Staff Editorial: From the ground up

The University should focus on specific goals and small ventures in building a community of scholars.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
January 28, 2002

Not satisfied with Penn's growing reputation as one of the nation's finest schools or with the University's top-five place in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, Provost Robert Barchi has bigger plans.

He wants to see a "community of scholars" on the west side of the Schuylkill, an "intense intellectual community," in the words of College of Arts and Sciences Dean Richard Beeman.

This is an admirable goal. Unfortunately, Barchi fails to provide any insight into how this might be accomplished.

In seeking to build this community, however, Barchi and his fellow administrators would be wise to look at several previous attempts to construct such an intellectual partnership, to see where they succeeded and where they did not.

The college house system is indicative of the sort of overly large and grand plans that the University ought to avoid.

When the college houses were created almost four years ago, part of their mission was to fuse academic services into residential life, creating a community of scholars before students would even arrive. And although the services that the houses provide are very useful and one of the great successes of the system, they have not fostered much scholarly activity.

But other ventures have succeeded. The Kelly Writers House, preceptorials and small seminar classes all provide outlets for the sort of intellectual discourse Barchi wants to see at Penn. They are small in scale, focused on particular groups with particular interests and take place in the academic, rather than residential, realm.

Penn should build on this nascent scholarly community with more seminar and research-intensive classes, more recitations led by tenured professors, such as in John DiIulio's introductory American politics course, and more small, interest-oriented organizations.

As it stands, the initiative to create a community of scholars is moving in too many directions and with too much in mind. The University must start small, focus on very specific goals and build upon the existing infrastructure. A cohesive plan is necessary.

Building a community of scholars will take a good deal of time, and Penn must recognize that when it charts its course. These things are not accomplished overnight.