Pillars of Success

Monday, June 1, 2015

By Steven J. Fluharty

In the past year I’ve used this column to keep friends of the School updated on our progress in developing a strategic plan. That plan is now providing us with a blueprint to help us achieve our highest priorities and to ensure that we maintain a strong liberal arts core to provide a foundation for academic excellence across the University.

One of the pillars of our success is the strength of our faculty. In looking back at this academic year, I’m proud to report that they have provided us with ample evidence of their collective strength.

Honors garnered by our faculty across all disciplines attest to their positions as leaders in their fields. We began the academic year with news that Charles Kane (Physics and Astronomy) was named a Thomas Reuters Citation Laureate—considered to be an indicator of Nobel-contender status—and closed the year with an announcement that Dorothy Cheney (Biology) was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In between came news of a string of other honors including recognition of younger scientists like Alison Sweeney (Physics and Astronomy), Zahra Fakhraai (Chemistry), and Joshua Plotkin (Biology). History professors Sarah Barringer Gordon and Kathleen Brown were awarded Guggenheim fellowships, while Kathy Peiss (History) and Dorothy Roberts (Sociology, Africana Studies, and Law) were named fellows of the American Council of Learned Societies. And the list goes on.

The year also offered up numerous examples of the groundbreaking scholarly production that leads to such recognition, and that demonstrates both the breadth and impact of inquiry in the liberal arts. Among the many exciting finds reported by our faculty was evidence of the connection between summer employment and youth violence reported by Sara Heller of Criminology. Russell Epstein of Psychology published new details on the brain’s internal compass. The far-reaching impact of mass incarceration in the U.S. is examined in a new book by Marie Gottschalk of Political Science. And in the humanities, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw (History of Art) curated a major exhibit on African American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while English’s Zachary Lesser offered up new perspectives on an early version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The faculty members who produce this outstanding scholarship and who are recognized as leaders among their academic peers are the same faculty who teach our students. Just as when I was an undergraduate at Penn, our students today continue to enjoy access to top faculty that few other research universities can offer. Sophomore Carol Wang, an undergraduate in the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research, is already a published co-author thanks to her experience working with Patrick Walsh (Chemistry). And Mark Devlin (Physics and Astronomy), an esteemed experimental cosmologist, was one of the winners this spring of the School’s highest honor for teaching. His innovative work uses balloon-borne telescopes to gather data about the very early universe.

We are proud to have had so many occasions this year to celebrate the excellence of our faculty, and we will continue to focus our efforts on making this outstanding collective even stronger in the coming years. With this solid foundation in place, we will be able to ensure continued excellence in education, and to thrive in the exciting new frontiers we have highlighted in our strategic plan.