A vision for an intellectual community

Penn administrators are working to help foster scholarship both inside and outside the classroom.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
January 28, 2002

A vision for an intellectual community

Pictures of wood-paneled rooms with students and their professors sitting in plush chairs engrossed in intellectual discussion grace the pages of admissions brochures for prospective Penn students. These idyllic images embody what administrators and student leaders refer to as a "community of scholars" -- an environment fostering rich intellectual development both inside and outside of the classroom.

"A great university is an incubator for new ideas where thoughts evolve and are shared among colleagues informally and formally," said Provost Robert Barchi, who has made the development of such a community a high priority during his tenure in College Hall. "That's what makes Penn a great university."

However, turning this vision into reality has been a difficult task for a university with nearly 10,000 undergraduates in four different schools.

After all, the administration's desire to create this community of scholars must be matched by enthusiasm on part of the student body.

"Every year, I have a number of students come up to me, often quite timidly, to complain that they haven't been able to find the sort of intense intellectual community at Penn that they had hoped they would find when they enrolled here," College of Arts and Sciences Dean Richard Beeman said in an e-mail statement. "Those students then usually go on to complain about the 'pre-professional' and 'careerist' orientation of the student body."

While Beeman noted in his statement that he knows "many students who are themselves intensely engaged with the intellectual life of the universities," the notion of a community of scholars has yet to come full circle at Penn.

But that does not mean that the University isn't trying.

Stressing the development of a range of academic and cultural programs, cutting edge research facilities and interdisciplinary forums, Barchi has been working toward further unifying Penn's mass of students, faculty and staff to forge a communal learning environment.

By introducing monthly Fireside Chats where students can meet and talk freely with Barchi, the Provost's Lecture Series and diversions -- like the Provost's Office-sponsored Billy Joel concert last October -- Barchi himself is reaching out to the University with the hope of bringing to life the community he desires.

"This is not a concept that I dreamed up -- it's a descriptor that I would apply to the University," Barchi said. "I'm committed to maintaining its development and growth."

And some say that the University has done better recently in promoting an intellectual atmosphere than it has done over the past few decades.

"Penn is a vastly different and better place than it was when I first knew it twenty years ago," said former University President Sheldon Hackney, now a History professor. "As I have come to know the history of Penn, I realize that it has been evolving on its current path for some time."

Over the past several decades, administrators have worked to make the student body more cohesive by building additional residence halls and revamping the undergraduate curriculum to make it more comprehensive and interdisciplinary.

Perhaps the most drastic of these changes was the recent creation of the college house system in an effort to make the undergraduate living environment more communal.

"The development of the college house system was an emphasis on creating a community of scholars," University President Judith Rodin said. "Putting academic services and academic courses in the residences was really metaphorically to make the living community a scholarly community as well."

Still, the college house system has been criticized for trying to take on the impossible -- namely, to unite thousands of students who have relatively low levels of interest.

English Professor John Richetti, the former faculty master of Harrison College House, said he is unsure about the effectiveness of the residential communities. He cited low turnout at house events as a sign that students may not be as interested in a scholarly community as some administrators would like to see at Penn.

"Most students seem to be too wrapped up in their academic and social lives to take time out for such occasions," Richetti said. "Many events we sponsored in Harrison House that were intended to foster intellectual community were, to put it mildly, sparsely attended."

But while efforts to create a sense of intellectual community within large dormitories such as the high rises may not have been as successful as planned, some say that the experiment has taught them an important lesson: sometimes, a smaller scale is better.

"I don't think the establishment of a community of scholars necessarily depends on the organizational unification of the schools and separate parts that constitute Penn," said English Professor Al Filreis. "What creates these communities are small-scale efforts, one at a time, each done with tremendous attention and effort."

Filreis' brainchild, the Kelly Writers House, has attempted to do just that.

Founded in 1995 by Filreis and a group of students and staff, the Writers House aims to bring together students in an intellectual atmosphere. With a litany of weekly programs and guest author appearances, the hub is an example of the community of scholars that Penn administrators are seeking to foster.

"We describe the Writers House as an alternative learning community for all Penn people... in which people learn in spite of the caste system that usually separates undergrads from everyone else," Filreis said.

In addition to the Writers House, several similar niches -- including the Penn Women's Center, the Greenfield Intercultural Center and the Perspectives in Humanities Residential Program -- have proven successful over the past few decades.

But there's only so much that the college house system -- and the establishment of various hubs around campus -- can accomplish in creating an intellectual community.

According to the former chairwoman of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education Lindsey Mathews, a community of scholars should be centered more around academic research initiatives.

"The big step that SCUE is taking to enhance the feeling of Penn being a community of scholars is really in the area of undergraduate research," the College senior said. "By making those opportunities more ample, we feel that it will empower students earlier on to take charge of their education."

Through working with the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, a campus research hub that makes a wide variety of resources and databases available to students, Mathews hopes that students' undergraduate careers will be further enhanced by a hands-on extension of classroom learning.

In the end, though, some say it's going to take a lot more than money, facilities and the energy of the administration to make the concept of a community of scholars a reality at the University.

"It's a concept that, in order for it to be successful, it needs to be reinforced in every way" said Undergraduate Assembly Chairwoman Dana Hork, a College senior.

But despite the difficulties creating a community of scholars may bring, some believe the University is on the right track.

"I think that there is a strong sense of the campus community that almost all students feel," Hackney said. "Since we are large and diverse in every way, we need to work at this sense of community all of the time."