The Ivory Tower and the 'Hood


Philadelphia. -- It's not just unseemly, says the University of Pennsylvania's vice dean, Ira Harkavy, for universities located in inner cities to ignore the chaos at their doorsteps, "to be islands of affluence in seas of poverty, oases in deserts of despair."

The dereliction goes farther, he says: It is a betrayal of the optimistic 18th- and 19th-century missions of American universities -- not simply to advance learning, but to create a new and better society.

Dr. Harkavy has University of Pennsylvania professors and instructors, graduate students and undergraduates involved in outreach to some of West Philadelphia's most ravaged neighborhoods and troubled schools. They've become personally engaged in inventing courses and programs, in guest teaching, in getting inner-city kids to open their minds to the idea of service to their own communities.

The model is the polar opposite of the way most universities ignore (or simply exploit) their host cities. It's based on Dr. Harkavy's belief that the real problem in such poverty-ravaged areas as West Philadelphia "is not housing, or education, or health care -- it's the collapse of community." The only long-term cures, he believes, lie "in developing caring, cohesive, cosmopolitan communities." The public mission of universities demands their involvement, he adds, "not researching on people, but with them."

The results are now appearing in several West Philadelphia public schools, some not far from the site of the infamous 1985 fire bombing of the row house occupied by the radical "MOVE" group. Activities range from housing rehabilitation to concert pipe-organ repair, graffiti and litter removal to projects with the elderly.

Visit the Turner Middle School on a Saturday, for example, and you'll find students taking courses on computers, airplane modeling, writing remediation, dance, vegetarian cooking, African-American history. Instructors include school teachers, community residents and Penn undergraduates.

On weekdays, seventh-graders learn about health from Penn Medical School faculty and then go to a feeder elementary school to share what they've learned with the younger children. Eighth-graders work one morning a week at a local hospital and run an evening program on hypertension -- even doing (under supervision) initial screening of adults.

The long-term goal is a full neighborhood health-promotion and disease-prevention center that seeks its advances through health-improvement activities rather than simply handing out health information.

Students at the West Philadelphia High School built a greenhouse with advice from a university landscape gardener. And they renovated an abandoned crack house under the direction of a retired union carpenter.

The ultimate goal of Dr. Harkavy's West Philadelphia experiment is to set up "community schools" operating at least 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, acting as the neighborhood's educational and social-service nerve center -- the site of job-training programs, public-health services, day-care programs.

But the idea isn't simply services, declares Dr. Harkavy; it's "to activate people including students in a leadership role, to serve each other and the community." One current goal, for example, is to get middle-school students to work directly with kids in Head-Start classes.

Schools that elect to become community centers, Dr. Harkavy says, need to make a full commitment. And the university needs to come in to "serve as a permanent anchor" for public schools that want to be community centers. "We won't cut and run."

There are tough issues, he notes, in how much decision-making falls to the university, how much to professional educators, how much to the community. Dr. Harkavy doesn't advocate 100 percent community control. He thinks the collaborations can work if there's commitment on all sides to the idea of democratically run partnerships.

Despite this advanced thought and action, not to mention Penn President Sheldon Hackney's enthusiastic support, broad faculty involvement is tough to get rolling at Penn -- or any other American college.

It's not hard to figure why: The incentives are all wrong. Ask what gives a young faculty member a shot at promotion or tenure and it's not teaching. It's not thinking creatively and holistically across subject areas. It's certainly not getting your hands dirty in the nitty-gritty problems of the community.

Instead, the senior faculty who control today's highly specialized academic departments routinely reward and promote their clones -- people who publish copiously, however arcane the material. A young historian or chemist or political scientist forms his loyalties down the hallway or with colleagues in institutions hundreds or thousands of miles away -- but not in service to the real city where he works.

Dr. Harkavy acknowledges those disincentives but believes the tides are starting to shift. Dissatisfied taxpayers in the cash-strapped '90s will want to see more responsiveness in publicly funded universities. More and more academics will get fed up with the career straitjackets imposed by single departments. Students will "want to put their idealism into action, not just volunteering but by doing research with real people to solve real problems in communities."

I find it hard to be quite that optimistic. But one thing is sure: When American academia finally starts casting about for the most creative examples of university engagement in our increasingly complex and troubled cities, it will find an intriguing model in Philadelphia.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad