It is not clear what exactly Judith Rodin, former president of the University of Pennsylvania, has been whispering in the ear of Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, but trust that it has something to do with Harlem.
Just as Columbia presses its case for its expansion into Manhattanville, Dr. Rodin, now president of the New York–based Rockefeller Foundation, has published a book on her decade at Penn, where she initiated a number of town-gown projects that both improved the surrounding neighborhood and eased animosity toward the Ivy League school. Ever since, she has been widely lauded as the arbiter of modern, enlightened community-university relations. When she announced she would leave Penn, the Philadelphia Daily News, a tabloid, put her photo on the cover above the words: “Judy! Judy! Judy!”
“He and I have talked several times,” Dr. Rodin said about Mr. Bollinger, without elaborating. “We’ve talked very minimally. The work is still ahead.”
Her book, The University & Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets (University of Pennsylvania Press), came out July 24. Already, Robert Kasdin, Columbia’s senior executive vice president, said he is reading it. Mr. Bollinger was traveling, but a spokesman said he had eagerly been awaiting its publication.
All of which should counter the refrain that some detractors of Columbia’s plan to rezone 17 acres of West Harlem for a third campus have been voicing recently, which is, “Do it like Penn!”
Penn, for example, donated land for a public school and helped plan and run it. The university set up a business-improvement district that picked up litter and brightened street lights. It gave university employees cash to buy homes near campus and invested in renovating rental buildings. This all happened, however, not to butter up neighbors for an expansion, but because crime and blight were threatening the university’s survival.
Columbia has been eyeing Penn’s example for a while: David Stone, who was hired last year as executive vice president for communications, worked for Dr. Rodin as a consultant on the West Philadelphia initiatives, and a couple of other high-level hires worked for Penn or are otherwise familiar with the collaborations.
“There are a number of us here now that were involved in the West Philadelphia initiatives who are here to ensure and clarify the focus that universities are important civic and economic actors in the community,” Mr. Stone said.
On the other hand, it is unclear just what Mr. Bollinger can learn from Penn because of differences between the two campuses. West Philadelphia was, at least as Dr. Rodin describes it, blighted, crime-ridden and on the way out. Harlemites are already facing gentrification from private developers, and the idea of a stuffy, privileged institution setting up shop cannot help but create some friction.
“In a way, Columbia has a much tougher job. They are incredibly landlocked and so the stakes are even higher,” Dr. Rodin said. “Unless they work together, it is not going to work. Columbia’s aspirations could be blocked. The community could be displaced. And we’ll see another play-out of years and years and years of antagonism.”
Mr. Kasdin, who is Mr. Bollinger’s point person on the expansion, said that Columbia already could point to many examples of serving northern Manhattan, among them a mobile dental clinic, which treats 3,000 children a year, and a Washington Heights free legal aid clinic for immigrants run by its law school. Columbia, along with the city’s Department of Education, is opening a public math, science and engineering middle and high school starting this fall—a public-private partnership that looks a lot like Penn’s Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander School, although Columbia administrators say it came about differently.
“The strength of the university is its ties to the surrounding community,” Mr. Kasdin said. “And that echoes a number of points that President Rodin makes in her book. In both the cases of Penn and Columbia, we seek partnerships that are both large and dramatic and small and incremental.”
Dr. Rodin, who left Penn in 2004, is the first to admit that every campus is different, but she outlines in her book various themes that she thinks can apply everywhere.
“It is something that really needs to be led from the top,” she said in an interview with The Observer. “This is not something that can be delegated to a vice president. Your own internal people need to see how important it is because there are a million decisions each week that can make it work or not, and they’ve got to know you care.”
Also, in contrast to typical relations between urban universities and their surroundings, the West Philadelphia initiatives did more than treat neighbors as clients needing social or health services. Three projects put neighbors in decision-making or advisory roles, Dr. Rodin said. Columbia expects to add some of that as well, Mr. Kasdin said, but the details are being worked out in a community benefits agreement between the university and a local development corporation.
David Maurrasse, an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia and chief executive of a community relations firm called Marga, said that the university’s interest in community partnerships, while laudable, appear to have developed after the school decided to move into Manhattanville, not before, making it harder to win Harlem’s trust.
“Manhattanville pushed the question,” he said, “but I don’t think the question existed prior to the rolling out of Manhattanville. There was the rolling out, then there was the community response, then there was the community benefits agreement.”
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