Ed Rendell


The chairman of the Democratic National Committee relishes sharing his wisdom and experience about cities with a few lucky Penn students.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Now that he’s no longer photo-opping and glad-handing nonstop as mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell (C’65), the latest addition to Penn’s faculty, ought to be able to show up for class on time.

Fat chance.

It was 10 minutes into the second meeting of his urban studies class, Can Cities Survive?, and there was no sign of his whereabouts. So his teaching assistant vamped a bit to kill time.

When he finally arrived — 20 minutes late — he began by first explaining why he was late: He had just come from a joint College Democrats-College Republicans meeting at Swarthmore, where, he said, “judging from the responses, there weren’t too many Republicans.”

Then he quickly offered his opinion on the assigned readings for that day’s class. One of them, an essay called “Town Center to Shopping Center,” he didn’t much care for.

“I found that article to be the least valuable” of the assignments, he said, thus letting on that at least as far as the reading is concerned, he’s as much a student as they are. He even allowed that he gets advice on the readings from his son Jesse (C’02): “He would have told me not to read the book this came from.”

That said, he began about two-and-a-half hours of back-and-forth with his students on the issues raised by the readings, drawing on the city he knows intimately and his eight-year mayoralty to illustrate the questions raised. He used the East Passyunk Avenue shopping strip to show how neighborhood merchants could fight back against the chain onslaught, Mount Airy as a springboard for the issue of residential segregation and his role in getting domestic-partnership legislation passed to illustrate how politicians must sometimes lead the public in urban controversies.

As when he was mayor, Rendell remains a bundle of energy. He speaks with enthusiasm, and the students respond in kind. If he didn’t enjoy politics and the schmoozing that goes with his role as chairman of the Democratic National Committee so much, he’d probably be a welcome addition to any college’s teaching faculty.

And as when he was mayor, Rendell remains scheduled to the hilt. He teaches both of his classes on the same day, Monday, with one class from 2 to 5 p.m. and the other, the political science course Who Gets Elected and Why, from 6 to 9 p.m.

On this particular Monday, he had an awards ceremony in Center City to attend between the two, and as he left Logan Hall to head into town, he managed to work in 10 minutes to talk with the Current about his new second job as college professor.

Q. So how does it feel to be a teacher?
Well, it’s fun — you know, it’s very interesting and very challenging. I’ve always thought that one of the keys to getting better government for Americans is getting young people involved in government, in politics, and getting them to not only go into the work of politics and government, and some of these students will, but even if they go into the private sector, to understand the challenges facing government, and make them a part of their lives, even if it’s not their vocation.

Q. Is this your first experience as a teacher?
No. Actually, I taught business law at Drexel 20 years ago, and I taught here at Penn in ’87. [That course was also called Who Gets Elected and Why.]

Q. How do the students today differ from the ones you had then?
They’re pretty much the same. I think they’re a little brighter, a little bit more worldly, in the last decade.

Q. It looks like you’re drawing a lot on your experience as mayor to illustrate the issues your course deals with.
Sure. This is urban studies. And urban studies means studies of city government, city problems, so obviously my experiences being mayor of the fifth-largest city in the country for eight years are enormously relevant. In my other course, political science, I deal a little bit on my local government experience, a little bit on my state experience and a lot on my national experience, particularly now as head of the Democratic Party. In urban studies, I’m focusing on what I know about what happened in this city and a lot of the research and reading I’ve done about other cities.

Q. How much of your DNC work is going into the other class?
Well, I’m surprised that each week I learn more in my DNC job and I’m transmitting it to my other class.

Q. How valuable is Jesse? You mentioned him a couple of times as a source of information.
Jesse has only given me some general caveats for what to do and not to do with students in general, like, Don’t keep ’em for the whole three hours. And then he said, Try to give them an idea of the best things — of the broad experience, of the broad assignments, to try to hone in and tell ’em which are the most important. Those were Jesse’s two pieces of advice.

Q. Looks like you’ve been following them.
No, I don’t keep them for — I keep them close, two hours and 30 [minutes], two hours and 40, and secondly, as to the reading, I try to point out what I think are the most important aspects of the reading. But the reading’s not abusive, and I think they should do it.

Q. You don’t shy away from offering your opinions of the authors.
This is a new process for me, although I had the ’87 class. If I teach this again next year — and I hope to teach it again; in fact, I hope to teach this in the spring semester of next year — I think I’ll have weeded out the articles that I think weren’t particularly helpful.

Q. What’s your opinion of most of the academic scholarship on the state of cities?
Fair. Some of it’s excellent, but most of it’s sort of rote and pedantic, and you know, they spend 25 pages developing a theme that you could have written in two pages. But some of it is truly groundbreaking. I mean, it’s a mixed bag.

Q. Any examples of some of the good stuff?
Well, Dr. Inman at Wharton has done some great stuff on city finances. Anita Summers, her research on the effect of the wage tax, taxes in general — I just picked them because they’re Penn — Michael Porter up at Harvard on what cities have to do to thrive economically.

Q. Had a chance to pass any of these along to your successor as suggestions?
. No. I gave John [Street, the current mayor] a general big book of briefings, department by department, problem by problem, and I hope it helped him, but he’s on his own.

Originally published on March 2, 2000