"Taking Intellectual Leaps"

Convocation Ceremony Speech
by Penn President Amy Gutmann
September 7, 2004

Members of the Class of 2008: and transfers: Welcome to your second family and mine, The University of Pennsylvania. Convocation is rich in tradition. It marks the official beginning of your lives as Penn students–with all the freedom and responsibility that University life bestows upon you. This Convocation is special because you and I are beginning our life at Penn together. And I know we’re a perfect fit for one another. You are remarkable men and women who will spend the most transformative years of your lives at a remarkable research university in a fabulous city. I anticipate quite an adventure for all of us. Even if nothing can surpass the drama of New Student Orientation.

Of course, our transfer students – Transfers, where are you? – I single you out because you already know what college life is like. We, too, have something in common. I recently transferred from Princeton University, where I spent a glorious 28 years. But like you, I consider the move to Penn to be a major upgrade! I’m delighted to hear that all of you are having a lot of fun now, and I’m also impressed that you already seem to know what you’re doing. Let me assure you: The fun should last. But if you still know what you’re doing next week, then I will know that we’re not doing our job.

Near the end of his life, the great U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, was riding on a train headed north. Holmes was completely absorbed in his reading when the conductor came to collect his ticket. There was a small problem. Holmes couldn’t find his ticket anywhere. He checked all his pockets, each time growing more agitated. By the time he finished searching his briefcase, Holmes was in full frenzy. The conductor gently tried to settle Holmes down. “ Mr. Justice,” he said. “There’s no need for alarm. I know you are a man of integrity. You can mail the ticket to the company at your convenience.” “ I don’t care about the damn ticket!” Holmes snapped. “ I just want to know where the hell I’m supposed to be going!” Those of you who haven’t declared a major and those of you who are adrift at sea about your future career are probably anxious to know where the hell you are going!

Fear not! You are all now on the same Penn train. None of you can know for certain the changes and surprises that await you. But you can educate yourselves at Penn to engage the future and lead. The first signs of a great mind are openness to change, a willingness to ask the tough questions, the guts to lead, and the courage to pursue the deeper truths in life. We didn’t offer you a ticket to take the ride of your lives at Penn only on the basis of your impressive talents and high marks. That’s not enough to cut it at Penn.

We want you here because we see in you – each one of you – convincing evidence of extraordinary, independent minds, which our divided world desperately needs now more than ever before. We envision you putting your ideas to work for the benefit of others. We see you harnessing your knowledge to begin to heal the dangerous divisions of health, education, and ideology that plague our planet. And tonight, we officially punch your ticket to join Penn’s extraordinary community of scholars.

It’s all so exciting and a little daunting at the same time. Each of you may have asked yourself, “ Will I make friends?” It’s the perfect question to ask. Will you make friends here? Want the short answer? Absolutely! Of course you will – because it is impossible not to make friends at Penn. As you become more engrossed in your learning, you will form friendships unlike any you have known.

I am not referring to friendly relationships that are driven by self-interest. Nor am I referring to friendships based on “thinking alike.” I am talking about much deeper and more rewarding friendships – about the powerful bonding among men and women who solve problems together, who seek truth together, who challenge one another, and learn to become engaged citizens and civic leaders. Linking intense, personal friendships to public good is an idea as old as Aristotle, who observed that friends “seem to become still better from their activities and their mutual correction.”

Such friendships are essential to living good lives. They also can change the course of history and even save the world. And as I speak, deep friendships by the thousands are flourishing at Penn, inspiring classmates, faculty, and staff alike. For starters, our amazing faculty will welcome you as partners in learning. They’ll be the first to send you back to the drawing board when you veer off course. And they will also invite you to disagree with them, urging you to take big intellectual leaps as you forge your own paths.

