University-Community Partnerships for the Public Good: A Democratic Imperative

This week in North Philly Notes, Ira Harkavy, John Puckett, Matthew Hartley, Rita A. Hodges, Francis E. Johnston, and Joann Weeks, the co-authors of Knowledge for Social Changediscuss the importance and mutual benefits of local partnerships involving the university and the community. 

Martin Luther King used the phrase “fierce urgency of now” and called for immediate “vigorous and positive action” to end segregation and the unequal treatment of African-Americans. Given the severe dysfunction of the American political system—as well as many political systems throughout the world—vigorous and positive action is also required  at this time. In particular, universities have an increased and increasing responsibility to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and improvement of the human condition.

Colleges and universities, as former Harvard University President Derek Bok and others have emphasized, have become the central societal institutions in the modern world. The path to power and success for the vast majority of leaders in science, health care, business, law—indeed, in nearly every area of American life—passes through colleges and universities. They have become the primary engines of growth for an increasingly knowledge-based global economy. Colleges and universities have also come to play a key role in their local environments as anchor institutions. They possess enormous resources (especially human resources), develop and transmit new knowledge, educate for careers and advancement, function as centers of artistic and cultural creativity, and have a powerful influence on the norms, values, and practices of the pre-K–12 schooling system. They are catalysts and hubs for local and regional economies as employers, real estate developers, clients for area vendors, and incubators for business and technology.

In the past several decades, enlightened self-interest has prompted many colleges and universities to respond to external pressures from government, foundations, and public opinion by partnering in local community economic development efforts to help solve pressing problems including poverty, crime, violence, and physical deterioration. These partnerships also manifest a renewed commitment to the historic civic and democratic purposes of higher education.

Knowledge for Social Change_smIn Knowledge for Social Change, we focus on significant contributions to learning made by Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Seth Low, Jane Addams, William Rainey Harper, and John Dewey—as well as our own work at Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships—to help create and sustain democratically engaged colleges and universities for the public good. We particularly highlight our model of university-assisted community schools to effect a thoroughgoing change of research universities that will contribute to more-democratic schools, communities, and societies.

We argue, however, that universities, including our own, have not fulfilled their promise.

What strategic step might help engage Penn, as well as other universities, to embrace that democratic vision actively as well as rhetorically? In one of his most important propositions, John Dewey stated, “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community.” Democracy, he emphasized, has to be built on face-to-face interactions in which human beings work together cooperatively to solve the ongoing problems of life. We are updating Dewey and advocating the following proposition: Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the engaged neighborly college or university and its local community partners. Neighborliness, we contend, is the primary indicator that an institution is working for the public good.

The benefits of a local community focus for college and university civic engagement programs are manifold. Ongoing, continuous interaction is facilitated through work in an easily accessible location. Relationships of trust, so essential for effective partnerships and effective learning, are also built through day-to-day work on problems and issues of mutual concern. In addition, the local community provides a convenient setting in which service learning courses, community-based research courses, and related courses in different disciplines can work together on a complex problem to produce substantive results. Work in a university’s local community, since it facilitates interaction across schools and disciplines, can also create interdisciplinary learning opportunities. Finally, the local community is a real-world learning site in which community members and academics can pragmatically determine whether the work is making a real difference and whether both the neighborhood and the institution are better as a result of common efforts.

For Dewey, knowledge and learning are most effectively advanced when human beings work collaboratively to solve specific, significant real-world problems in “a forked road situation, a situation that is ambiguous, that presents a dilemma, which poses alternatives.” Focusing on universal problems—for example, poverty, poor schooling, and inadequate healthcare—that are manifested locally is, in our judgment, the best way to apply Dewey’s brilliant proposition. A focus on local engagement is an extraordinarily promising strategy for realizing institutional mission and purpose.

“Only connect!” The powerful, evocative epigraph to E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End captures the essence of our argument—namely, that the necessary revolutionary transformation of research universities is most likely to occur in the crucible of significant, serious, sustained engagement with local public schools and their communities.

Knowledge for Social Change concludes by calling on democratic-minded academics to create and sustain a global movement dedicated to radically transforming research universities to realize Bacon’s goal of advancing knowledge for “the relief of man’s estate”—that is, the continuous improvement of humanity—as well as Dewey’s utopian vision of an organic “Great Community” composed of truly participatory, democratic, collaborative, and interdependent societies.

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