Throughout its history, the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences has been one of the world’s great homes for the study of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.  Its distinctive academic excellence – at once rooted in tradition, forward-thinking, and outwardly engaged – was established by Penn’s forerunner, the College of Philadelphia, the first institution to pursue an arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing both the classical and the contemporary. Today’s Arts and Sciences faculty are at the forefront of their respective fields, creating transformative new understandings about the world around us, from ancient philosophy to astrophysics to political elections. Fueled by their discoveries, these faculty instill in our outstanding undergraduate and graduate students insatiable curiosity, boundless creativity, and a passion for life-long learning that are preparation for impactful lives.

Just as the arts and sciences were at the heart of Penn’s beginnings, so does the School of Arts and Sciences sit at the intellectual epicenter of  the renowned research-intensive university that Penn is today. Its combined mission of advancing the depth and breadth of liberal arts education, and the innovative pursuit of fundamental and applied knowledge, informs and enables all of the scholarly endeavors of the 11 other schools that make up Penn’s compact campus. At the same time, this physical proximity immerses SAS faculty, students, and staff in a vibrant academic community that fosters synergies across disciplines, greatly enriching education, research, and engagement. Penn’s urban campus in a global city offers limitless opportunities for Arts and Sciences faculty and students to translate theory into practice and address the world’s most pressing challenges. 

As we embark on this new strategic plan, the School is well-positioned for the continued pursuit of excellence in all that we do. The accomplishments that flowed from the School’s 2006 strategic plan provide a strong foundation upon which to construct our vision for the future. That plan included an ambitious agenda to build further excellence in the School’s research and teaching missions and was developed in concert with the goals of the Penn Compact: increased access, integrating knowledge, and local and global engagement. The 2006 plan emphasized several evergreen priorities such as faculty support, facilities development, research infrastructure, and new initiatives in education.  In addition, it featured strategic multi-year investments in several multidisciplinary priorities: Genes to Brain to Behavior; Nanoscience; Cross-Cultural Contacts; Democracy and Constitutionalism; and Social Dimensions of Health.  By almost any measure, the plan was a major success despite the unanticipated economic downturn that necessitated some mid-course adjustments.

There are several broader contexts in which the School undertakes this new plan. One is the University’s recently-renewed strategic vision, Penn Compact 2020. It underscores the institution’s commitment to access and inclusion with an emphasis on diversity and a need-blind, no-loan undergraduate admissions policy to ensure that a Penn education is open to all deserving students. It also continues to stress the integration of knowledge through investments in Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) professors, interdisciplinary centers, and integrative teaching programs. New aspirations of the Compact 2020 focus on innovation and impact: Penn is committed to creating a culture that facilitates and empowers pathbreaking thinking and action, and is pursuing new ways to bridge the translational gap between academic research and societal change. 

The shifting landscape of higher education offers both opportunities and challenges. Scholarship and teaching are being transformed by the great promise of new interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches. The unprecedented impact of technology continues at a rapid pace. Higher education itself is under increasing public scrutiny, and the value of the arts and sciences is often a focus of this discourse. The School has a significant role to play not only in continuing to generate its impactful research, but in helping to shape public understanding of why that research is important. The same applies to the skepticism that often surrounds liberal arts education, where our graduates demonstrate every day that precisely because of the rapid pace of change and the unanticipated nature of progress, the skills and depth of understanding that they acquire in the College are timeless training for a variety of careers and responsible citizenship.  

The year-long process for creating this strategic plan was a highly consultative one designed to promote engagement and facilitate innovative and aspirational thinking among its participants. The plan was used as a means for identifying our distinguishing strengths and for imagining unique opportunities to build on that foundation, enabling Penn Arts and Sciences to achieve further distinction. The process began with a preliminary effort among the Dean’s office, the SAS Planning and Priorities Committee, department chairs, and center directors to develop a conceptual framework. The School then formed 15 working groups involving about 150 standing faculty of all ranks from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences to consider trends in knowledge and education and how to advance SAS in these areas. In the final stages of the process, and with plan’s contours well established, the School sought input from the entire faculty through discussions at department meetings, as well as from students, staff, alumni, overseers, and Penn deans.

Underlying the planning process and the plan itself are several fundamental values that are at the core of SAS:

  • The School pursues the highest academic excellence in all of its endeavors.
  • The arts and sciences are the enduring source of pathbreaking knowledge and ideas; a foundation on which many other areas of study are built; and the basis of an education that emphasizes creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.
  • SAS must embrace the opportunities and challenges of education at research-intensive universities in the 21st century.
  • Interdisciplinary research and teaching involving the methodologies and perspectives of several fields are critical in addressing complex questions and problems. Such interdisciplinary activities must be grounded in strong disciplines.
  • Faculty and student diversity is essential to achieving excellence.
  • SAS must foster innovative and impactful scholarship and teaching, making room for new approaches alongside traditional ones as additional means of discovery and learning.

The plan is organized into three main sections. The first, “Foundations,” discusses new efforts and investments designed to strengthen our foundational core of faculty and students. The second part, “Emerging Academic Opportunities,” focuses on opportunities to strengthen the School’s current intellectual activities and initiate new ones to advance the integration of knowledge. Several of these activities involve strategic investments in faculty, education programs, facilities, and research activities.  The final section, “Achieving Our Aspirations,” articulates how our ambitious goals will be implemented, what resources will be required to do so, and what metrics we will use to assess the plan’s progress and outcomes.

The School’s solid financial position as it undertakes these new goals is the result of many years of careful choices and the efficient use of assets that have allowed us to compete with better-resourced peers. Likewise, the priorities of this new plan are intended to guide the use of our existing resources and the attainment of new ones in a way that will have the strongest and widest-reaching academic impact. With ongoing pressure on our revenue resources and the downward trend in federal research funding, SAS must redouble its efforts to attract new resources, and the plan will serve as a roadmap for our fundraising efforts and new program development.

Penn Arts and Sciences has a very strong foundation built over centuries of prudent planning toward the pursuit of excellence and eminence. Collectively, the goals and priorities identified in this plan represent an opportunity to build on that foundation and pursue pioneering frontiers of knowledge, catalyzing the scholarly activities of our transformative faculty and enterprising students. The new Strategic Plan for the School of Arts and Sciences will continue that timeless tradition, further enhance our stature in the academy, and strengthen our impact on the world.