SAS Dean’s Blog

A New Beginning

Rebecca Bushnell

Rebecca Bushnell

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of English

In my journeys as dean, I have amassed a collection of tokens of good fortune: for example, figures of Ganesh, the big-bellied elephant-headed god, from India, and Chinese New Year decorations from every visit I’ve made to Hong Kong and Singapore.

I’ve been saving these as reminders of just how fortunate I have been in the past fifteen years in the SAS administration, and especially the last eight years as dean.

Many of you will know that I started as a scholar of tragedy, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about fate and fortune in this context. Let me say right now that I don’t believe in fate: I believe that we are all fundamentally granted the power to write our own stories, even as we exist in circumstances we cannot control.

At the same time, I do see how some of us just seem to get lucky. I don’t think we can command fortune, but we can make the most of it: We can adapt to change, and seize an opportunity granted to us.

That happened to me 15 years ago, when Sam Preston asked me to serve as Associate Dean of Arts and Letters and gave me 24 hours to decide what to do. It felt like stepping off a cliff, but I did. And I have never regretted it. And then, when in turn Amy Gutmann asked me to serve as Dean of SAS, I took a deep breath again, and plunged.

So much has happened in those years: great things, and some not-so-great things. One could say it was my bad luck to be the dean when the economic downturn hit in 2008. But looking back, I am so proud of the way that the School responded then: We all did our very best with the resources we had, and the School is better for that experience.

That is Penn and that is SAS: We know how to take on a tough situation and to work through it, with creativity and perseverance. That is the fundamental spirit of our leadership and our colleagues.

It is, after all, the people of the University and SAS that have made all the progress of the last eight years possible: all the deans, across Penn and in SAS, our overseers, University administrative colleagues, and SAS faculty and staff who have been my partners in this great enterprise. I do want to thank Amy Gutmann and Vincent Price, in particular, for their leadership and support: They have stood steadfastly by me, and by SAS, and they have been critical to making SAS the success it is today.

I see this as a lucky time for SAS, as we anticipate Steve Fluharty’s leadership. Steve is Penn through and through: He knows SAS and Penn so well, and he embodies that can-do spirit and leadership that make us great. I am delighted he will be my dean.

In the future, Steve will become the keeper of my treasured silver statue of Ganesh. Ganesh is not only a deity who brings good luck: He is also known as god of wisdom and learning. And finally he is the god of new beginnings and the remover of obstacles (thus beloved of taxi drivers). I cannot think of a more appropriate deity for the School of Arts and Sciences.

While I am so happy to be returning to my first love, teaching and writing full time, I will always remember with gratitude all those who have supported and worked so hard for this School and University.