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Home >> Opinion
UPDATED: 08:15, February 20, 2006
"We will find a way or we will make one"
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Photo:Yong Tang, People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent, conducted an exclusive interview with Penn President Amy Gutmann in her office on Penn campus.
Yong Tang, People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent, conducted an exclusive interview with Penn President Amy Gutmann in her office on Penn campus.
Established in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) is the fourth oldest institution of higher education in the US. As a member of the Ivy League, Penn is home to a diverse undergraduate student body of nearly 10,000, hailing from all around the globe. Admissions are among the most selective in the country and Penn consistently ranks among the top 10 universities in the annual U.S. News & World Report survey.

Another 10,000 students are enrolled in Penn's 12 graduate and professional schools, which are national leaders in their fields. The Wharton School is consistently one of the nation's top three business schools. The School of Nursing is one of the two best in the U.S. The School of Arts and Sciences, Graduate School of Education, Law School, School of Medicine, and School of Veterinary Medicine all rank among the top 10 schools in their fields.

Recently Yong Tang, People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent, conducted an exclusive interview with Penn President Amy Gutmann in her office on Penn campus.

Yong Tang: Penn is characterized for its innovative spirit. Since 1740 numerous scientific and technological innovations have been coming out of here. Penn faculty and students have pioneered in many important things. Is there a famous motto inscribed on the gate of the University: "we will find a way or we will make one"?

Amy: That's right.

Yong Tang: Is innovative spirit the most important characteristic of Penn?

Amy: Yes, I agree. I think that innovation is in the very basis of what Penn stands for. Complacency is not an option for us. In order to move forward we have to be continuously putting theory into practice. This means to become innovative in many areas, like finding new ways to improve human life in life sciences, finding new arts and new musical forms, new interpretations of literature in humanities. All of that is a part of our innovative spirit. That goes back to our Founding Father Benjamin Franklin who himself was quite an innovator. I like to think of our Penn Compact as a furthering of innovative spirit of Franklin and a furthering of Franklin's legacy at Penn.

Yong Tang: I know Penn Compact is your vision for making Penn a global leader. But it seems every Ivy League university has an ambitious plan for the future in order to cope with the challenge of the globalization. For instance, Yale has a Global University Plan. What is the major difference between Penn's plan and other top schools' plans?

Amy: The Penn Compact is our vision to propel Penn from excellence to eminence in all our core endeavors of teaching, research, and service. Under the Compact, we seek to retain and attract the very best faculty and students. The Compact sets the stage for our achieving eminence by embracing three principles that are deeply rooted in Penn's proud history and distinct character: increased access; integrated knowledge; and local and global engagement. I'm not familiar with other schools' plans.

Yong Tang: Do you think the tradition of being innovative is becoming stronger and stronger today?

Amy: Yes, it is becoming stronger. It's becoming stronger because it becomes ever more important to put theory into practice and become innovative thinkers and innovative doers. That's expressed in the phrase-integrating knowledge in Penn Compact. We bring knowledge together from different areas in order to tackle some of the big problems of the world, whether the problem is combating the global terrorism or coming up with a cure for the disease or helping improve the quality of people's lives. You have to do that by bringing difference together and thinking big rather than thinking in very narrow ways. So putting innovative ideas into practice is what we stand for.

Yong Tang: what new role universities can play in modern societies to make students become more innovative?

Amy: The first and formal way of educating students to become innovative is to offer them very challenging education. Challenging education means making them think for themselves. We think of the courses our students take as giving them the tool boxes full of great intellectual tools, and at the same time asking them to use these tools while they are at Penn.

Let me give you an example. Penn Students get important intellectual tools in many courses but they also work as a group to solve the problems. One of the problems could be: how do you raise money for a non-profit organization more efficiently and effectively? Students actually use what they have learnt in the courses to come up with the solutions to the problem. Or the problem may be: how do you improve voter turnout in an election? We give them the tools and we challenge them to come up with solutions to the problems while they are here. Not to wait until they graduate, but to do it here.

Yong Tang: Sounds great! Penn is a big research university. What measures have you taken to encourage your faculties and researchers to be innovative and work hard?

Amy: Our faculty works very hard. They work hard because they are motivated by these great research problems. We also set very high tenure standards to give them lifelong employment. We have what we call peer review where the research our faculty does is reviewed by their peers all over the world, not just peers at Penn. We write letters to experts all over the world to ask their assessment of our faculty. So the time our faculty members at Penn get tenure, he or she is highly regarded and highly motivated.

