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March 22, 2001

Universities will make the difference in the 21st century, Senate plenary session told

The 21st century has the potential to be an age of great democratic progress — or a century of brutal plutocracy, a University of Pennsylvania historian told a Pitt University Senate audience yesterday.

And universities such as Pitt and Penn will largely determine which path the century takes, said Ira Harkavy, a Penn associate vice president and director of that university's Center for Community Partnerships.

"In fact, I would be so bold as to say that higher education will be the core institution that will shape the nature of American society and societies worldwide," said Harkavy, who has helped to develop academically based community service courses at Penn as well as research projects connecting faculty and student researchers with the West Philadelphia community.

Harkavy gave the keynote address at the Senate's spring plenary session, "The University in Civic Engagement: Service in the University's Mission."

He argued that universities will shape the future because they are the leading sources of new discoveries, training grounds for future leaders and — most importantly — dominant influences on K-12 education.

"Never before has individual success been so dependent on levels of education, and never before has societal success been so linked to the schooling system," Harkavy said.

"Higher education, more than any other institution, shapes how the whole K-through-12 system operates because all other [educational] institutions mimic what higher education does." He quoted an early 20th century University of Chicago president: "Higher education, in spite of itself, shapes schooling because it trains the teachers and the teachers of teachers."

Harkavy said U.S. colleges and universities must return to their original missions of focusing research and teaching on solving real-world problems, and educating young people to be knowledgeable participants in democracy.

"There has been a critique developing that the decrease in [democratic] participation by young people in the United States and throughout the world is in part because universities are not taking that responsibility seriously," Harkavy said.

Founding scholars and administrators at great urban schools such as the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins and Columbia agreed that academic work should lead to improved social conditions and, especially, better public school systems in surrounding neighborhoods, noted Harkavy.

But in 1914, American universities began to retreat from their community missions, he said.

"Why did they retreat?" Harkavy asked. "World War I. Why did World War I lead them to retreat? Because on the battlefields of Europe there was a sense of the horror and degradation of the war, and there was disillusion with the idea of progress. And increasingly, universities from that time until the end of the Cold War in 1990 did do work in localities but separated that work from the reformist impulse."

Harkavy is a proponent of what he calls "strategic, academically based community service" that's closely connected to teaching and research.

"It is the distinction between tutoring, which is helpful, and working to structurally solve the problems of schools," he said.

According to Harkavy, universities are gradually resuming their public service duties — partly out of a sense of social obligation, partly because universities recognize they're only as healthy and secure as their surrounding neighborhoods, and partly due to pressure (and offers of funding) from government officials and funding agencies.

"At all levels, there is increasing pressure that higher education, given its role, needs to make a greater contribution," Harkavy said.

The beauty of strategic, academically based service is that it pays, the Penn professor maintained. In addition to benefiting communities, it produces high-quality research and teaching and attracts external funding, said Harkavy.

"This is a case where doing good may be one of the best ways to do well," he said.

Harkavy cited a 1990 Penn project to improve nutrition among residents of West Philadelphia.

Leading the project was the chairperson of Penn's anthropology department, a distinguished nutritional anthropologist who had done groundbreak-ing work in Guatemala. Following a series of meetings and "arm-twisting" sessions during which Harkavy urged him to apply his research skills closer to home, the anthropologist launched a research project in West Philadelphia.

Not without trepidation, according to Harkavy, who quoted the anthropologist as confiding: "If I mess up in Guatemala, nobody [in the United States] cares. If I mess up in West Philadelphia, I'm in trouble."

The anthropologist designed an urban ecology and nutrition project through which Penn students taught nutrition to West Philadelphia middle school students. The middle school students, in turn, were trained to teach nutrition to elementary school students, fellow middle school students and even elderly people at hospitals and senior centers.

Because the Penn anthro-pologist's research program benefited the community, he and his students gained the confidence of local residents. The resulting access enabled the anthropologist to produce a research paper reporting that obesity among young African Americans was a greater problem than previously believed.

One of the anthropologist's graduate students worked with West Philadelphia high school students to design an intervention program aimed at reducing obesity among adolescent females. The grad student and her high school collaborators formed an after-school club and did some brainstorming. They decided to start a store, based at a middle school, to sell fruit and vegetables to community residents.

The "school store" idea has spread to three other middle schools in Philadelphia, Harkavy said. The schools have developed a curriculum that teaches math, social science, nutrition and other subjects within the context of running a store dedicated to improving nutrition among local residents.

Penn's anthropology department has created a cluster of urban nutrition courses for undergraduates and grad students, likewise focused on the "school store" concept, Harkavy said.

Last year, the anthropologist who launched the West Philadelphia nutrition study was awarded $500,000 in grants for further community-based research, Harkavy reported. The graduate student who led the "school store" initiative won a post-doctoral fellowship to the University of North Carolina.

"Solving the core problems of communities is the best way to advance the research, teaching and service missions" of universities, Harkavy concluded.

"Pitt and any great urban research university will be a greater university if it devotes significant intellectual and other resources to solving the concrete problems of its environment and community…. The vast majority of faculty and staff will benefit enormously from putting their knowledge and ideals into practice in real settings. Ultimately, they will make greater contributions to theory and to society."

In other words, according to Harkavy: Plato was wrong. Francis Bacon and John Dewey were right.

"Plato believed that learning came through contemplative, abstract work," Harkavy explained. "Bacon, the great 17th-century philosopher of science, said that the purpose of learning was to improve the world. Dewey argued that learning occurs in a forked road situation, when individuals focus on a problem.

— Bruce Steele

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