The Legacy of Penn's Martin Meyerson

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Media Contact:Jeanne Leong | | 215-573-8151February 17, 2012

Penn President Martin Meyerson’s impact on campus is still being felt more than 30 years after his presidency.

Meyerson led the University at a time when Penn was going through many major changes, including dealing with a huge budget deficit, making upgrades to the campus grounds and modifying academic programs to complete his goal of creating “One University.”

Meyerson envisioned all Penn’s schools collaborating in teaching and research to benefit society.

John Puckett, a professor in the Graduate School of Education, has written about Meyerson’s presidency in the Journal of Planning History, as part of a series of articles and a forthcoming book in conjunction with the Penn Institute for Urban Research. Along with Mark Lloyd of the University Archives and Records Center, Puckett examined how Penn’s fifth president guided the University through the turbulent 1970s and early ‘80s.

Puckett says Meyerson’s programs for interdisciplinary education and creating one contiguous campus were ahead of its time, paving the way for other initiatives at Penn since his presidency.

“A lot of history had to play out and some of it was negative,” Puckett says, “before Penn could get focused and be in the position where it is today.” 

Some of the issues reflected what was happening across the nation, economically, socially and culturally.

Puckett says, Penn “went through racial unrest, [and] you’ve got gender issues. You’ve got crime. The budget.  It’s impinging and unsettling the campus.”   

One of Meyerson’s biggest challenges was the task of completing the unfinished business started by his predecessor, Gaylord Harnwell, whose massive building program left the University with a nearly $5-million deficit when Meyerson took over as president in 1970.

Meyerson “had faced as least four years of crushing budget deficits that he inherited from Harnwell’s lavish spending program, which of course I don’t mean critically, but the bill came due,” Puckett says.

In what Puckett calls a brilliant strategy, Meyerson implemented his plan known as Responsibility Centered Management to help Penn reduce its deficit and at the same time continue funding research projects.

“In the early 1970s,” Puckett says, “inflation kept recurring in the decade, particularly with the oil embargoes, and the cost of fuel skyrocketed. He got the budget back into order, which I think was a pretty remarkable achievement.”

Meyerson also created the school of Faculty of Arts and Sciences from the fragmented programs and courses that were offered in several Penn colleges and schools. FAS was later renamed the School of Arts and Sciences.

Meyerson, an urban planner, is credited with landscaping the historic core of campus, creating Blanche Levy Park and transforming the campus into a picturesque, walker-friendly campus.

“The Class of 1973 bridge was completed on his watch, which crosses 38th Street,” Puckett says. “Everything is located within easy walking distance of everything.”