Q&A with Ira Harkavy

After Ira Harkavy had just finished his Ph.D. at Penn, his mentor in the history department, Lee Benson, delivered an address that called for practitioners in communities to work together with academics.

It was a simple but powerful idea that took root in Harkavy’s imagination.

He began to brainstorm with Benson: How exactly do these seeming disparate groups work together? What good can history and social science—and even universities do in the world? What, exactly, are universities good for?

In 1983, in the School of Arts and Sciences, Penn developed an Office of Community-Oriented Policy Studies. One year later, inspired by a student’s research paper on West Philadelphia schools, Benson and Harkavy focused their seminars on the neighborhood.


After research on the history of community schools and increased interest in local engagement from students and key faculty members, what was then known as the Center for Community Partnerships was created in 1992 as a University-wide hub to both improve the quality of life in Philadelphia and advance research, teaching, service, and learning in the Penn community.

Harkavy, the director of what is now called the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, says one of the faculty’s first adopters was Frank Johnston, professor emeritus of anthropology, who created what is now called the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, which engages, educates, and empowers young people, Penn students, and community members to promote healthy lifestyles and build a just and sustainable food system.

This, says Harkavy, was also the beginning of the Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) courses that are at the heart of the Netter Center’s mission.

“[Johnston] turned a medical anthropology course of general work with a focus on the developing world to focus on West Philadelphia, and began the whole process of learning from, and with, the community,” says Harkavy. “Children teaching adults, seniors, middle school children, Johnston connecting it to his research. He became the kind of proof-of-concept, and more and more faculty began to join.”

Today, as the Netter Center celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s difficult to imagine Penn without these opportunities for student-community engagement. In the 2011-12 school year, 56 faculty members from 20 departments in six schools taught nearly 60 ABCS courses. In all, 1,714 Penn students now participate in these courses, enabling them to work with faculty in West Philadelphia public schools, local communities of faith, and community organizations to solve issues in areas related to the environment, health, arts, and education.

As one of Harkavy’s colleagues put it: Civic and community engagement used to be what Penn does, and now it’s what Penn is.

The Center’s focus on ABCS courses and its work developing University-Assisted Community Schools (making those buildings hubs of activity and learning for the entire community) is the embodiment of what Penn founder Benjamin Franklin called an “inclination joined with an ability to serve.”

“Our work simultaneously advances the quality of life in West Philadelphia and Philadelphia, and advances the academic mission of Penn, and helps develop models that can be applied elsewhere,” Harkavy says. “The knowledge that gets produced as we work in West Philadelphia—we see as applicable widely.”

As the Center celebrates its 20th anniversary, the Current sat down with Harkavy to reflect on student and community engagement, the central purpose of universities, and what the next 20 years might hold.

Q. How are the service opportunities that students do as part of the Academically Based Community Service courses different from other volunteer opportunities they do?
A. Although we have a strong community service approach and we do work related to institutional and community development work, the heart of what we do [at the Netter Center] is the connection of academics to the community.
Community service is our way of integrating research, teaching, service, and learning, with service intrinsically tied to the research [and] teaching mission of the University. It’s built into the core academic work, which we see as centrally connected to the academic courses.
The reason for that is it involves faculty and it’s the core University’s work. I want to make this clear: All of the ranges of service are crucial and important. We see it—for a research university particularly such as Penn—as being embedded in the curriculum, assuring that it really matters, that it’s central and has maximum impact on the students because it is core to what they’re here for. It has impact on the faculty because it is connected to their ongoing teaching and work they do and often their research. …
[Professor] Bill Labov—he’s one of the great sociolinguists in the world who has turned his work significantly to improving the reading of African-American youth in West Philadelphia as a basis for improving the reading across the country of Hispanic and African-American youth. The Earth and Environmental Science work [at the Center] began in 1994. [Professor] Carol Muller, an ethnomusicologist, began 10 years ago and she has continued. It is crucial, being central to the core work of the institution. It’s central because it’s connected to courses that are ongoing and it also therefore is sustainable. It is involved in helping students to develop their academic, personal, as well as civic skills, and to develop values. That’s why academically based community service is so central, and for research universities our role is [to be] problem-solving institutions.
We were founded to help students develop as democratic citizens and to advance learning, to improve American society, and to improve the world. This type of work, we believe, helps do those things.
Q. But the ABCS courses are only part of what the Center does, correct?
A. Academically Based Community Service classes are one of two core strategies; the other is University-Assisted Community Schools. That [model] originally comes from the Settlement House workers [of the late 19th century]. The activist, brilliant settlers such as Jane Addams at Hull House and Lillian Wald at Henry Street Settlement in New York, were trying to bring services and learning to poor, immigrant families. They knew that Settlement Houses were scattered, but schools were everywhere, so they actually began to bring services into schools—health programs and education programs.
[Educator and philosopher] John Dewey [had the] idea that you really learn not by learning-by-doing, but learning-by-doing and by critical reflection on the doing, and by continually working to solve problems. As one problem gets solved, new problems get engendered and produced. It’s this ongoing activity of engagement with the world.
[Universities] can make the contribution not just by providing volunteers, but by linking their own academic work [to the volunteering]. Students in the [neighborhood] schools are learning, the Penn students are learning, and the other piece is, it’s good for universities. It helps advance their academic work. We work now with seven schools. You can integrate, you can have programs come together. You can actually create interdisciplinary learning for the University and the schools together around real-world problems. We have a long way to go—I want to make this very clear—but we work with over 4,000 students and their families in West Philadelphia. The idea is you have to make the connection between needs and resources on both sides. Penn has resources, but so do schools and communities. There’s great talent and untapped resources in the community. 

