Universities grapple with urban ills

For dozens of us trying to connect American colleges and universities with their communities, the annual late fall meeting at Penn of the National Conference on University-Community School Partnerships has become something of a cousins' club. Now, five years after the first conference supported by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, the cousins are growing up.

Teams from more than 30 campus/community partnerships convened last month to learn from one another and strategize for the next burst of change. Federal and foundation funders were also on hand. The whole group spent the afternoon at the Turner Middle School observing one of Penn's community partnerships, the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps (WEPIC) program, in action.

In a real sense, Philadelphia has again been the cradle of a growing, increasingly urgent national movement. Penn isn't the only university developing a serious, sustained, orchestrated commitment to its community. But its Center for Community Partnerships has been a unique incubator of ideas, energy and political will, and its director, Ira Harkavy, has become the movement's midwife -- and I know he'd rather be called a midwife than a point man.

Due in no small part to Harkavy and his colleagues, there is now a cabal of advocates working to apply this nation's vast intellectual capital to the urgent social problems of the cities.

Through its example in West Philadelphia, its annual conferences, its journal Universities and Community Schools, and Harkavy's passionate speeches all over the country, Penn has enlarged the circle of institutions participating in that process.

A week after the Penn meeting, a group of us were asked by President William M. Chace of Emory University to help that institution think about its place in its communities: Atlanta, Georgia, the New South. In January, the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education convene a joint conference on such partnerships. And the Harvard-based National Committee on Partnerships for Children's Health, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has an ambitous agenda of state and national actions which build from Penn's work.

The effort to bring higher education once again into effective engagement in community problem-solving is growing stronger, as it was during the founding of the land-grant universities starting in 1862 and the development of the urban research university at the turn of the 20th century. Penn is a principal contributor to this challenging social strategy.

Charles Deutsch, Sc.D., is director of the National Committee on Partnerships for Children's Health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Originally published on January 28, 1998