Penn Compact 2020/

Engage Locally, Nationally and Globally: The Netter Center at 20 Years

Around 1979, when Ira Harkavy was finishing 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 can 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 many instances, and perhaps even in most, the approach of working on real-world problems may be an exceedingly powerful way to advance learning,” says Harkavy, the director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in November. “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.”

It’s difficult to imagine Penn today without the Netter Center’s programs that encourage student-community engagement. In the 2011-12 school year, 56 faculty members from 20 departments in six schools taught nearly 60 Academically Based Community Service 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.

“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.”

To read an extended Q&A with Harkavy, click here.

Text by Heather A. Davis
Video by Kurtis Sensenig