A Message from Dean Fluharty

Steve Fluharty

Our Fall/Winter 2023 Omnia magazine will arrive in mailboxes in a few weeks. As in every Omnia, this issue includes a message from me, as Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. Given the timeliness, I wanted to share this with you now.

Not long ago, as the University was in the midst of the COVID lockdown, I wrote in these pages about the power of connection. I reflected then on how the fabric of the Penn community had been stretched and tested. But I also shared my belief that the connections that bind our community are what keep us strong. Today, I am reminded again that community and connections help make Penn the great university that it is.

It’s not possible for me to tell my story without centering it around Penn. This university has been a part of my life starting with the Philadelphia Eagles games that my father took me to as a child, when they played at Franklin Field. As an undergraduate and then as a graduate student, I enjoyed tremendous opportunities that shaped my path in science. As a member of the faculty, I had 10 rewarding years teaching undergraduates in what was then the Biological Basis of Behavior major.

When I moved into administration, I continued to derive enormous professional and personal satisfaction from seeing Penn move forward as a world-class research university. Somewhere along this path, I became a proud Penn parent. And so, I write to you today from the perspective of someone who has spent his entire adult life within the fold of this great university. I have seen the campus rise to great heights. From time to time, I have also seen it rise to the challenges presented by adversity.

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As I write this note, the Arts and Sciences community is experiencing a period of division as students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends react to the terrorist attack on Israel, the Israel-Hamas war, and the Palestine Writes Literature Festival that was held on campus prior to these horrific events.

The School of Arts and Sciences categorically condemns the evil attack on Israel. We mourn with those who have lost loved ones in Israel and in Gaza. We are appalled by acts of antisemitic vandalism here on campus and reject any form of antisemitism or Islamophobia. And we share in the pain that so many in our community are experiencing as a result of these tragic events, embracing all members of the Arts and Sciences family of Jewish, Israeli, Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian identity.

We are hearing many diverse opinions representing all sides of a complex set of issues,  bringing into stark relief the challenges inherent in balancing our commitment to belonging and community with our equally strong commitment to the free exchange of ideas. I would not have spent my career at Penn if I was not personally committed to academic freedom. But I would also not have spent my career at Penn if I did not feel an equal obligation to community, belonging, and empathy. As dean I am deeply proud of the diversity of our community.
 
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At any great university, including Penn, we recognize that there is a delicate balance between supporting open expression, dissent, and protest and upholding communal values of civility and mutual respect. If we are to reach across cultural and campus divides, a willingness to work collectively is more important than ever. It’s essential for us to bravely engage with ideas and commit to discussing them respectfully and authentically.

This is why the School of Arts and Sciences is launching a dialogue series, “Living the Hard Promise,” to create a space in which the Penn community can begin working through the tremendous challenges of this moment.

The series will engage the campus community and beyond through talks by faculty experts that speak to the complexity of current events, small-group community conversations that will bring students together with facilitators, and larger public programs to encourage open reflections.

We know that these conversations will not solve the world’s problems but they will surely help us deepen our understanding and engage empathetically with one another as we process global events. The School is uniquely suited to fostering this kind of dialogue. This is the core of the hard promise we make to our community of open expression and respectful dialogue.

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Our thoughts go out to the members of our community who are impacted directly or indirectly by the painful events of these last weeks, and by ongoing conflict around the world. We continue to offer our full support to every one of them. As a lifetime member of this community, I know very well the incredible things that we can do when we work together. We are a great university that benefits from the strength and support of all of our communities, and we will move forward as we always have with lessons in hand and in continual pursuit of institutional excellence. I look forward to sustaining connections across our entire community as we work through these challenging times.
 

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