Yong Tang: But once they get the tenure, they could have a good rest?

Amy: No! They can't. (Laugh). First of all they are yearly reviewed for their salary. There are very high expectations of our tenure faculty. You have to support your research on research ground, which is also largely peer reviewed. So there are a lot of external incentives. Of course the internal incentives are the greatest. Our faculties really are driven to excel.

Yong Tang: How does Penn employ, promote and fire a professor?

Amy: The Provost's Office oversees all aspects of the University relating to teaching, research and scholarship, as well as those areas that support a vigorous and healthy environment of learning at Penn. The recruitment and retention of world-class faculty is one of my highest priorities.

Yong Tang: In Chinese universities administrators are usually more powerful and profitable than faculties. Is that the same true here?

Amy: It is not true here. Our highest paid employees are Doctors.

Yong Tang: Who is the highest paid one?

Amy: I couldn't tell you. I really don't know. If you want to find out, it is public information. I don't happen to pay attention to it.

Yong Tang: How much salary does the highest paid one get?

Amy: 800,000 dollars per year.

Yong Tang: That's a lot!

Amy: That is what they earn. They earn that because of their practices of surgery. It is not dependent upon what they are doing for the patients. But their university salary is about 60,000 or 70,000 per year. The highest paid university professors can earn as much as 200,000 dollars a year. My goal is to bring Penn from excellence of a very high level to eminence, to be a world leader in everything we do. The reason why we pay them so much is that they are very valuable. They contribute to the eminence of Penn.

Yong Tang: If they choose to be businessmen, they may earn much more?

Amy: Sure! All of our faculties, if they choose to be in the marketplace business, they may earn more. They choose to be here because it is a great environment for doing research, for teaching. The demands are great. The status of being a professor at Penn is very high.

Yong Tang: How about administrators here? Are they profitable, like in China?

Amy: Penn pays well. But it is not the reason why anybody in a position of leadership is here because you could get paid more in a private marketplace. It is the environment of what Penn is doing to make a difference in the world that really motivated people.

Yong Tang: As you may know, research by Huang Yuxi, a top human cloning scientist from one South Korean University, was found fabricated. It is a big academic scandal in the world. How do you make sure faculties and researchers here could maintain their academic integrity?

Amy: Excellent question! We have a university research board that reviews every research contract, every application of our faculty for funding, any of the experiment that our faculty do with human subjects or animals. An independent group at the university reviews all of this in order to ensure the integrity. We also have rules and regulations. If a member of our faculty violates them, we could start a procedure of investigations. So we are very careful to hold our faculty up to very high standards. In fact, we have a Code of Ethics for our faculty. It is on our website. When any faculty member comes to Penn, they just know this is their Code of Ethics.

Yong Tang: If one wants to be innovative, failure sometimes is unavoidable. How does Penn treat those failed researchers? Do you have any reward for the accomplished and any punishment for those who failed?

Amy: It is a matter of trial and error. The best researchers know how to learn from their errors. If you are a chemistry professor doing laboratory research and you have a project. If you have succeeded, you just move on to the next project. But eventually one of your projects is going to fail, the key is learning from it. Truth emerges from error than from Ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack of taking risks. If you are smart you could learn from errors. Our best researchers all make mistakes. But they learn from them.

Yong Tang: They will not be punished?

Amy: Making a mistake is different from lying about something. Making mistakes is a part of trial and error of research. The great thing about the marketplace of ideas in a university is correction of errors. You put your work up for peer examinations in a public ground of the marketplace of ideas. People will find flaws with it. For example, even for the greatest works of Newton, there are flaws in it. It was a great breakthrough, but scientists later found out that it was far from perfect.

Yong Tang: So nobody is trying to push your researchers on a daily basis: you should do this, you should do that?

Amy: No. What you are pushing me about is how much we work on the basis of trust and creativity. We reward people who have been creative and who have really made breakthroughs. We are not in their labs or their studies pushing them. We rely on them for being creative and reward their creativity. That is part of our DNA, part of genetic materials of the University. I think it is characteristic of the very best universities. They recruit creative and talented people, reward them when they make breakthroughs for the good work they do, but they don't control them. (Laugh) They are free to expound the ideas that may turn out to be incorrect. The way they will be criticized is in the marketplace of ideas.

By Yong Tang, Washington-based correspondent of People's Daily Online

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