“What good may I do?”

Joe BordognaDrawing inspiration from Benjamin Franklin, Professor Joseph Bordogna transforms “useful knowledge” into public benefit.

The future dean of Penn Engineering grew up in South Philadelphia, where roots (and stickball rivalries) run deep, and where a college education was still a novel aspiration in the 1940s. The winner of a General Electric prize for academic achievement at Bartram High School in 1951, the young Joe Bordogna then used his Naval ROTC scholarship to learn the useful and the ornamental about engineering at Benjamin Franklin’s university.

After serving in the U.S. Navy on the Battleship New Jersey and two destroyer escorts, the newly-minted electrical engineer won a Whitney Fellowship to MIT, but first worked at electronics innovator RCA for a year to refine his interests. In 1960, with his MIT master’s in electrical engineering, he returned to RCA before earning his doctorate at Penn Engineering. Here, the Philadelphia story of Joseph Bordogna becomes classically Franklinian.

Bordogna has devoted his 47-year Penn career to expanding on the work of Franklin the scientist/engineer and Franklin the educator. As professor and dean, Bordogna launched innovative academic initiatives including dual-degree programs in management and technology and in computer and cognitive science, and an alternative liberal arts degree in an engineering school. “I was taken with Joe’s vision of how great the university could be—how the arts and sciences, business, engineering, nursing and medicine, indeed all of Penn’s schools and colleges, could work together to make a difference,” says longtime friend and colleague Ira Harkavy, (B.A.’70, Ph.D.’79), associate vice president and founding director of Penn’s Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships. “Joe has an extraordinary commitment to Franklin’s approach of ‘What good may I do?’ He exemplifies what Franklin said an educator should be—scholar, teacher, citizen.”

Throughout his career, Bordogna has worked to include underrepresented populations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. He is devoted to improving K-12 education in these areas, generating the Bordogna mantra: “We cannot afford to lose one brain.” In 1973, he co-founded PRIME, the Philadelphia Regional Introduction for Minorities to Engineering, and has served on the boards of Philadelphia-based organizations dedicated to accessible education for all. Last year, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which Bordogna co-developed in 1983 to stimulate entrepreneurial potential in Pennsylvania, earned recognition from the U.S. Department of Commerce as the most outstanding technology-led economic development organization in the country.

In 1991, under President George H.W. Bush, Bordogna was appointed head of the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate, followed by appointment as deputy director and COO of NSF by President Bill Clinton. Bordogna oversaw NSF’s $5 billion budget and programs supporting the nation’s strategic direction in research, technology and education.

The National Science Board (which sets NSF policy) recognized Bordogna as “a creative force in setting new directions for the Foundation,” shepherding the NSF to “new heights of scientific achievement, workforce diversity, and educational accomplishments.” He has the distinction of an eponymous plateau in Antarctica (the Bordogna Plateau) in recognition of his NSF Antarctic activities. In 1998, Bordogna served as worldwide president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which awarded him the James H. Mulligan, Jr. Education Medal in 2008. He returned to Penn in 2005 as Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Engineering.

Bordogna’s Philadelphia story is best viewed through the windows and perspectives that Penn opened to him, says Harkavy, who has known Bordogna for nearly 40 years. “The Franklinian heritage, Franklin’s core ideas and core approaches—the integration of theory and practice to help improve the world—have influenced Joe,” Harkavy says. “Franklin founded Penn with the intention to educate young people to serve morally, to prepare the individual to contribute to society—and these are the principles that Joe takes everywhere.”

View the full article in Penn Engineering Magazine: "'What good may I do?'" by Jennifer Baldino Bonett.

Interested? Learn more!

View Joseph Bordogna's Faculty Profile

Return to News Features