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Rabbi Mike Credit: Christina Prudencio , Christina Prudencio

Rita Hodges, the assistant director at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships and 2005 College graduate, recently co-authored “The Road Half Traveled.” The book is about 10 national universities, including Penn, that are leaders in civic engagement in their communities.

The Daily Pennsylvanian met with the author to talk about her book and her work.

Daily Pennsylvanian: What did you set out to explore and what did you find?

Rita Hodges: We were setting out to look at case studies of some of the best colleges and universities in the country that were known for having high levels of engagement with their communities [and] who were working to promote community economic development.

A particular aspect was to look at what the corporate side of the university was doing, so thinking about the university as a business, a large employer, purchasers, construction builders. That specific role was something that wasn’t explored that much in the literature … so we visited each of the 10 sites to see what was happening and talked to people both at the university and the community to really get a full perspective of what was happening on the ground.

DP: How have university-community partnerships changed in recent years?

RH: The movement for that work has really advanced a lot over the last few decades … In the last decade as the work has progressed, universities have really gone from doing stuff to communities to doing stuff with communities — [now] community partners are involved in the planning, implementation, evaluation from beginning to end. It’s a true democratic process and really recognizing the communities’ knowledge — so their own expertise of their own community and respecting that.

The other thing is that it used to be more one-sided … Now, I think that many institutions across the country are looking at the mutually beneficial nature that can result from genuine partnership efforts.

University students and faculty are producing better knowledge by working on local, real-world problems and they’re simultaneously working with the community to raise the quality of living, whether it be educational or health outcomes.

The third thing that was a major shift in recent years was working toward more strategic and comprehensive partnerships. It’s about connecting the resources from the corporate side of the university, academic and non-academic resources, health resources, cultural resources — all of that together, focused in a place-based effort.

DP: Could you provide examples of how Penn has shifted on all three of these aspects?

RH: I mean, Penn has a long history of Penn-West Philadelphia relationships and at times, it was very tumultuous, especially in the 1960s when it expanded its campus and displaced a lot of residents and businesses. Over time, we’ve really gotten to where the university as a whole, under President Gutmann’s tenure in the last eight years, has really taken an effort to do this democratically of working with the community to think through what are the best ways to improve the area.

The approach that the Netter Center takes is academically based community service, so having it tied into the curriculum of the university and focusing on local, real-world problem solving. That doesn’t only help work with the community and solve pressing issues around poor schooling and poverty and poor health care, but also advances teaching and research here at the university.

Penn is also known for local purchasing — using its procurement dollars to invest in local and minority businesses — but there’s still a long way to go to really get that to the level it can be and also to integrate it more fully with the academic partnerships.

DP: What were some of the suggestions you offered for universities?

RH: At the university level, our first recommendation is having a vice president or some high-level administrative position that really oversees this work and that’s doing it university-wide so it can be a comprehensive effort to pull academic and non-academic resources together.

Having that high level position really adds another level of accountability as well as commitment and then we really talk about employing the universities’ resources fully and consciously.

[Also] being strategic and place-based. Even for smaller institutions of less resources, the more they can be strategic and place-based, the more those resources can be used effectively by focusing them.

Building a national network and pushing this as a movement so leveraging the place of universities in societies.

Every university’s partnership with their community is going to be very particular to the resources that are available there and the needs and strengths that are there.

DP: What about Penn’s atmosphere informs how it should proceed in the next decade?

RH: The Penn Compact is extremely supportive in terms of getting administrative support for this type of work. I like the word “atmosphere” because that incorporates the people walking around on a day-to-day basis and the level of civic engagement and civic-mindedness among current Penn undergraduates is extremely impressive and inspiring.

I’m a 2005 graduate, so I’m not that far removed, but enough that I’ve seen a wave of change happen that people are starting to come to Penn knowing about this type of work and wanting to engage in this type of work so they come in with that kind of inclination.

Certainly, a lot of the Netter Center’s partnerships and initiatives started through ideas from Penn undergraduates so having that many more students engaged … is exciting. That is the atmosphere of what’s happening on campus today — energy and excitement about civic engagement.

DP: What is one big change that you hope the publication of this book would effect?

RH: We really wanted to spark more conversation and more research among universities, certainly, but also other constituents like the government and private/public sectors to really get them to think about what role they could play and open them up to all the potential that higher education institutions have. If we were able to begin to tap their potential, then the potential for genuine partnerships and community change is powerful.

The whole reason for our title “The Road Half Traveled” is that even the universities that we held up as examples, their road hasn’t been fully paved yet, and certainly hasn’t been traveled yet. There’s still a long way to go, even for universities that are leading this. [Even] Penn is only beginning to tap the comprehensive set of resources in a sustainable, strategic way.

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