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"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
– Margaret Mead
What is a good example of a civically engaged university?
There are many such examples, of course. The University of Minnesota and Tufts University come to mind. But there is one model of university engagement that is especially noteworthy. It’s represented by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, where the accomplished scholar of deliberative democracy, Amy Guttmann, is president. The Center is Penn’s primary vehicle for bringing to bear a broad range of knowledge needed to solve the complex and interconnected problems of urban America. Since 1992, the Center has been mobilizing university resources to help Penn better fulfill its mission, which includes helping build a better city. The Center also helps form partnerships with other institutions (e.g., public schools, businesses, not-for-profits, community organizations, unions, churches, and government agencies) that promote inter-organizational cooperation, learning, and improvement.
The Center is based on three core propositions, each of which, in my opinion, ought to be adopted by every college and university in the country: (1) the University’s future and the future of its surrounding community intertwined; (2) the University can make a substantial contribution to improving the quality of life in the community; and (3) the University can enhance its overall mission of advancing and transmitting knowledge by helping to improve the quality of life in the community. The Center’s guiding assumption is that significant advances in teaching and research will occur by focusing on the strategic problems of the community. Faculty and students are able to put their theories into practice and test them as they work to solve important real-world problems.
Every campus in the country ought to have an office like Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships. The challenge is to give these centers roots in the academic disciplines. Without a vital connection to the institution’s academic departments, they will always “float free” from the heart of institutional life, tolerated so long as they ask little of scholars or bring in money, but never fully embraced as part and parcel of the scholar’s research and teaching responsibilities.
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