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Images in Flux:
The 20th Century Development of the Undergraduate Experience at Penn


This exhibit was created in September 1999 by James Ermarth.


Penn's current reputation conforms quite well to these "crucial" attributes of a college located at a university. Well enough in fact, that it was ranked 6th among other prominent undergraduate schools located at universities in 1998. Penn is rated higher than the rest of many of the country's institutions of higher learning because it is selective, it has an academically renowned faculty, and enjoys great monetary resources.

Perhaps the University of Pennsylvania of today is defined by those three attributes as it was once defined by football, frats, and professional schools. But now, many of us today might feel the need to say the University has been through an arduous journey to the present, where it has reached the end of the academic rainbow. The University of Pennsylvania is "better now." But that is all relative to the times. The dilemma with the "end of the rainbow" theory, is that it will always be an elusive concept, moving faster than the collegiate treasure-hunters can scurry. At one time the university trained professionals and accommodated fraternity brothers. The University has always had a direction and a concentration of its efforts, it simply varies with the times . The most "learned" scholars and administrators (in this story's case united and represented by the Ivy League and U.S. News and World Report) decide whether or not whatever direction taken is commendable. At one particular time, the authority on college excellence may decide the training of professionals is practical or that intellectuals are sparse and need to be cultivated. If the college being evaluated meets or exceeds the current principles of the current arbiters, then it may be acknowledged as an excellent college in its time-- the assessment contains elements that are quite arbitrary or contingent.

The idea that the University has now reached its peak in terms of academics and/or prestige, is absurd. Penn's image as an undergraduate school has changed in its framework and reputation since the late 1940s. It is bigger, more diverse, liberal arts based, egalitarian in student life, and football remained at bay; but these, like all transitions are relative to the era. As with most other universities, Penn has always and will always be changing and transforming in order to conform to the "criteria" of the era. But, one irrefutable and infallible theme emerges that governs all operations in any period of the University of Pennsylvania's progression: financial resources. Without them, Penn may merely gaze the well-endowed schools as they fly onwards and upwards towards collegiate and academic (if they wish it) distinction. But ever since the governmental aid of the mid-forties, the real support is for academics, not football tickets. In reference of this, Penn capitalized and capitalizes, sustaining itself until the financial winds shift. Perhaps this deeper truth was phrased most succinctly by Harvard President James Conant during the Ivy League football scandal, " . . .we have too great financial needs in the present institutions. The consequence is really a mad scramble for money-private, public tuition fees-and as a result of this mad scramble, a consequent scramble for prestige."