John L. Puckett, Mark Frazier Lloyd. Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Illustrations. 464 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4680-3.
Reviewed by Ethan Schrum (Azusa Pacific University)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward (Shippensburg University)
John L. Puckett and Mark Frazier Lloyd’s Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000 is not a traditional institutional history of a university. Rather, it is a political and social history of the University of Pennsylvania, primarily focused on the institution’s relationship to urban space, and thus it contributes to the urban history of the post-1945 United States. The central question is “how Penn had managed to build and sustain a beautifully landscaped, contiguous, park-like pedestrian enclave in the midst of a poor, deteriorating, and—after the 1950s—increasingly crime-ridden and turbulent urban district” (p. x). The answer centers on what the authors call, in a chapter title, “the rise of the urban renewal university.” The narrative arc of the book is about the university’s attempt to transform its urban environment; throughout, the authors are concerned to show how the university acted as a major shaper of spatial arrangements in the declining industrial city. They also probe the relationship of this spatial transformation to Penn’s “rise to eminence” as “one of the world’s most celebrated research universities,” which they argue became complete around 2000 (p. 1).
The book’s structure is based on consecutive Penn presidents whose tenure spanned 1953-2004: thus part 1, “The Builder,” covers the term of Gaylord Harnwell (1953-70); part 2, “The Visionary,” Martin Meyerson (1970-81); part 3, “The Conciliator,” Sheldon Hackney (1981-93); and part 4, “The Implementer,” Judith Rodin (1994-2004). The story begins a few years earlier with the presidency of Harold Stassen and the Campus Master Plan in 1948. The four main parts are not equal. The treatment of Meyerson’s presidency is comparatively succinct. Although part 1 is the longest section, which is appropriate because of the duration and importance of Harnwell’s tenure, he appears as the least personally active of the presidents. Harnwell probably would have approved of that interpretation, since he portrayed himself as simply riding along the tide of history. As the book shows, though, the politically astute Harnwell established partnerships with federal, state, and local governments, especially the Pennsylvania General State Authority and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which facilitated his massive expansion and unification of Penn’s campus. The authors assign more agency to each successive president, culminating in Rodin riding roughshod over the faculty as she corporatized the university. Yet ultimately, Harnwell comes out as the most influential figure in the book, which the authors highlight by calling the final chapter “Harnwell Redux” and arguing that Rodin implemented Harnwell’s vision.
Becoming Penn appeared just months before John W. Boyer’s The University of Chicago: A History (2015). They are the most important institutional histories of American universities to be published in a decade, since Morton and Phyllis Keller’s Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America’s University (2001), Robert McCaughey’s Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004 (2003), and James Axtell’s The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present (2006). At 464 pages, Becoming Penn is easily the shortest of these books, testifying to its focused nature in a genre known for length. Although it is the most comprehensive history of the institution since Edward Potts Cheyney’s History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940 (1940) and picks up roughly where Cheyney left off chronologically, it is not a general history like many of the others. For instance, the Kellers’ study contains chapters on Harvard College, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the professional schools under multiple chronologically organized parts of the book. There is none of that here, although one can hardly blame the authors for their selectivity. Yet prospective readers should be aware that Becoming Penn says little about academics or athletics, traditional subjects of institutional histories of universities. It is not an intellectual history; readers will look in vain for any account of the university’s contribution to American thought, from Noam Chomsky’s linguistics in the 1950s to Martin Seligman’s positive psychology in the 1990s. Similarly, those looking for details on why the university abandoned big-time football and joined the Ivy League in the early 1950s, a subject of some historical importance, will be disappointed. Even students and faculty members play limited roles in this book. When students appear they are either protesting or are international graduate students being murdered in West Philadelphia, spurring university leaders to concern about areas surrounding the campus. The dramatic demographic transition of Penn’s undergraduate population since 1950, which reflects larger trends in American higher education, also receives scant attention.
The book’s treatment of the faculty’s role in governance is a key strength, but Becoming Penn does not cover what actually happened inside Penn’s classrooms. The faculty gained traction in the early 1950s with the creation of a Faculty Senate, which by the late 1970s flexed its muscle by apparently forcing Meyerson’s early retirement, upset over his “imperious presidency” that “subverted faculty governance” (p. 170). Yet the faculty’s influence almost immediately began to descend from this zenith as the trustees passed over Provost Vartan Gregorian, a faculty and student favorite, in favor of Hackney as Meyerson’s replacement. Puckett and Lloyd suggest that the trustees were concerned about their ability to control the charismatic Gregorian and found Hackney easier to manage. Gregorian had reportedly declined the chancellorship of the University of California, Berkeley, in order to remain in line for the Penn presidency. Embittered by being passed over, he went on to head the New York Public Library, Brown University, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York (where he continues today at age eighty-one) with distinction. Despite being chosen, Hackney felt Gregorian’s shadow acutely, recording in his journal (an extraordinary source) that “‘VG ... was a charmer who made everyone feel good’” (p. 180).
