Netter Center 20th Anniversary

Penn’s Netter Center Celebrates 20th Anniversary With International Gathering

Steve Dubb, Democracy Collaborative, University of Maryland

January 2013

More than 500 people from over 70 universities and more than two-dozen countries gathered on November 12th and 13th in Philadelphia to discuss ways to better use university resources to build community wealth in neighborhoods and promote partnerships with public schools. Convened by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), highlighted exemplary efforts both in the United States and abroad.

Ira Harkavy, Founder and Director of the Netter Center, opened the conference. Harkavy laid out a key aspiration of the Netter Center’s work. The Center, Harkavy noted, is motivated by the belief that “democratic higher education school partnerships are effective ways to advance research, teaching, learning and service as well as strengthen democracy and improve the quality of life in cities and societies throughout the world.” Rebecca Bushnell, Dean of the School of Arts at Penn hailed the work of the Netter Center. The several dozen academically based community service courses that Netter had worked with Penn faculty to develop over the past two decades had become the “hallmark of the educational experience in Penn,” Bushnell said.

Following the conference’s opening, five campus presidents spoke about their schools’ experiences. Wendell Pritchett, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Camden moderated the panel. Presenting were Nancy Cantor of Syracuse University, Rebecca Chopp of Swarthmore College, Ronald Daniels of Johns and the Reverend Father Walid Moussa of Notre Dame University in Lebanon.  Cantor emphasized her campus’ economic development efforts in the city’s “Near Westside” district, the ninth poorest census tract in the nation. Cantor also drew links between her school’s community economic development work and the nation’s land-grant university history. With the Morrill Act, Cantor said, “[President] Lincoln turned to higher education and community partnership to raise some barns.” The goal, now, Cantor added, is to “raise our 21st-century barn.” Chopp noted that Swarthmore was in a wealthy area, but its community partnerships were helping build capacity in the nearby poorer community of Chester.

Daniels observed that historically the sense at Hopkins had been that “the challenges of the City were good to engage in but not a strategic priority.” But, Daniels added, “We have literally billions of dollars in sunk investment capital. We have no credible exit strategy. It is clear that we have to, to my mind, have to elevate the status of this issue that was core to the university’s mission going forward.” Daniels emphasized new Hopkins efforts animated by this vision, especially efforts in 11 neighborhoods surrounding the Homewood campus that seek to address public safety, housing, and commercial needs within a comprehensive partnership framework.

Closing out the panel, the Reverend Father Walid Moussa of Notre Dame University in Lebanon pointed out that for his school, community involvement is central to the overall nation-building mission of the university.” Moussa added that, “Education and community improvement programs have a leading role is fostering citizenship in Lebanon.”

The second day’s opening plenary, moderated by Matthew Hartley, Chair of the Higher Education Division of the Graduate School of Education at Penn, showcased international perspectives on university engagement. Sjur Bergan, Head of the Council of Europe, spoke on European trends. Tony Gallagher, Pro-Vice Chancellor in the School of Education at Queen’s University in Belfast, discussed current practices in the United Kingdom. Bruce Muirhead, founding Chief Executive Officer and Professor of the Eidos Institute spoke on developments in Australia. Susan Stroud, Founder and Executive Director, Innovations in Civic Participation, focused highlighted promising examples in a range of developing countries.

Bergan, in his remarks, noted that U.S. universities have excelled at involving students in community work, but student participation in university governance is limited. By contrast, in Europe, Bergan said, partnerships are less developed but student participation in institutional governance is much more widespread, helping inculcate democratic values. For example, Bergan remarked, students sit “on the academic senate of just about every European university.”

Gallagher noted that in the United Kingdom, budgetary pressures and the pressure to show value for public money has pushed education in a “very utilitarian direction.”  Nonetheless, Gallagher added, these same pressures had also opened space for the discussion of community engagement.  Muirhead observed that Australian universities are facing similar issues as their British counterparts. Muirhead cited an Ernst & Young report that stated that, “Over the next 10 to 15 years, the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable in all but a few cases.” The context in Australia, Muirhead concluded is in flux — “complex, contested, and changing.”

Stroud remarked that in developing countries, partnerships with schools are “by far the most common type of partnerships.” Among the examples Stroud cited were work with township students by the University of Capetown in South Africa and the University of Malaysia’s effort to promote science and math education in local public schools.

The closing plenary session focused on the future of the movement to instill in universities an anchor institution mission that makes it a university responsibility to improve the well being of their surrounding communities, consistent with their education and research missions. Titled Where Do We Go From Here: Presidential Perspectives on the Movement over the Next 20 Years and moderated by James T. Harris III, President of Widener University (Chetser, PA) four presidents addressed these issues: Alice Gast of Lehigh University (Lehigh, PA); Richard Guarasci of Wagner College (Staten Island, NY); Brian Murphy of De Anza College (San Jose, CA); and Mark Rosenberg of Florida International University (Fort Lauderdale, FL).

Each campus developed its community engagement approach based on specific community goals. Gast noted that Lehigh was in the middle of a post-industrial community.  Students, Gast emphasized, were pushing the school to engage in this work: “Students now are demanding to do work that matters. The students drive us to deliver,” Gast said.

At Widener, Guarasci pointed out that, “We talk a lot about anchor institutions, that we live within specific communities and are anchors … 8-9 years ago, we made a commitment to civic engagement as a core value and developed the “Port Richmond Partnership” which focuses on working with community groups to improve that section of Staten Island.

With Florida International University (FIU), Rosenberg noted that when he became president, “it was clear our public school system was in deep trouble – one quarter of the teachers in Dade County schools were FIU graduates; two thirds of our students were Dade County students.  We began to look around and understood that engagement had to be a new mantra.” Murphy noted that his college faced a similar situation. De Anza, located near San Jose, Murphy said, was a large “poorly funded community college of 23,000 – overwhelming poor and non-white. Eight years ago we determined that political and civic engagement was a necessity for our students’ lives.” Murphy added that one university goal is to develop 500 trained organizers to help “create the power for working class kids to speak for themselves.”

When asked about future prospects for coming decades, the four presidents gave varied responses.  Gast said that technology makes it “easier get information to people to help our communities to get involved and engaged” and, in many situations, changes the role of faculty “from expert to guide.” Rosenberg emphasized the “need to reinvent partnerships with schools.” Murphy emphasized the need to adjust to the changing context of declining “American economic hegemony” and rapid demographic shifts toward a national non-white majority. 

Guarasci echoed Murphy’s comments about the rapidly changing context and emphasized the “need to fundamentally change the business model of higher education.” Guarasci added that universities “have to regain our sense of purpose and re-legitimize ourselves in the public arena ... The neighborhoods that are challenged are going to get less federal and state government aid. They need allies badly. We have assets. We have faculty and staff can realign what they are doing toward this public good – not for, but with.  How do we reorganize teaching and learning that drives up learning, drives up civic competency, drives up community impact, and drives down costs? If we don’t do this work, we don’t gain nor should we gain public approval.”

For more information on the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, see