Penn Researchers: Colleges and Universities Are Crucial to Their Communities

The University of Pennsylvania’s commitment to civic engagement is a model example that’s now being shared with higher education leaders around the world. 

Two Penn researchers championing this work, Ira Harkavy and Matthew Hartley, are contributors to the latest volume in The Council of Europe’s series Higher Education for Democratic Innovation. The book stems from the Higher Education for Democratic Innovation Global Forum 2014 at Queen’s University in Belfast and features chapters from scholars from across Europe, the United States, South Africa and Lebanon. 

In “U.S. Higher Education, Community Engagement and Democratic Innovations: A Historical Overview and Suggestions for Moving Forward,” Harkavy, the associate vice president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, says higher education institutions serve as critical sources of stability.

Harkavy, who also co-edited the volume, explains in the chapter that, by the 1990s, U.S. colleges and universities were unable to avoid the crime, violence and deterioration knocking on their front doors. 

“The future of higher education institutions and their regions are intertwined,” Harkavy wrote. “They have a strong economic stake in the health of their surrounding areas and, because of the scale and scope of their operations, they have the resources and a moral obligation to make a genuine difference.”

He says that universities are crucial to their communities, not only in education and research but also housing and real estate development, employment and job training, business and technology incubation and cultural development. 

Harkavy, who serves as the chair of the U.S. Steering Committee of the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Demoracy, tips his hat to the work Queen’s University is doing in Belfast, yielding positive results through its civic-engagement programs. He also outlines Penn’s work in West Philadelphia, illustrating a promising strategy that showcases an institution’s purpose, while providing opportunities for both the university and the community. 

For more than 30 years, Harkavy wrote, Penn has embraced local engagement through comprehensive programs and university-assisted community-school partnerships, eventually developing a unique approach to service learning through its more than 200 academically based community service courses, or ABCS. 

“ABCS courses integrate research, teaching, learning, and service around action-oriented, community problem solving,” Harkavy said. “Penn students work on improving local schools, spurring economic development on a neighborhood scale and building strong community organizations.” 

Hartley, the associate dean for academic affairs in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and the executive director of Penn AHEAD, focused on whether institutions of higher education are fulfilling their civic promise. 

In his chapter, “Higher Education and Democratic Innovation: Bringing the Threads Together,” Hartley said the volume’s co-authors were brought together through shared concerns, like how colleges and universities help repair societal divisions. 

“Fostering just and equitable societies, addressing difficult social problems and alleviating historic socio-economic and cultural differences that divide us are just some of the difficult and ongoing tasks of democracy,” he said. 

Hartley posed multiple questions about opening the doors for historically under-represented or newly arrived populations, creating nurturing environments and incorporating the civic purposes of higher education. He said the answers can be found in embracing community engagement. 

“Remarkable things can happen when sustained, mutually beneficial partnerships are created, linking the assets and resources of the community and the university,” Hartley wrote, adding that democratic engagement also helps students refine marketable skills that are essential in today’s workplace. 

“The skills that students develop through democratic engagement -– the ability to work with others and across differences, to think critically, to communicate and civilly debate -– make for effective citizens and are precisely the skills that many employers are asking for,” Hartley explained. 

Both Hartley and Harkavy cite the successful growth of Penn’s Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, a research project that works to improve community health in West Philadelphia through better nutrition. It has become the Netter Center’s largest program, with more than 20 full-time employees working in university-assisted community schools in the neighborhood and in other areas of the city.

The International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy, along with the Council of Europe, are currently planning the next Global Forum, which will be held at Lumsa University and at the Australian Catholic University-Rome campus in June 2017.

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