The academic field that the authors mention most frequently is history—not about its internal happenings but because of historians’ outsize participation in university life. Gregorian came to Penn as Tarzian Professor of Armenian and Caucasian History before becoming an administrator. When Hackney returned to the faculty in 1997 after going directly from his presidency to chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Clinton administration, it was as a member of the Department of History—alongside Alan Kors, whose The Shadow University (1997) “cited Penn under Hackney as Exhibit A in a meticulously researched indictment of political correctness on the nation’s campuses” and “painted a persuasive and devastating portrait” of student life administrators who Hackney failed to control (p. 216). Historian Michael Katz chaired an ad hoc faculty committee investigating Penn’s response to an alleged gang rape at a fraternity in 1983. Hackney wrote in his journal that the Katz committee’s report “‘was a devastating and unrelieved and undiscriminating eleven pages of criticism’” (p. 204). Katz wrote about the episode in a chapter, “The Moral Crisis of the University,” of his book Reconstructing American Education (1987). Meanwhile, historian Drew Faust chaired the President’s Committee on University Life. Its 1990 report addressed how the heavy concentration of fraternities (including the site of the alleged gang rape) on Locust Walk, the campus’s central pedestrian artery, made the Walk “‘a site of racial and sexual exclusivity, and, too often, verbal and physical harassment’” (p. 211). Although Penn declined to banish fraternities from the Walk altogether, it launched a policy of converting to other uses buildings that fraternities vacated there, which ultimately led to “the Women’s Center, the Graduate Student Center, and the Penn Humanities Forum [taking] up their abodes in converted fraternities on the Walk” (p. 211). Faust is currently president of Harvard University, where she is reviewing Harvard students’ participation in fraternity-like “final clubs” on similar grounds as she invoked at Penn a quarter century ago. Yet another Penn history professor, Lynn Lees, served as spokesperson for Penn Faculty and Staff for Neighborhood Issues (PFSNI), which in 1994 urged the new president, Rodin, “‘to make the revitalization of West Philadelphia and University City in particular, the highest priority of the University of Pennsylvania’” (p. 251). Historian Richard Beeman, as dean of the college under Rodin, played a key role in championing academically based community service courses. Finally, the authors enlist history professor Michael Zuckerman, who has made important deposits of material to the University Archives and Records Center, as a kind of commentator-at-large on several episodes.
Puckett and Lloyd enrich our understanding of higher education’s recent history by providing one of the deepest studies yet available of a major university in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly with regard to the presidency. Their portrait of Hackney’s administration provides a concrete example of how the social forces associated with the culture wars of the 1980s constrained university decision making. More important is the chapter on Rodin as an avatar of the corporatization of the American university, perhaps the best part of the book despite being tangential to its main focus. The authors argue that the most “transformative” part of Rodin’s presidency was the West Philadelphia Initiatives, which built from the PFSNI report “and finally realized the [Harnwell-era] vision of University City as a compatible neighborhood for Penn” (p. 253). Yet what really stands out is their treatment of Rodin’s “regal, egoistic” leadership style and her “vaulting ambition, hubristic temperament, and damn-the-torpedoes fortitude” (pp. 254, 241). They argue that she “manage[d] ... the University as a CEO-directed, hierarchically structured business,” engaging in “strategic decision making without faculty advice and consent” and espousing the importance of branding and markets (p. 269). Faculty “apathy” about governance abetted this process, as “low-status leadership made the Senate an easy mark for a corporatizing administration” (p. 278). The declining power of faculty governance at Penn corroborates the national story depicted in Larry Gerber’s The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance (2014). Most notably, Rodin “converted to corporate-style management” the Hackney-era office of executive vice president and “funded it with a vengeance” after naming to the position John Fry, a higher education management consultant (p. 271). Rodin and Fry made exorbitant salaries, and The Chronicle of Higher Education regularly mentioned Penn “as a national leader in the commercialization of higher education” (p. 280). Fry later moved on to the presidencies of two nearby institutions, Franklin & Marshall College and Drexel University. Despite the superb depiction of Rodin’s approach, the authors leave unexplained why the first female president of an Ivy League university, a Penn alumna, and lifelong academic psychologist who had risen through the ranks at Yale made this corporate turn.
Perhaps the authors have such colorful descriptions of Rodin because they lived some of the history about which they write. Since the 1980s, Puckett has been a professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, while Lloyd has directed the University Archives and Records Center. The connection to the latter unit facilitated a splendid set of pairs of photographs of campus views, which often combine an archival photo with a more recent photo from the same angle to show the transformation of campus and neighborhood spaces. But the deeper impact on the book of the authors’ institutional location comes from the normative framework about a university’s purpose that they bring to the writing. Both authors have taught Penn’s academically based community service courses, a concept that Puckett helped to develop under the Hackney administration. These courses emphasize engaging the university’s West Philadelphia surroundings with “service rooted in academic study that centers on a real-world social problem” (p. 221). Ultimately, the authors believe that these courses and the partnerships and institutional infrastructure on which they are based “offer one—if not the only—promising way to realize Meyerson’s vision” of One University, a unified community in an era of fragmentation (p. 334). While not everyone will agree with this prescription, Puckett and Lloyd have done well to consider such questions in the process of writing a fine book.
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Ethan Schrum. Review of Puckett, John L.; Lloyd, Mark Frazier, Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000.
H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews.
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