Q. What did it mean to you when President Amy Gutmann presented her Penn Compact in 2004, and it included ‘Engaging Locally’ as one of its central tenants?
A. It is clear that a transformative moment was Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact. … When she opened the Compact and said we’re rising to the challenge of a diverse democracy and we have four commitments. Increased Access, that’s dear to the Netter Center’s work. Then she said, integration of knowledge, and we see what we do as one of the most effective means of integration of knowledge around real-world problems. And then she said engagement locally and globally, and Penn is not an ivory tower and all engagement begins locally.
The idea of having a platform that then becomes institutional [is key]—it becomes part of an institutional advancement strategy that gets discussed and becomes implemented as policy choices.

Q. Just to play devil’s advocate—I’m sure there are people who say a university’s job is to educate young people and help them get a job, and community engagement isn’t part of a university’s mission.
A. I think it’s a misreading of the purpose of universities. …  The Morrill [Land Grant] Act of 1862 was precisely to improve the quality of life for the farmer, improve military science, agricultural science, and mechanical sciences in the expanding states and territories of the United States. The first research university—Johns Hopkins—was founded explicitly … to end misery among the poor, to decrease dishonesty in business.
There’s another part of this. Universities also founded and developed these issues of service and citizenship, different definitions and the advancement of knowledge to improve the world. But the critique really is, is this legitimate even given the history? And the argument that I would make is very simple: That in many instances, and perhaps even in most, the approach of working on real-world problems may be an exceedingly powerful way to advance learning and to make even greater advances in learning, to focus on universal problems and localities as one of those strategies. The idea is that this is a means to make greater, increasing contributions to knowledge, and to develop better theory, as well as better practice. [Benjamin] Franklin calls for the integration of theory and practice. … Universities have multiple goals. Among them is career development. Among them is personal development. Among them is value development. Among them is civic development. As central as any of those goals are to the advancement of knowledge, rather than conflicting, they can be, and should be, complimentary. Careers should not be oppositional to developing civic skills and moral skills. They should be complimentary. And indeed, it is, in fact, a misreading of the history of universities to believe that we have these [goals] segregated.
Finally, I think it’s important to see that this is enhancing to all the missions of the institution.

Q. Do you think this generation has a strong inclination to serve and participate?  Maybe you don’t see as many protests on campus anymore, but do you see more community service?
A. [Having been] very active as an undergraduate, I can say I think students [today] come to college, more than ever, idealistic and oriented towards the work. The students are inspiring. I am so fortunate to be able to teach Penn undergraduates. They are bright, caring, and incredibly able with a strong desire to put their ideals into practice. It isn’t just to see their own personal development and engagement, but it’s also to see that they make real contributions. The idea is that Penn undergraduates can be contributors, not just recipients. They should be part of teams, working with faculty, guided by faculty, and they can help advance learning and make a difference in the world, which I see as connected. Their work is inspiring so many of our projects. So many of the faculty work with us because Penn undergraduates convince them to try it.
The undergraduates both stimulate other work and other students, and they also stimulate faculty and have contributed to some of our most substantial projects. The Wharton-Netter Community Partnership really was a group of Wharton undergraduates who I taught over the years and were one of the reasons that the effort developed. … Even the Sayre Health Center was [inspired by] Penn undergraduates who really mapped what the health center might, and could, look like and worked with deans and faculty from across Penn [to make it happen]. The undergraduate and graduate students have not only shown enthusiasm, but they’ve had a powerful influence on others and it is just a delight to teach them. I learn from them every year. I know I can attest that a lot of the paths the Netter Center and I have taken have come from working with Penn undergraduates.

