History of Penn Charter's Overseers
William Penn established a group he called Overseers to govern his school. Three centuries later, the group is still responsible for the operation of Penn Charter.
The founding of Penn Charter was the direct result of instructions from William Penn to the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, and the Council’s request for assistance from Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. William Penn had expressed his concern for education in Pennsylvania early: in his Frame of Government in 1682, and at meetings of the Provincial Council over which he presided. On Nov. 11, 1683, he proposed that “Care be taken about the Learning and Instruction of Youth, to wit: a school of arts and sciences.”
In 1708 William Penn signed a charter, taking responsibility from Philadelphia Monthly Meeting and placing it in the hands of 15 Quaker “Overseers”. In 1711, he signed another charter removing the requirement that Overseers be members of the Religious Society of Friends. The 1711 charter remains the legal basis under which the school operates to this day.
Penn was specific about what the Overseers should do and, for approximately 250 years, they personally did just about what he had directed, including paying bills, admitting students and compiling an annual budget. Since Overseers served for life, there was always someone who knew the old ways of doing things and felt comfortable with them. Thus, they continued.
Today, Overseers’ tasks are removed from detailed management. In 1989, 300 years after the school opened, Henry Scattergood summarized the Overseers tasks as follows:
"... probably the chief responsibility of Overseers is the selection of a Head and the support and guidance of that individual without 'meddling' in the daily operations of the School. It is clear, I think, that Overseers have final responsibility for finances, property, education policy, religious tone, and, in general terms, the quality of education and of life offered by the School. Of course, much of this is delegated to the Administration and Faculty, who must try to implement the policies set by Overseers."
In directing the course of the school, Overseers make decisions by consensus, in the manner of Friends.
In 1973 Overseers added six more Overseers, to serve three-year renewable terms, to the 15 life-long Overseer positions originally chartered. Even today, each Overseer can trace the lineage of his or her particular “chair” back to the original Overseer, which means 15 trace all the way to those who served the school since its final charter granted by William Penn in 1711.
For example, William B. Carr Jr. OPC ’69, who joined Overseers in 1980, holds the chair originally held by Thomas Master. Samuel Carpenter was the deputy governor of colonial Pennsylvania and is often called the first treasurer of provincial Pennsylvania. Among the original 15 Overseers, Carpenter was a partner and friend of William Penn and made the first recorded gift to Penn Charter. Sitting Overseer Caesar D. Williams Jr. OPC ’80 holds Carpenter’s chair.
More about the history of William Penn's school.