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Wendell Pritchett on returning to Penn, and the future of legal and higher education

July 01, 2014

On July 1 Wendell Pritchett officially begins his tenure as Interim Dean of the Law School, and as a Presidential Term Professor at Penn. A Penn Law professor from 2001-09, Pritchett most recently served as Chancellor of Rutgers-Camden from 2009-14, and in 2008 served as Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Policy for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who appointed him to the School Reform Commission in 2011.

Before coming to Penn, Pritchett spent five years as assistant professor of history at Baruch College of the City University of New York. He has written two books and numerous articles on urban history and policy, particularly in the areas of housing, race relations, land use, and economic development.  

Interim Dean Pritchett spoke recently with Penn Law’s Office of Communications about his return to Penn and key opportunities and challenges in legal and higher education.

Penn Law (PL):  What are your thoughts on returning to Penn?

Wendell Pritchett (WP):  I’m very excited, because I’ve been connected to Penn almost my entire life. When I was a kid several of my friends’ dads taught at Penn, I spent a lot of time on campus as a kid - I even took my SATs at Penn. A lot of my friends attended undergrad here, friends also attended the Law School, and I did my graduate work here. In addition, I taught at Penn Law for nearly a decade and, of course, my wife Anne Kringel directed the legal research and writing program here for 20 years.

PL:  What brought you back to Penn and the Law School?

WP:  Very simply, they asked me! Penn has been home for a long time, it’s an outstanding institution, and when I decided to step down from my job as Chancellor of Rutgers-Camden I certainly hoped I’d be asked to come back but I certainly didn’t expect that - but when they asked, I said yes.

PL:  What will you be teaching in 2014-15 as a Presidential Term Professor?

WP:  This fall I’ll be teaching a course that’s cross-listed between the Law School and the Graduate School of Education called “New Models of Higher Education.” We’ll be looking at issues such as online education, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), other ways of organizing higher education, and policy debates around how higher education should be structured in the future – it’s a policy class. 

In the spring semester I’ll be co-teaching Land Use Law here at the Law School with Adjunct Prof. Tom Witt.

PL:  What is your approach to teaching, and to working with students?

WP:  I learn best by doing, and I’ve always been frustrated in classes where we weren’t connecting what we were learning to the real world, and that’s part of the reason why I decided to become a lawyer, because that connectivity is inherent in what a lawyer does. I do believe law classes try to make those connections more explicitly than in other areas of higher education, and as a teacher I focus a great deal on how to expose students to real-world experiences.

So, in my Land Use course students have to do things like go to a planning or zoning hearing, they have to work on a project that involves developing a plan for an area or specific kind of development, and so on. My philosophy is that teaching should involve a lot of hands-on work, and students should have the ability to choose the kinds of things they want to work on.

PL:  Penn Law is renowned for its cross-disciplinary approach to legal education, including its interdisciplinary faculty. Why did you pursue degrees in law and in history?

WP:  I grew up surrounded by lawyers and was interested in the law, and also politics and government. My dad was a musician, but pretty much everyone else’s dad on the block was a lawyer. I knew early on – and other people thought – that I’d be a lawyer, and I knew in college I’d go to law school, which I did. 

But I wasn’t really sure even in law school what I wanted to do with the law, but during law school I was a teaching assistant for a class and it was then that I realized how much I enjoyed teaching, as well as research, and the other kinds of projects you can work on as an academic.

I decided to earn a PhD in history because it was a subject in which I was very interested, particularly American history, studying cities and studying race relations, and I was able to do all of those things in graduate school and later as a historian. When I went to graduate school I wasn’t sure I’d be a law professor, though I knew I’d be a professor; in fact, I was a history professor for five years before coming to Penn. I greatly enjoyed that, though I enjoy being a law professor – and being a law professor provides you with an entrée to participate in debates that are perhaps unique to the legal academy and the profession.

PL:  You’ve previously been Associate Dean at Penn Law, Chancellor at Rutgers-Camden, and are now Interim Dean. What is your approach to leadership in higher education?

WP:  First, we’re at a turning point in higher education in this country, and probably across the world. The demands to expose more and more people to higher education, to expand knowledge and to build skills, are great, though the resources are limited. As a result of that tension, we have to work even harder to figure out how to expose people – of all ages – to education. That’s why I think MOOCs, for example, are so important. We’re still experimenting, trying to figure out ways in which we can expand access to higher education, maintain quality, and improve outcomes for students – increasing, not just maintaining, their skills and importantly their prospects for career success. 

There is a lot of work to be done in higher education, I saw that up close over the last five years, though we’ve made meaningful progress. It’s a very interesting moment for higher education, and I think we’re going to get an increasing amount of attention from policy makers, because there are a lot of pressures on us as a sector.

PL:  What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as Interim Dean?

WP:  To be clear, we’re in an excellent position today thanks to the leadership of Dean Michael Fitts, and I believe my job is to continue the momentum that he, working with others here and across Penn, has created. That includes maintaining and building out our interdisciplinary programs, continuing to recruit the best and the brightest students and faculty, helping to increase the impacts of our academic centers and institutes, supporting our clinical, pro bono, and international programs, and of course making sure our students are successful at getting the best jobs when they graduate.