The idea is you have to make the connection between needs and resources on both sides. Penn has resources, but so do schools and communities. There’s great talent and untapped resources in the community."

Q. What kind of feedback do you hear from graduates who took a course or did an internship with you but who perhaps aren’t working in the social sciences or policy? How did their work with the Center inform what they’re doing now in, say, finance or medicine?
A. I just was with a student who’s in finance in New York who sees this work as having been transformative to what she does. A woman who is an engineer in San Francisco talks about how this influenced her whole practice. They’re across the board and that’s what the great power of the work is, in part, that students come with different orientations. We’ve had students come back in every field, from teaching to public policy to science to medicine to dentistry to nursing, who are engaged in these kind of activities. The idea is in every field one is engaged. Once can be engaged and be a good citizen, and a contributing citizen, through one’s work as well as through one’s volunteer time. I think this has helped shape the thinking of a number of students.

Q. You got your B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Penn. Can you share your reflections on what it was like when you were a student? Is Penn much more engaged now than it was?
A. I was very much an activist and was very involved in things related to Penn’s treatment of the community, as well as issues related to trying to help end the Vietnam War. I was very active as a young person on these issues. This was outside the core of the curriculum. It wasn’t even what Penn did as Penn, in a certain respect. It was important to students, but there weren’t [institutional] structures for volunteer service. There was something called the Community Involvement Council that I actually chaired and it was the largest student group in the late ’60s. But it wasn’t connected to the institution. Certainly the whole academic and institutional development was very different. Penn had very hostile relationships [with the community]. It expanded in ways that created animosity; it didn’t work democratically [with other institutions]. At its core, [community engagement] wasn’t at the academic center of what Penn did. So [there has been a] tremendous change. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have conceptualized that at Penn and around the country … there would be the development of engaged scholarship, or civic engagement, of service learning, of community partnerships. To see how far it has come is beyond my most utopian imaginations. The change is enormous and most central to that change, I believe that [engagement] is now infused within the academic work of so much of the institution. For that to happen, we needed a series of presidents who believed in it, who made this important, we needed faculty who would be committed over time to it, and engaged, active students.
I’m so impressed with the abilities of the students. I’m convinced [that today] I couldn’t have gotten near getting into Penn as an undergraduate, and I’m also deeply impressed with the idealism and desire of students to put their ideas to work in the world. I couldn’t feel more fortunate, and I mean this, that in 1966, I left the Bronx, New York and came to the University of Pennsylvania. I met my wife here. My children went here.
What Penn has become, the fact that Penn is [committed to] community, civic engagement is of tremendous satisfaction. But more than that, I’m just so pleased to be part of an institution that has made these commitments, and not just made them but made these commitments real, and that it intends to keep moving in this direction.

Q. What’s next for the Netter Center? What will the next 20 years look like?
A. Really to develop not just more courses and more engagement among students and faculty, but to develop greater integration both in the community and on campus. We have a vehicle … to bring faculty across six thematic areas to work together to develop curricula and approaches that aren’t just courses that may link [areas] together, but really help students develop more pathways to do this work.  The other [goal] is the development of new and innovative programs with schools such as a Wharton-Netter Center community partnership … trying to develop University-assisted community development [that is] linked to university-assisted community schools.
The other approach is the engagement of our graduates. We have a wonderful new program called the Emerson Fellows, where two outstanding Penn students who are involved in ABCS work and University-assisted community schools have, after graduation, continued working with the practice and policy of University-assisted community schools; one in West Philadelphia and one in Washington, D.C. with the Coalition for Community Schools. We see that as an exemplary way to move our work forward in this regard, and to build on that very good idea. There is a fourth piece that I think is important, and that is the adaptation of our work not just nationally but also globally. We have a regional center in Tulsa and at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
The idea is that we learn from each other here, and [we learn from institutions] around the world. It’s the national and global development of this work. Penn, although a catalytic leader, is but one of a number [of institutions] that learns from, and with, other sites. We also want to deepen our partnerships with our extraordinary colleagues in the community schools in West Philadelphia so we have greater impact and really make genuine, and deeper, improvements. We have a very long way to go. West Philadelphia is still in many respects a community that is disadvantaged.
The final goal is to realize the goals of the Penn Compact, which is a means to realizing Benjamin Franklin’s vision that each and every Penn student develops an inclination and ability to serve. If that really were to occur, all of the other [goals] would be taken care of.

Ira Harkavy-slideshow