Events / What Are Universities For?

What Are Universities For?

March 12, 2024
4:30 pm - 6:00 pm

Penn Museum, Widener Lecture Hall

3260 South Street, Philadelphia

Join us for the next event of the Living the Hard Promise Series

What Are Universities For?

Universities in the U.S. are distinctive for their ideals and aspirations, yet the fundamental values driving campus life are being questioned. What is the role of the university in providing a space for open expression and posing challenges to mainstream ideas? How do we respond to critics who see campuses as ideologically driven? Can, or should, places like Penn stand apart from politics or are they unavoidably enmeshed in them?

Join our panel for a discussion of the challenges of the current state of discourse around universities, and how to ensure that institutions like Penn can continue to advance public understanding of and support for their essential role.

  • Herman Beavers, Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt President’s Distinguished Professor of English and Africana Studies
  • Paul Sniegowski, Steven A. Levin Family Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Biology
  • Peter Struck, Professor of Classical Studies

Moderated by:

  • Laura Perna, Vice Provost for Faculty, GSE Centennial Presidential Professor of Education, and Founding Executive Director, Penn AHEAD (Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy)

Herman Beavers, Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt President’s Distinguished Professor of English and Africana Studies, is a distinguished poet and a widely published scholar of 20th-century American and African American literature, especially the novels of Toni Morrison, the traditions of jazz and jazz writing, and the work of 20th-century Southern writers. He has served as graduate and undergraduate chair of Africana Studies, director of the English Department Honors Program, and faculty director of Civic House and the Civic Scholars Program, and his teaching has been recognized with several awards. He has also consulted on recruitment and retention of students from underrepresented backgrounds in institutions of higher learning and has been active in arts-based community-service learning. He was recently elected second vice president of the Modern Languages Association and will become MLA president in January 2026. In addition, he has served as a commissioner with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Paul Sniegowski, Stephen A. Levin Family Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Biology, researches evolutionary and population genetic theory as a framework for understanding the evolutionary significance of mutation rates and mutational phenomena. His teaching has been recognized with several awards including the School’s highest teaching honor, the Ira H. Abrams Award (2005). As dean of the College, Sniegowski oversees undergraduate curricula, programs and students in all departments, and non-departmental programs in Penn Arts & Sciences. His past service has included leading the Committee on Undergraduate Education and Faculty Senate Committee on Students and Educational Policy and has served as a Disciplinary Hearing Officer for the Office of Student Conduct and Office of the Sexual Violence Investigative Officer.

Peter Struck is a Professor of Classical Studies and cofounder of the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education. His research focuses on Greek and Roman mythology, ancient theories of signs and interpretation, and philosophy and divination. Struck received the C. J. Goodwin Award from the American Philological Association for best book for two of his books and is also coeditor, along with Sophia Rosenfeld, of the six-volume Cultural History of Ideas, which has been recognized with the Association of American Publishers PROSE award for best work of the year in the category of “Reference-Humanities” (and one of three finalists in the category “World History”). Struck has held prestigious fellowships with the National Humanities Center, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Academy in Rome, among others and has won multiple teaching awards at Penn, including the Lindback Award, the university’s top teaching prize. He is a former director of the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program and a former chair of the Department of Classical Studies and was the founding director of the Integrated Studies Program.

Laura Perna is Vice Provost for Faculty, GSE Centennial Presidential Professor of Education, and Executive Director of Penn AHEAD, an initiative dedicated to advancing higher education policy and practice that fosters open, equitable, and democratic societies. She is past chair of Penn’s faculty senate and has served as faculty fellow of the Institute for Urban Research, faculty affiliate of the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative, and member of the advisory board for the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Perna’s research examines the ways that social structures, educational practices, and public policies promote and limit college access and success, particularly for groups that continue to be underrepresented in higher education. Her scholarship is published in a variety of outlets, including books, journal articles, and policy reports. Her recent books include Taking It to the Streets: The Role of Scholarship in Advocacy and Advocacy in Scholarship and The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership for Higher Education.


Please note that this event is for the on-campus University community. A PennCard will be required to enter.

Open expression is a hard promise: it is both a firm commitment and an extraordinarily difficult one.

The Penn community has experienced pain, fear, and anger over the past few months, but we must believe in the ability to engage across differences. We reject hate and violence unequivocally, and we embrace the spirit of free exchange without reservation. Penn Arts & Sciences launched the Living the Hard Promise initiative to create spaces in which the University community can begin the process of working through these tremendous challenges.