Citizen Speaks: The University and The City

Our sold-out Citizen Speaks event brought five city university presidents together for the first time. Hopefully it's not the last

Citizen Speaks: The University and The City

Our sold-out Citizen Speaks event brought five city university presidents together for the first time. Hopefully it's not the last

When Penn President Amy Gutmann talks to potential students and their families, she doesn’t try to sell them on Penn—instead, she sells Philadelphia. “Everyone already knows how great Penn is,” she said Thursday night, during the sold-out Citizen Speaks: The University and The City event with five university presidents at The Barnes Foundation. “This is a great city to be in.” 

Gutmann’s comments, near the middle of the hourlong discussion, garnered a round of applause from the 200-plus guests in The Barnes’ atrium, a crowd Gutmann had already made clear had—like her out-of-town students—chosen to be in Philly. “How many of you spent a large portion of your lives elsewhere?” she asked. Hands around the room flew up. “If you weren’t in this city, this city wouldn’t be what it is.”

Penn President Amy Gutmann, speaking with Barnes board chairman Joe Neubauer and his wife, Jeanette.

The same is true of the five people, and the institutions they represent, who were on stage with Gutmann Thursday night: Temple University President Richard Englert; Community College of Philadelphia’s Donald Generals; Drexel University’s John Fry; Jefferson Health System President and CEO Steve Klasko; and moderator Jeremy Nowak, The Citizen’s chairman.

Sold-out crowd for Citizen Speaks: The University and The City, at The Barnes Foundation.

It was the first-ever conversation among the leaders of Philadelphia’s universities, which—in many ways—are key to the city’s future success. They are, as the panelists pointed out, the institutions that employ the most Philadelphians; educate the most potential employees; provide the most healthcare; and influence everything from research to real estate to economic development in Philadelphia.

Nowak, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institutionurged the presidents to give frank assessments of the economic and political realities of running universities, of their need to be responsive to their communities, and of how city leaders, in turn, could be better partners in growing Philadelphia. Each responded with examples of how they, and their school communities, work to better their city.

At Penn, Gutmann said that the school’s “liquidity” has allowed them to develop research facilities on formerly moribund property in West Philadelphia, as with the Pennovation Center. And she talked about how her campus serves as a training ground for diplomacy, citing a student group calling itself MAJIC—Muslims And Jews In Cahoot. Having met one another on campus, members now work together to bridge wide divides.  

Klasko noted the passion of his medical students to make change in the world around them. “They don’t wait to ask permission,” he said, pointing out that Jefferson’s students are the ones making sure that hospital wellness services, like blood pressure readings, are accessible to community members not affiliated with the school. “Our students don’t wait for the federal government. They solve problems themselves.”

Jefferson’s CEO with Barnes board member Stephen Harmelin, before the Citizen Speaks panel.

Temple’s Englert pointed out the school’s decades-long efforts to employ local residents in North Philly, while Fry, at Drexel, talked about his university’s outreach into the Promise Zone of Mantua, just five blocks from the center of his campus.

Finally, CCP’s Generals said, he is looking to open more campuses, in more parts of the city—like Kensington and South Philly—to make higher education more accessible to more Philadelphians. “We have a 26 percent poverty rate in this city,” Generals said. “And we [at CCP] touch many of those people. ” 

CCP President Donald Generals.

The panelists joked about competition among each other, and their institutions—with Klasko noting at one point that perhaps there’s a reason they’ve never been all together before. But they were in agreement on at least one thing: Education, and research, are the keys to upward mobility, whether for first-in-their-family college students—like Gutmann—or for those Philadelphians from surrounding neighborhoods, for whom college is a way to change entire generations of a family.

Penn President Amy Gutmann and Drexel President John Fry.

Flanked by Fry and Klasko, Gutmann near the end of the discussion looked around at her fellow university leaders on stage, and urged them to join her in finding ways to collaborate more together. We’re holding them to it.

Support for the Citizen Speaks series is provided by Series Sponsors Comcast NBCUniversal, Dilworth Paxson LLP, and FS Investments, and Major Sponsors Campus Apartments LLC and the Knight Foundation. 

With reporting from Rachel Bakich.

Header Photo: Citizen Speaks: The University and The City. All photos by Sabina Louise Pierce

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