Feature

When psychologist Judith Rodin, PhD, arrived at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994 as the university's president, the campus that she had attended as an undergraduate had grown increasingly fortress-like. Vacant storefronts, decaying houses, failing schools and crime plagued University City, the neighborhood that surrounds the campus.

The contrast between the beleaguered community and the thriving, Ivy League university was stark--and problematic.

"While Penn was terrific academically, it was isolated and despised by its neighbors," she explained at a plenary session at APA's 2005 Annual Convention.

The situation led Rodin to rethink the university's role in its urban community.

"Many [urban universities] are in inner cities, and--by virtue of their mission, intellectual capital and investment in physical facilities--urban universities are uniquely positioned to play a leading role in the revitalizing of their communities," she said. "What this meant for us at Penn was that we had to engage the community as a citizen and agent of change."

Rodin used her psychology background to bring students, faculty and community members together to discuss the community's needs and create a framework for change. By the time she left the presidency last year to become president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Rodin had helped the university and community transform University City into a destination--with safer streets, restored homes, new stores and restaurants and improved, university-assisted public schools.

Bridging the gap

Rodin sought to set an institutional example of positive civic engagement to teach students about leadership and contributing to society.

Working with faculty members, she began reshaping the university's curriculum to create service-learning courses that attacked the roots of urban decay. For example, in a geology course, students worked with neighborhood middle school students to map sources of lead in their homes and neighborhood.

"At every turn, we tried to interact with the community in a way that would increase shared participation and open decision-making," she said. "Simply put, we tried to become a better global university by first becoming a better local stakeholder and enabler."

The university also partnered with the community to wire the local schools with high-speed Internet access and renovate the neighborhood public library. Penn also built a new university-assisted neighborhood public schooln that features small classes, cutting-edge teaching and intensive professional development for teachers.

She used the Wharton School's expertise to build the capacity of small businesses owned by, and capable of hiring, local residents by giving them first-bid contracting opportunities. The university also worked with the construction trades to open up union membership to the community's women and minorities.

The net result, Rodin says, was the West Philadelphia Initiatives, an ongoing project developed by Rodin and other university officials to ensure that Penn and University City enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.

Reinvigoration

The changes took time, said Rodin. However, with each stroke, the university saw progress.

When the university moved its public safety division into the neighborhood, crime dropped. Now, more than 70 percent of residents say they feel safe.

When the university acquired and renovated run-down properties and sold them back to the neighborhood at below-market prices, the neighborhood's housing stock expanded and improved. Soon after Penn's renovations were under way, the market attracted homebuyers, and homeowners began rehabilitating vacant houses.

When the new neighborhood school opened, parents gained confidence in their ability to provide a quality public education for their children, said Rodin.

The catalyst for the changes, Rodin noted, was rethinking the interactions between the university and community.

"By using the research from work on leadership and empowerment, a university can be an agent of true change," Rodin said. "It can transform the way both individuals and communities act and work together."