Dean Bushnell Honored With Professorship

Though her literary specialty is tragedy, Rebecca Bushnell’s tenure as Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences has been anything but, as she oversaw a transformative time for the School and the most successful campaign in its history. In recognition of her success, the SAS Overseers have created an academic chair in her honor, which she will hold after she steps down as Dean. And when she eventually leaves the chair upon her retirement, it will be renamed the Rebecca W. Bushnell Professorship.

“She’s done an exceptional job,” says Sarah Fuller, CW’71, the seed donor to create the new chair in Bushnell’s honor. “And it’s one of the harder positions. It’s not a command-and-control structure—you do it by persuasion.”

Fuller should know. She’s spent her career in business, creating and running her own start-up, selling it three times, and starting up another. She is a University Trustee and SAS Overseer, and sits on several Penn advisory boards. Her two sons also graduated from the College: One now flies F-16s; the other is an animator. It gives her a unique viewpoint for judging the usefulness of an education in the arts and sciences, and the success of a dean.

“Rebecca is very special,” she says. “She brought subtlety and wisdom to things that were not always easy to handle.” The eight years of Bushnell’s deanship included both the Making History campaign and the Great Recession that caused the School to rethink some of the priorities identified in its strategic plan. “That’s a very hard message to deliver, and I think she did it with equanimity and a real sense of mission.”

“She’s done a remarkable job doing very innovative things, like cluster hires across departments,” to maximize faculty recruitment, says Fuller. She also cites Bushnell’s fostering of other interdisciplinary programs, including the Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management and the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER).

Regarding the Dean’s “other” job as professor of English, Fuller says, “I think every faculty gets nervous when somebody comes in as dean who’s on the other side of the fence, but she’s been extraordinarily balanced in her leadership.” She points out Bushnell’s advocacy for the Neural and Behavioral Sciences building and the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, shared with Engineering, as well as the renovated Music Building.

The Making History campaign, during which the School raised more than its goal, is another testament to how well Bushnell and her team presented a very clear message and mission. Fuller says, “Rebecca’s been all over the world, I don’t know how many times. She’s an excellent spokesperson. She has the gravitas of the academic side, and she’s remarkably eloquent … which of course you’d expect of an English professor.” Beyond all that, “She’s just fun.”

The chair will recognize Bushnell’s important contribution to the institution, and the project received an outpouring of support from past and current overseers. “We exceeded our goal for the chair,” says Fuller. “That’s an excellent indication of how the overseers value her contribution. And I think she’ll be touched that it goes in her name."

The chair has one more twist that seems a perfect fit for, and tribute to, Bushnell. When she retires, the chair will become the Rebecca W. Bushnell Professorship in the Sciences, which will give the chair itself a history of crossing academic lines. It seems like an ideal tribute to such an effective and balanced dean, and a passionate and inspiring professor.

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