Ira HarkavyIn the 1960s the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), located in West Philadelphia, was certainly “in” the city, but no one thought of it as “of” the city. West Philly residents accused the University of expanding its campus and operations without any thought to the impact on the residents, mostly renters, who were forced to move without compensation. The relationship that existed was largely that of mistrust.

Ira Harkavy, NAC&U’s 2015 Boyer Award recipient, remembers this well as an undergraduate student at Penn who protested this treatment of neighbors. Today the university has a completely different relationship with West Philly due in part to the work of Dr. Harkavy and his colleagues at the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at Penn.

Dr. Harkavy, founding director and associate vice president of The Netter Center, describes the center’s work as an evolution. In 1984, a student in one of Dr. Harkavy’s courses wrote a research paper on the problems plaguing West Philly’s public schools. Dr. Harkavy saw that many other students shared the young woman’s passion for the topic. He seized the opportunity to help these students make a difference.

Working with the Office of Community Oriented Policy Studies, Penn students developed a group to help youth affected by the MOVE Philadelphia fire. Soon there was a larger program known as the Penn Program for Public Service, and several years after that, in 1992, the Center for Community Partnerships (which is now the Netter Center) was established. Dr. Harkavy, who directed all three organizations, recalled how unique it was to have a Center for Community Partnerships that reported to the university president and represented the efforts of the entire institution (rather than one school within Penn).

The Netter Center has two primary approaches that connect it to the West Philly community: academically based community service (ABCS) courses and university-assisted community school partnerships. ABCS courses are a form of service learning focused on real world problem-solving, such as those relating to poverty, education and health care. They integrate learning, service, teaching, and in a number of cases, research. The Netter Center also has five university-assisted community schools (UACS) in West Philly that serve nearly 4,000 children and their families. The Netter Center supplies a full-time coordinator at each of the five UACS locations to determine which programs and activities will meet the needs of the students and families and to help integrate these resources so that they will have maximum impact. Penn students participate in UACS through ABCS courses, internships, work-study, and volunteer opportunities.

These positive relationships with the West Philly community did not develop overnight.

Dr. Harkavy said, “As soon as we solved one problem, another one arose.”

Off-campus, Penn had to overcome the mistrust West Philly residents had toward the university. On-campus, Dr. Harkavy and his colleagues had to figure out how to structure their programs and convince others that community partnerships would be mutually beneficial. He credits Frank Johnston, now professor emeritus of anthropology, for his early adoption of the idea. Nearly 25 years ago, Dr. Johnston created a nutrition initiative which engaged Penn students, youth and community members to promote healthy lifestyles, including building sustainable food systems. What began as education and awareness evolved into middle school students running a school store at which they sold fresh fruits and vegetables. Eventually the students started a school garden, and now the Netter Center has nutrition programming at about 20 schools throughout the city. Related courses examining the politics and the psychology of food emerged from the initial ABCS course. Dr. Johnston’s work continues 25 years later as the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative. Perhaps most importantly, his efforts convinced other faculty of the value of ABCS courses and community partnerships.

Today there are 26 Penn departments in a range of disciplines offering a total of 65 ABCS courses each year. Eighteen hundred students take ABCS courses. Many other students are involved through work-study positions and as volunteers. Dr. Harkavy credits the success to early adopters such as Johnston, an administration committed to service and community partnerships, and engaged faculty and students.

The Netter Center has become a model for universities around the world. Penn hosts international meetings and workshops on fostering community engagement, and Dr. Harkavy has spearheaded regional, national, and international networks of individuals and institutions committed to higher education-community partnerships. . The Netter Center is also working to replicate its UACS model with three regional centers in Oklahoma, Indiana and Connecticut that provide initial seed money to programs until they are able to sustain themselves.

In the future, Dr. Harkavy would like to see more students become involved in community partnerships and the availability of college majors that focus on community problem-solving learning. He also hopes that the Netter Centers’ ideals spread to more areas of the U.S. and the globe.

As an undergraduate at Penn, Dr. Harkavy studied history so that he could better understand and ultimately help change the world. It may sound like a college student cliché, but it truly inspired his life’s work to improve civic engagement and find solutions to problems that communities face.

NAC&U will present its 5th annual Ernest L. Boyer Award to Ira Harkavy on Friday, January 23rd at 8:45 a.m. at the annual AAC&U meeting in Washington, DC. Afterwards, Harkavy will present a lecture titled “Creating the Connected Institution: Towards Realizing Benjamin Franklin’s and Ernest Boyer’s Revolutionary Vision for American Higher Education.”