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The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets

reviewed by David Soo - January 14, 2008

coverTitle: The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets
Author(s): Judith Rodin
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 0812240227, Pages: 200, Year: 2007
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As the president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1996, Judith Rodin was dealing with a growing amount of crime in the area surrounding the campus. The murder of a student, however, catalyzed Rodin to launch a major University-led project to work with the community to address the ongoing problems. The University and Urban Revival is Rodin’s account of how this unfolded. The approach Rodin and Penn took was to be involved, as she writes, “in a multipronged strategy designed to effect broad, systematic change by undertaking multiple domains of redevelopment and revitalization simultaneously” (pp. 16-17). It was not enough to add more police or to add more businesses in the community; the effort had to include these steps and more, and it had to be done with the community, not for the community.

Rodin gives a brief history of Penn’s involvement with the area to the west of campus, known broadly as West Philadelphia and more specifically as University City, explaining the historical development of animosity toward the institution by many of the residents. While she does not specifically denounce Penn’s past actions, she writes that they were “at best misguided and often arrogant” (p. 24). The following chapters address the five goals of the plan: “1) improve neighborhood safety, services, and capacities; 2) provide high-quality, diverse housing choices; 3) revive economic activity; 4) accelerate economic development; and 5) enhance local public school options” (p. 22).

In trying to make the neighborhood “clean and safe,” Rodin describes various efforts, each of which was designed to improve the neighborhood but also to show the community that the university was ready to work with them. For example, a lighting campaign gave financial incentives to groups of neighbors to put up dawn-to-dusk lighting around their homes, and although the project was initiated by Penn, it involved groups of neighbors, a non-profit organization, a local electrical workers union, and the electric company. Other programs erased graffiti, rejuvenated a local park, and started a municipal-services organization (modeled after a successful one in downtown Philadelphia), which Rodin argues demonstrate Penn taking a lead in allowing many stakeholders to help make the neighborhood both clean and safe.

Housing was another major area of focus where the University implemented various steps. One involved the University buying abandoned or dilapidated homes and renovating them, under the assumption that one unsightly or menacing home can have a negative effect on the surrounding ones, while a refurbished or rebuilt home could have a positive impact. The University also instituted a lending program that enabled Penn faculty and staff who lived in the area to get mortgages and money for home repair. Rodin addresses a common complaint when she writes about the steps taken to avoid gentrification. She gives considered treatment to this issue and meaningful steps are articulated, such as a Penn-led program to buy and renovate moderately priced apartments and an extension of the mortgage program into areas with lower-priced homes.

Rodin goes on to talk about the business-development projects that sought to bring commercial activity to areas west and north of the campus. The aim of these was to reinvigorate these areas, but also to provide a good mix of shops that would serve both the neighborhood and university communities. Another aspect of the business development was Penn’s effort to buy goods and services from West Philadelphia businesses, and to help local small businesses build the capacity to compete for Penn contracts. She makes good use of vignettes, such as one about a West Philadelphia man who started a copy and mail business with Penn as a major customer that later expanded and was able to outbid major companies for a Penn contract using mostly West Philadelphians as employees.

Penn’s commitment to the public schools in West Philadelphia is another focus. It centers on the creation of a public school that was largely designed and developed by Penn and that would receive ongoing financial and personnel support from the university. Rodin acknowledges a long and difficult process to get approval and support both from the officials and the local residents. In addition to developing this school, Penn pledged to contribute to the other schools in West Philadelphia, so that all of the resources would not go to this one school while ignoring the others in the area.

Overall, Rodin presents a very readable narrative of Penn’s involvement in West Philadelphia from the perspective of a central actor in its planning and implementation. She very clearly articulates the necessity to work on multiple fronts simultaneously and then details the actions in each area. While Penn’s plans that Rodin describes are clearly rooted in the urban planning literature, it is an accessible story that a general audience can follow.

It is important to keep in mind while reading Rodin’s account that much of it recounts her personal actions and that her reputation and legacy are entwined with the outcome of the community work. She offers very few critiques of her own decisions and performance, and she does not give much voice to her critics. When disagreement is acknowledged, it is characterized as Rodin acting in good faith but with others holding differing positions.

The University and Urban Revival makes a contribution to the literature on university-community relationships. Rodin builds upon edited volumes by Bender (1988) and Perry and Wiewel (2005), each of which includes case studies of numerous universities and their efforts to engage their communities, though none of the programs have such a far-reaching plan as Penn’s nor are the efforts explained in such detail. Other university presidents who have been involved in community building efforts, including Levin (2003) and Gaudiani (2000), have offered explanations of their work, but not in book-length depth.

Missing from Rodin’s narrative is a full discussion about the purpose and reasons behind Penn’s work to revive the community. Unlike public institutions that often define their missions explicitly as serving the city or the “metropolitan university,” which “accepts its relationship to the surrounding metropolitan region as its essential rationale, its reason for being” (Hathaway et al, p. 9), Penn is a private research institution, which has a more ambiguous relationship with its immediate surroundings. She makes it clear that the catalyst was the immediate safety concerns and later documents other benefits that accrued: energized faculty and students working in West Philadelphia, acclaim from others in higher education and the media, and Rodin’s genuine desire to help the neighborhood where she was raised. However, she does not push the question of Penn’s—or other research universities’—responsibility to the community. Others have argued forcefully that the university does have an obligation to its community, including Benson and Puckett (2007) and Maurrasse (2001), and Yale University’s president has more broadly noted universities have a “responsibility” to be “institutional citizens [to] in the betterment of our communities” (Levin, 2003, p. 96). Further, Rodin could have addressed questions raised by Ernest Boyer in Scholarship Reconsidered (1990) and explored the nature of scholarship in the community engagement work. Unfortunately, Rodin largely sidesteps these fundamental questions, though her book could have provided the context and platform to address these concerns and to articulate a position.    

In all, Rodin’s book is an interesting narrative that will help others understand the work being done by Penn in its community, and it will likely be of use to those on other campuses thinking about similar issues. However, it does not push the boundaries of why universities should be committed to improving their communities or explore whether the university has an obligation, responsibility, or merely an enlightened self-interest in community revival.


Bender, T. (Ed.). (1988). The university and the city. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Benson, L., Harkavy, I., & Puckett, J. (2007). Dewey’s dream. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Hathaway, C., Mulhollan, P., & White, K. (1995). Metropolitan universities: Models for the twenty-first century. In D. Johnson & D. Bell (Eds.), Metropolitan universities: An emerging model in American higher education. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press.

Gaudiani, C. (Fall, 2000). Doing justice. Leader to Leader, 18, 9-11.

Levin, R. (2003). The work of the university. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Maurrasse, D. (2001). Beyond the campus. New York: Routledge.

Perry, D. & Wiewel, W. (Eds.). (2005). The university as urban developer. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 14, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14880, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 9:18:56 AM

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