Exploring the future of higher education

A new book co-edited by the Netter Center’s Ira Harkavy considers the various responses of universities to the pandemic, with the goal of building more sustainable and democratic societies.

A book cover depicting two side by side images of college students. One masked student is looking up while working on a laptop; four other students are walking side-by-side in a hallway
A new book, “Higher Education’s response to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” looks to build a more resilient and just education system.


OVID-19 upended worldwide norms, including those in higher education. A new book published by the Council of Europe has taken stock of the ways in which various universities responded to the pandemic, with the goal of contributing to a dynamic and equitable post-COVID world.

Higher education’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Building a sustainable and democratic future” contains 31 chapters by 43 authors from all over the world, and is the seventh book edited by leaders from the Global Cooperation for the Democratic Mission of Higher Education. Ira Harkavy, associate vice president at Penn and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships’ founding director, is the book’s co-editor. Harkavy contributed three chapters, one of which, “Chapter 7: Past, present, future: Re-thinking the social responsibility of U.S. higher education in light of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter,” was co-written with Rita A. Hodges, Netter Center associate director.

Penn Today talked with Harkavy to discuss social responsibility at Penn, the democratic purpose of higher education, and the role of universities in a post-pandemic world moving forward into the “next normal.”

What role can universities play in shaping a post-pandemic world?

First, I should note that universities have made extraordinary contributions during the pandemic, from developing vaccines and providing health care to ensuring educational continuity and engagement with the community. The pandemic is more than a public health crisis with severe economic implications. As we all know, it graphically revealed extreme inequities and engrained social problems, requiring a rethinking of how our institutions function. Universities can and should play a central role in that rethinking. They are perhaps the most influential institutions in advanced societies, centers of innovation and discovery, as well as of cultural, technological, and economic development. Most significantly, they teach the teachers and the teachers’ teachers across all variety of fields and professions, shaping the educational system and, therefore, society itself.

COVID-19 also exposed and exacerbated anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies in many countries, including Brazil, Hungary, Poland, and the United States. The armed insurrection at the Capitol Building is, of course, a visible and frightening indicator that American democracy is under threat. Higher education has a responsibility to help assure that democracy is not a casualty of the pandemic. One way of doing that is for universities to strengthen global partnerships dedicated to advancing higher education’s democratic mission, such as the one that helped lead to this book.

What are the top two things universities need to focus on as they move forward into the ‘next normal?’

I am glad you use the term ‘next normal.’ There can be no return to the previous normal, which was unfair and destructive to so many people in the United States and around the world.

The first thing universities need to focus on is a redesign of academia to work in democratic collaboration with others, within and beyond its campus. Over the past number of decades, productive steps have been taken to effectively engage universities in partnerships with their communities. They have simply been insufficient, given the severity and scale of the problems.

As my co-editors and I discuss in the book, this kind of change will require lots of sharing and learning from colleagues across the globe. Although we do not provide anything like a road map for change, we do propose that universities should work towards becoming democratic civic universities, which would infuse democracy across all aspects of the institution, as well as in its work with others. The definition of expert would also be expanded to include the expertise of those outside the campus. This model is quite different from the neoliberal entrepreneurial university, which has gained wide currency and prioritizes commercialization and education as a private benefit, not a public good, exacerbating inequality in the process.

My co-editors and I emphasize that another major focus should be building deeper relationships with the local communities in which higher education institutions reside. These communities are often those most affected by the pandemic and its aftermath. Among the things I learned while editing the book was the extent to which local engagement has become an increasing priority for academics and universities around the world as a result of COVID-19. The concluding chapter in the book, for example, is co-written by a faculty member from Dublin City University and a faculty member from Queens University Belfast. They provide a case study of how two universities responded to the pandemic in their respective cities, identifying deep local-to-local collaboration across the contested Irish border as crucial for both universities, and their cities, as well as for Ireland and Northern Ireland in general. And a chapter on higher education in Ecuador argues that local efforts in response to the pandemic, including in public health and social assistance, have helped universities improve their standing with the public.

