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Penn History

This exhibit was created in September 1999 by James Ermarth

In 1954 Gaylord P. Harnwell, a Haverford graduate, chairman of the Physics department at Penn and an atomic physicist, was appointed the new university president and who had procured a decidedly more academic stature than Stassen. During the mid-forties Harnwell had presided over the California Division of War Research in San Diego. Harnwell had also been instrumental in reorganizing the research programs at Penn after the Second World War and had been recognized by the military with the Medal of Merit for contributions for “war-time” developments in physics. There would be no better man to represent an academic school to the Ivy League or as a military research specialist to the government who had been funding Penn (particularly the Physics department) during the war. Luckily for the University and its image, Harnwell was a very quick and able worker and even before his appointment as president, the new physics, mathematics, and astronomy building was being constructed at a cost of $2,700,000 at 33rd and Walnut Streets. Prior to the president’s arrival, Penn was well on its way to research and academic status.

There was more to enhancing and legitimizing the University’s academic status than constructing new buildings and dismantling questionable football practices. Penn’s administration was becoming conscious of itself in new ways and how Penn as a university was perceived by the public. The first step in an internal renovation of academics was to compile a list of components of the University. The Admissions department was most concerned with academics and their impact on image. With image in mind, Admissions took the initiative to state candidly, problems or apparent parts of Penn’s current image. A 1966 memo from Director of Admissions, William Owen expressed as “random thoughts” (hardly random at all), to Don Sheehan (the director of public relations), avows Penn’s newly self-aware identity, and the intention to cultivate this image through various reforms.

“As you well know Pennsylvania has had in the past a visibility for various things:

  1. Strong graduate and professional schools.
  2. Wharton School.
  3. A Haven for Harvard-Yale-Princeton rejects.
  4. A commuting population.
  5. A faculty which lives in the suburbs.
  6. A city campus.

The Harnwell era has had to deal with a boot-strap operation in every facet of collegiate life:

  1. Physical facilities.
  2. Upbuilding of faculty.
  3. Diversification of the student body.
  4. Revamping of the curriculum.
  5. Concern for the undergraduate education in the total university complex. . . . [in reference to some thoughts on premature advertisement of Penn’s academic image] At this juncture, I don’t think that Pennsylvania has a uniqueness in undergraduate education, and therefore, until it does, I don’t think we should attempt to puff up something that doesn’t exist.”

To recruit more academically sound undergraduates, Owens also suggests, that Penn represent their various programs in the up-coming course catalog with professors that were either nominees or recipients of the Lindbeck Teaching Award. While referring to a booklet they were collaborating on for public relations purposes, Owens cautioned, “Let us not dissipate the impact by getting into non-academic areas. Our image in extra-curricular life, athletics, and physical plants is being taken care of on other public relations fronts.”

Now well into the Harnwell era, the University was no longer so concerned about its football nemesis, but it was still struggling with all its might to take its place as peer among the rest of the academically distinguished Ivy Group. The strategy which emerges for shedding the image of the “glory years” image and for bolstering its academic renown and capability came to center upon public relations and recruitment. Public relations was the way in which Penn could inform the people of Penn’s new-found intellectual aspirations, soon to be available to the best minds of high schools across the entire nation, not merely Pennsylvania or the northeast. Recruitment of undergraduates became the way to become a more “unique” or academically distinguished college and subsequently a more distinguished research university nationally. “National” remains a key word in this entire scenario because in order to compete or at least claim to compete with the other Ivy League institutions, Penn had to become a nationally recognized school rather then merely a regional institution. The way to this was quite simple in concept but extremely difficult in the actual context of Penn’s specific situation in this period.