Benjamin Franklin, Penn's founder, advocated an educational program that focused as much on practical education for commerce and public service as on the classics and theology, though his proposed curriculum was never adopted. The university coat of arms features a dolphin on the red chief, adopted directly from the Franklin family's own coat of arms. Penn was one of the first academic institutions to follow a multidisciplinary model pioneered by several European universities, concentrating multiple "faculties" (e.g., theology, classics, medicine) into one institution. It was also home to many other educational innovations. The first school of medicine in North America (Perelman School of Medicine, 1765), the first collegiate business school (Wharton School, 1881) and the first "student union" building and organization (Houston Hall, 1896) were founded at Penn. With an endowment of $12.21 billion (2017), Penn had the seventh largest endowment of all colleges in the United States. All of Penn's schools exhibit very high research activity. In fiscal year 2015, Penn's academic research budget was $851 million, involving more than 4,300 faculty, 1,100 postdoctoral fellows and 5,500 support staff/graduate assistants.
Over its history, the university has also produced many distinguished alumni. These include 14 heads of state (including two U.S. Presidents); 25 billionaires – the most of any university in the world at the undergraduate level; three United States Supreme Court justices; over 33 United States Senators, 42 United States Governors and 158 members of the U.S. House of Representatives; 8 signers of the United States Declaration of Independence; and 12 signers of the United States Constitution. In addition, some 35 Nobel laureates, 169 Guggenheim Fellows and 80 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences have been affiliated with Penn. Many Fortune 500 CEOs have been affiliated with Penn.
The University considers itself the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States, as well as the first university in the United States with both undergraduate and graduate studies.
In 1740, a group of Philadelphians joined together to erect a great preaching hall for the traveling evangelist George Whitefield, who toured the American colonies delivering open air sermons. The building was designed and built by Edmund Woolley and was the largest building in the city at the time, drawing thousands of people the first time it was preached in.:26 It was initially planned to serve as a charity school as well, but a lack of funds forced plans for the chapel and school to be suspended. According to Franklin's autobiography, it was in 1743 when he first had the idea to establish an academy, "thinking the Rev. Richard Peters a fit person to superintend such an institution". However, Peters declined a casual inquiry from Franklin and nothing further was done for another six years.:30 In the fall of 1749, now more eager to create a school to educate future generations, Benjamin Franklin circulated a pamphlet titled "Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania", his vision for what he called a "Public Academy of Philadelphia". Unlike the other Colonial colleges that existed in 1749—Harvard, William & Mary, Yale and Princeton—Franklin's new school would not focus merely on education for the clergy. He advocated an innovative concept of higher education, one which would teach both the ornamental knowledge of the arts and the practical skills necessary for making a living and doing public service. The proposed program of study could have become the nation's first modern liberal arts curriculum, although it was never implemented because William Smith (1727-1803), an Anglican priest who became the first provost and other trustees strongly preferred the traditional curriculum.
Franklin assembled a board of trustees from among the leading citizens of Philadelphia, the first such non-sectarian board in America. At the first meeting of the 24 members of the Board of Trustees (November 13, 1749), the issue of where to locate the school was a prime concern. Although a lot across Sixth Street from the old Pennsylvania State House (later renamed and famously known since 1776 as "Independence Hall"), was offered without cost by James Logan, its owner, the Trustees realized that the building erected in 1740, which was still vacant, would be an even better site. The original sponsors of the dormant building still owed considerable construction debts and asked Franklin's group to assume their debts and, accordingly, their inactive trusts. On February 1, 1750, the new board took over the building and trusts of the old board. On August 13, 1751, the "Academy of Philadelphia", using the great hall at 4th and Arch Streets, took in its first secondary students. A charity school also was chartered July 13, 1753:12 in accordance with the intentions of the original "New Building" donors, although it lasted only a few years. On June 16, 1755, the "College of Philadelphia" was chartered, paving the way for the addition of undergraduate instruction.:13 All three schools shared the same Board of Trustees and were considered to be part of the same institution. The first commencement exercises were held on May 17, 1757.:14