Provost’s Academic Theme: Civic Engagement (2021-22)

The Provost’s Academic Theme of Civic Engagement began in 2020. It recognized the University’s on-going commitment to interaction with our local community and the world at large, as well as the immediate and urgent needs created by the COVID pandemic.

It also affirmed the importance of civic engagement as a core value in education, citing democratic citizenship as perhaps the most significant purpose of American universities.

Education is key to developing, maintaining and sustaining a culture of democracy, which is essential for democratic institutions, laws, and elections. In a democratic society, higher education must educate not only able, but also ethical, empathetic, engaged, effective citizens.

The civic and democratic purposes of universities have never been more important—and they have been in Penn’s DNA since its founding. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1749, when envisioning the institution that would become the University of Pennsylvania, developing in students “an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends and Family; which Ability… should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning.”

For 2021-22, Penn continues the theme with similar programming, confirming that Civic Engagement is a pillar of the University’s identity. As the world continues to recover and open up, a particular emphasis will be on building communities, both on the Penn campus and in the wider world of Philadelphia.

As Penn President Amy Gutmann described it, the theme of Civic Engagement “will include programs, workshops, student-led dialogues, and opportunities to engage with the communities outside our campus, from our immediate West Philadelphia neighborhood, to our surrounding city, to the wider circle of our nation and our world, and will also draw on Penn’s historic tradition of civic engagement. We were founded by Benjamin Franklin with a vision of a non-sectarian school to educate the leaders of a growing city, with a focus on practical impact on contemporary life.”

Introducing the theme to Penn’s incoming first-year students, the 2021 Penn Reading Project text is August Wilson’s landmark 1982 play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is a fictional narrative built around a legendary real-life Blues artist—Gertrude “Ma” Rainey—that also explores themes of community, migration, race and family. For more information, visit the 2021 Penn Reading Project website.