That is what Nursing senior Joanna Holsten is doing. Joanna has a modest goal. She wants to save the world – starting by using her knowledge to fight the global epidemic of obesity. She is drawing on her clinical work with patients and her course work in nursing, nutrition, management and sociology to help millions of people throughout the world who suffer from obesity. As Benjamin Franklin envisioned, Joanna is charting a path to join an inclination with an ability to serve humanity. So are College Senior Gerrin Price and Wharton Senior Brian Washington. With help from the Center for Community Partnerships, Gerrin and Brian launched an elementary school program that uses sports and pop culture to get inner-city males hooked on academics. Their Rap Session Project has been so successful that Brian and Gerrin are bringing it to a neighborhood high school. Ben Franklin proposed that Penn students should, in his words, “learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental.” With all due respect, I must tell you that there is no such thing as an “ornamental” academic pursuit at Penn. Whether you are writing a poem, studying ancient Mayan culture, or the mating habits of birds, or hip hop, you are deepening your capacity for thinking about the world and one another.

I have mentioned just three extraordinary students. There are thousands more like them. They are working in labs and putting out a daily newspaper. They are staging plays and organizing political debates. They’re taking challenging courses in other schools and starting businesses. They’re pursuing rigorous research projects that are leading to fellowships, scholarly publications, and personal growth. And I am also pleased to point out that they’re whipping Princeton in athletics.

The only thing your elder classmates have on you now is the time they have spent productively at Penn. They recognize that, as T.S. Eliot put it, "there is a lifetime burning in every moment, "which makes them terrific role models. But if you are seeking a true source of inspiration guaranteed to expand your mind, just look around: It’s your peers who have all the makings to be your friends for life. You come from all 50 states, 73 countries, and six continents.You represent all the world’s major religions. Your class even has the only international student in the world who received a perfect score and answered every question correctly on the A-C-T last year.

Each and every one of you – talented men and women, individuals of all colors, ethnic and economic backgrounds – each of you is equal in the eyes of the moral law at Penn. And each of you will be pleasantly astonished to discover how much you can learn from one another while you enjoy one another’s company. Think, for example, of how much we all can learn from a Penn Engineering freshman named George. He’s a Sudanese refugee who has lived in a refugee camp in Uganda since he was 4 years old. George spent this past summer working a construction job – which is admirable and impressive. But what George did with his summer earnings is absolutely inspiring. He funded, designed, and helped to build two water wells in Uganda – one for his village, and one for a neighboring community. As a result of George’s energy, resourcefulness, and compassion, 600 people in Uganda are drinking clean water for the first time in their lives. George meets my definition of cool. Then again, so do you. Each of you stands out as an exceptional man or woman with so much to contribute to Penn, to democracy, and to your fellow human beings. I believe you are ready to open your minds and embrace each other on your quest to understand yourselves, the world, and your role in it.

So I close with a piece of advice that I guarantee will stand you in good stead in life: With the kind of friendships you are destined to develop, have no fear. Force yourselves out of your normal comfort zones. Take that course in anthropology or art, physics or finance. It won’t be the end of the world if you don’t get an A or even a B minus. Debate your classmates vigorously and respectfully on issues for which you hold strong opinions. It won’t kill a friendship if you can’t reach an agreement or consensus. By listening and responding to one another, you’ll do your part to rescue public discourse from its shameful resemblance to professional wrestling. By taking great intellectual leaps, you’ll soon discover that you have developed the great minds I know you have. And you will bring out the best in each other. Before you know it, you might even figure out where you’re going. And remember: Like me, you are part of one great extended family. Let us cherish our Penn fellowship and enjoy the ride together. I am thrilled to extend to you, my first convocees, my warmest welcome to Penn!


Now it is my privilege to declare officially that we are beginning the 265th year of the University of Pennsylvania. I look forward to summoning all our creative powers to meet the extraordinary challenges of a diverse world. I also look forward to something far more immediate on our minds: dessert! So please join us right after the ceremony under the tent on Wynn Commons, and let the conversation roll! But before we process, let us rise and join together in singing the Penn Anthem, “The Red and Blue”, which is printed in your programs. If the spirit moves you, by all means, sway along.