Engaging the full range of university resources, including its academic and institutional resources, is crucial for deeper relationships and more equitable societies. As important as what a higher education institution brings to the partnership, however, is the nature of its relationship with its local community. Universities must demonstrate openness, transparency, responsiveness, and accountability. Members of both the higher education institution and the community should treat each other as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end. The relationship itself and the welfare of the various partners are the preeminent value, not simply developing a specified program or completing a research project.

How is service and social responsibility incorporated into Penn’s mission?

Any discussion of service and social responsibility at Penn necessarily begins with Benjamin Franklin. Penn was different from the other colonial colleges whose founding purpose was largely to educate ministers and religiously orthodox men capable of creating good communities built on religious denominational principles. Franklin, however, founded Penn as a secular institution to educate students in a variety of fields. It was a new kind of college devoted to educating students to do good (first and foremost) and do well. In a 1749 pamphlet, Franklin famously described the purpose of the college that would become the University of Pennsylvania as developing in students an ‘Inclination’ joined with ‘an Ability to serve.’

There have been times in Penn’s history when Franklin’s values of service and social responsibility have particularly come to the fore. The early Wharton School of the late 19th and early 20th century is one such example, where the Wharton curriculum engaged undergraduates in academic projects designed to solve the problems of a rapidly industrializing Philadelphia. The early Wharton School curriculum, in fact, served as a model and inspiration for the Netter Center’s development of academically based community service. 

Service and social responsibility again became central to Penn with the presidency of Sheldon Hackney in 1981 and the university’s development of local partnerships, primarily with the West Philadelphia community. This emphasis on university-community partnerships has continued and grown through Judith Rodin’s and Amy Gutmann’s presidencies, finding expression in the Penn Compact with its emphasis on local engagement and impact as integral to Penn’s mission.  

Examples of how social responsibility have been incorporated into Penn’s mission include the theme year of Civic Engagement, the work of Civic House, Fox Leadership, the Paideia Program and Netter Center, and the Office of the Executive Vice President’s identifying civic engagement as a metric for measuring Penn’s economic and social impact and its functioning as an effective anchor institution. I would be remiss if I did not also mention the expansion of community-engaged scholarship to graduate education through the Provost’s Graduate Academic Engagement Fellowship at the Netter Center.

Penn, of course, could and should do more to incorporate social responsibility, particularly authentic community engagement, throughout the institution. Among other things, every school, department, and program might seriously consider how to make advancing social justice and equity in West Philadelphia/Philadelphia an important focus of its research and teaching.

What are a university’s social responsibilities when facing anti-Black racism?

American universities in cities with significant Black populations directly face anti-Black racism all the time. The persistent, pernicious conditions of poverty, poor schooling, and inadequate health care disproportionally experienced by Black Americans indicate that every higher education institution to some extent faces anti-Black racism. Certainly, COVID-19 and the ongoing murder of Black Americans have made historically based and policy- and market-supported racism and injustice all too visible and undeniable.

So, what should a university do? Among other things it should make eradicating injustice and racism on campus and in the community a major institutional priority and a test of its performance. If universities were to adapt and act on that priority with their community partners, they would increase their contributions to knowledge, better educate students for active citizenship, and help create genuinely inclusive democratic societies. Translating this idea into action would involve, of course, major university-wide change. As my co-editors and I argue, change of that magnitude is necessary for a just and sustainable democratic future in a post-pandemic world.

The Global Cooperation for the Democratic Mission of Higher Education began in 1999 as a collaboration between the Council of Europe and the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy (with representation from the United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and the Magna Charta Observatory). The Global Cooperation has expanded in recent years to include the Organization of American States and International Association of Universities. The International Consortium is housed at the Netter Center and is chaired by Harkavy; Hodges serves as executive secretary.

A global webinar was hosted on March 16 to launch the book; additional regional webinars are planned for the United States, Ireland, and Ecuador.