable planet.
Or take the pioneering work of Penn physicists Dr. Charles Kane and Dr. Eugene Mele. Full disclosure: I am a legal scholar, not a quantum physicist. But when I spoke with Drs. Kane and Mele, who share a Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for their discoveries, I was inspired by their theories about quantum topology and symmetry. They're exploring the unique properties of topological insulators, materials that could lead to new levels of energy efficiency, and quantum computing. Maybe, one day, we'll look back on their basic discoveries as our age's kite and key—only unimaginably tiny.
Which brings me to the big question before us. Franklin declared, "Let the experiment be made." In the centuries since, time and again, Penn has met the moment. Today, Penn's effect in and on the world has never been greater.
Now, we must ask: What comes next? What does the world need from Penn?
We face many challenges. Faith in the promise of democratic self-government and the usefulness of institutions has eroded, not just here but around the world. Climate change brings existential threats. We stand on the cusp of revolutionary changes in medicine and human health and are only beginning to realize the promise of fundamental discoveries. And too many people lack access. Our society is profoundly polarized. We can't agree on the facts. The gap widens between those who have a lot and those who have too little. Many people no longer believe that knowledge, education, service to others, and arts and culture are the best and surest paths to well-lived and better lives. And we require leaders—broadly and deeply learned, service-minded, and bearing all the other hallmarks of an excellent education.
Yes, the challenges are many. The need is great. But here's my message: In its long illustrious history, Penn has always met the moment. Now and for the future, Penn will make the moment.
We can be confident enough in our strengths to be bold, to take risks, to play offense. We can stand tall on Penn's distinctive values and the creativity and tenacity of Penn's people.
Making the moment. What does that feel like? What does that look like?
Let me offer you an image: It's drawing down the lightning.
A few years after Franklin astounded the world with his discoveries, a Scottish physician wrote to him. He asked how Franklin had first thought to conduct his famous experiment with the kite and the key. Franklin shared his thinking freely, his drive to help humankind and build knowledge, his burning curiosity, the steps in his scientific process. The sum of his efforts, as he put it so memorably, was to draw down the lightning.
Here is what making the moment, what drawing down the lightning looks like to me. It requires the right kite and key. Ours are Opportunity and Truth.
Over many centuries, universities have been unique drivers of these two things. At our most fundamental, we seek truth and convey it. At our most aspirational, we enhance opportunity and hone the tools for attaining it. No other institution in the world can claim the staying power of universities. No other institution today can fully claim our legacy. Now, today, the very nature of truth and the means to opportunity are fragile. The University of Pennsylvania is called upon to redouble our historic—and forward-looking—commitment to these twin principles.
For Franklin, opportunity meant finding new and innovative means anywhere to improve the lives of people everywhere. For Penn now, it means maximizing possibilities for people of all backgrounds. It means increasing fairness. It means strengthening diversity and inclusion. Both within Penn and all around. It's the sum of Penn's efforts throughout our city, the nation, and the world. Never in our history have we been more strongly positioned—never before has the word "opportunity" been so rich with possibility.
The same holds true for Truth. Penn empowers truth through our teaching, research, and invention. We have never been in a better place, or better prepared, to drive the highest levels of interdisciplinary collaborations. We will do even more to bring together the very best minds with the best resources. We will fuel that signature Penn drive to create and disseminate knowledge to bring about a better world.
Penn welcomes a challenge—we thrive on it. To answer the great challenges of our time, Opportunity and Truth will be our conductors, our kite and key. Our means to draw down the lightning.
Which brings me to the most important perspective of all: tomorrow. The throughline of Benjamin Franklin's life and of Penn's history—and present—is an unblinking focus on the future. Franklin sometimes regretted being born too soon, deprived of knowing what would be known 100 years hence. We have that virtuous impatience, that wonderful urgency to put our knowledge and discoveries to work in order to make the future better for all. The reason we're all here today, really, is for tomorrow.
Opportunity, Truth, Tomorrow. These ideas define Penn's history, its mission, and what we bring to the world. They embody an uncompromising commitment to excellence in all we do while constantly striving for better in everything we do. That work is ongoing. The work remains unending.
Today, we commit our University and ourselves not only to meeting the moment but to making the moment. It is the right thing, the necessary thing to do. And we are capable of doing these great things.
What is truly uniquely Penn?
It is making the experiment.
It is making the moment.
It is drawing down the lightning.
As Penn's ninth president, I pledge to do everything in my power to support this University, this city, and our people in making the moment.
The future awaits. We stand ready. Let us draw down the lightning—together.