Six College Visionaries: Architects of the University

By Scott W. Hawley
February 2012

Penn’s transformation from Benjamin Franklin’s imagination to a global leader in in higher education is due in large part to the efforts of six College alumni.  The first five, critical thinkers who returned to their alma mater to grow Penn’s intellectual footprint, founded its Medical School, Law School, Veterinary School, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Wharton School of Business, the University Hospital, and the University Museum.  The sixth innovator, Judith Rodin, returned to West Philadelphia in 1994 as President of the University.  The first female president of an Ivy League University, Rodin’s unwavering belief in Penn coupled with her dynamic, inspirational leadership secured the University’s status as one of the world’s elite universities. 

Two-hundred and fifty years earlier, a prodigious John Morgan received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1757 as part of Penn’s first graduating class.  Morgan, like countless Penn alumni who have followed in his footsteps, wished to become a doctor.  Since there was no medical school in the Colonies in the 1750’s, Morgan sailed for Great Britain.   After arriving in Scotland, he completed his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh before embarking on a tour of Europe, attending lectures at the finest medical schools on the continent.  When he returned to Philadelphia in 1765, Morgan worked closely with Penn’s trustees and played the leading role in founding the first medical school in the colonies.  Since then, his leadership has benefitted Penn and the world in countless ways.  Morgan’s drive to found the first medical school at Penn also gave the University unique bragging rights.  Now that there were two standing faculties at the school, Penn had the distinction of being the first American University in the Colonies. 

George Sharswood earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the College in 1828.  In 1850 he added a third faculty to the University when he founded Penn’s Law School.  With great fanfare, Sharswood filled a sixty year void at Penn that had begun in 1790 when Founding Father James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a Framer of the US Constitution, delivered the first law lectures in the United States as Penn’s first professor of law.  George Washington, John Adams, and other luminaries attended the lectures on Penn’s campus at 4th and Arch Street.  Wilson discontinued the lectures in 1792, ending legal education at Penn until Sharswood organized a law school at the University, which has been credited as the template for modern legal education the world over.  The first set of Penn Law degrees were conferred on 30 students in 1852, the same year Sharswood oversaw the publication of The American Law Register.  Renamed the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Sharswood’s publication has the distinction of being one of the most-cited law journals in the world.

In the late 1870’s, a third visionary, Horace J. Smith, a member of the College Class of 1851, launched a letter writing campaign urging the addition of a fourth standing faculty at Penn organized as a School of Veterinary Medicine.  Inspired by Smith, College graduate Fairman Rogers (Class of 1853) joined the effort, throwing his considerable reputation and problem solving skills into the project.  During the Civil War Rogers served the Union as a cavalry officer, seeing action at both Antietam and Gettysburg.  As Rogers worked to raise funds for the school, he enticed Eadweard Muybridge to Philadelphia.  Muybridge, known today as The Father of Motion Pictures, used Penn’s newly created Veterinary School to complete his studies on animal locomotion at Penn, which paved the way for the creation of cinematography. 

As the Veterinary School was getting off the ground, Provost William Pepper, an 1862 graduate of the College, was just getting started.  When he assumed the office of Provost in 1881, Pepper presided over a faculty of 42 professors.  The student body totaled 1,044 students enrolled in five schools:  the College of Arts and Sciences, the Engineering School, the Dental School, the Medical School, and the Law School.  At the end of Pepper’s tenure in 1895, the faculty had grown more than six hundred percent, from 42 professors to 245.  The student body more than doubled, adding 1,500 new students across nine different schools at Penn.  Provost Pepper, in addition to founding The Wharton School, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Veterinary School, also founded the University Museum, one of the most respected museums of Archeology and Anthropology in the world. 

Pepper’s greatest contribution to the University, however, was overseeing the creation of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  Before his election as Provost in 1881, Pepper had served in a variety of teaching and administrative roles at Penn’s School of Medicine.  A tour of Europe’s medical schools in 1871 gave him bold ideas about enhancing medical education, which led him in 1874 to found the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the first teaching hospital in the United States.   By supplementing classroom instruction with the treatment of actual patients in a hospital setting, medical education took a major leap forward.  The University of Pennsylvania’s teaching hospital quickly became the gold standard in medical education.  Ultimately, with the arrival of the 20th century, Provost Pepper’s long list of remarkable achievements cemented Penn’s arrival as a “modern university”.

At the close of the twentieth century, the University found itself in desperate need of passionate leadership, grand vision, and innovative thinking.  Penn got all three when Judith Rodin assumed the Presidency in 1994.  At her inaugural address that year, President Rodin, who earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree at Penn in 1966, spoke of Benjamin Franklin’s greatest gift to the University, his creation of Penn’s “genetic material”, which sprang wholly from rebellion.  Franklin founded Penn when he no longer believed in the viability of traditional models of higher education.  He championed a new approach:  teaching the practical as well as the ornamental.  Rodin would go on to say that, "And so, in a sense, the most central tradition that this university inherited from its founder is a certain disdain for tradition - a willingness to challenge orthodoxy and to think creatively and boldly." And that is exactly what she did.  Whether it was setting fundraising records, revitalizing West Philadelphia, or recruiting esteemed faculty, Judith Rodin’s rebellion shook the University to its core, stimulating breathtaking advancements in nearly every measurable category in higher education, leading the University of Pennsylvania to global excellence. 

As we examine the lives of these six College alumni, the Architects of the University, we are inspired by the power of a liberal arts education.  And while their gifts to the University transcend time and place, it is remarkable that they saved their best ideas for the public good, never once expecting fame, money, or headlines for their efforts.  And we are grateful that they did, because ultimately, as their ideas have touched off revolutions within the University, their ideas have transformed the world.