How A Public-Private Partnership Built The University Of Pennsylvania by [email protected]
The University of Pennsylvania’s growth over the past few decades has turned it into one of the leading universities in the world. Yet this growth was not without controversy.
A new book, Becoming Penn: A Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000, written by University of Pennsylvania professors John L. Puckett and Mark Frazier Lloyd, provides an in-depth history of one of the most significant periods of growth. The book highlights some of the critical leaders who shaped the university’s future and examines the community tensions that sprung up as a result of the campus expansion.
Puckett is a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. He sat down with [email protected] to discuss Becoming Penn on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
[email protected]: This book does not provide a peaches-and-cream view of the university. This is a story, in some respects, of how a city bent over backward to provide the University of Pennsylvania with some of the land and resources that it needed. Yet it was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Were there bumps along the way to getting this published?
Puckett: No. The University Press and its board embraced the book. We all recognized that when you tell an analytic narrative – warts and all – you’re being transparent. You acknowledge the good, but you also acknowledge the difficulties and the collateral damage.
[email protected]: This university was started in downtown Philadelphia a couple hundred years ago by Benjamin Franklin and then moved out here to West Philadelphia. When did that move happen?
Puckett: In 1872. Penn acquired land from the city, where the university hospital and shop are today. They acquired some land that’s now across Spruce Street, which became the historic core of the campus. It started with a few buildings and had a small expansion. Then after World War II, it had a great expansion.
[email protected]: That expansion is a big focus of the book. It was a fairly good-sized campus at that point, but really expanded and grabbed up parcels of land, which in some respects, changed the dynamics of this section of West Philadelphia.
“In the 50-year period from the Cold War into the millennium there was a great expansion that transformed Penn into a world-class research institute.”
Puckett: Oh indeed. At the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, this was a regional university. In the 50-year period from the Cold War into the millennium, there was a great expansion that transformed Penn into a world-class research institute. This was done very methodically, intentionally and with recognition that the transformation was going to take a long time.
[email protected]: There were sections of property that were owned by the University of Pennsylvania that were left undeveloped for several decades. In fact, some construction is still going on right now.
Puckett: Yes. The planners woefully underestimated the development timespan. When they started it, the “gentleman’s agreement” was that Penn would have buildings up within six years. But when you look along Walnut Street, particularly in the 3600 – 3700 block, that didn’t happen. Actually, the 3600 block became a Redevelopment Authority parking lot for 20 years or so. There was absolutely no activity on that north side of the campus.
[email protected]: Some of the pictures in the book are great because they give a historical perspective, showing us what was right around Locust Walk and Steinberg-Dietrich Hall roughly 40, 50 and 60 years ago. This was a community. There were businesses. There were shops, stores, streets, cars. They were totally taken off the books.
Puckett: Yes, but you have to remember that Penn owned the land. The buildings were rental buildings and were standing on Penn property. [Here, from the Sirius Business Radio studio in Jon M. Huntsman Hall], I’m seeing the Steinberg Conference Center. But in the past I would have seen the Victoria Apartments and laundry. Locust Walk [the main pedestrian walkway] was actually Locust Street, and it had two-way traffic.
[email protected]: This happened at other urban universities as well, such as Temple University in Philadelphia and Columbia University in New York City. Universities would work with their cities to buy parcels of land and develop them over the course of a few decades.
Puckett: Yes. In the northeast corridor in particular, cities experienced manufacturing declines and an outflow of dollars and people. Cities recognized that they had to depend on their higher education facilities and medical centers. In the 1950s and 1960s, people were looking to develop the information service economy and they needed strong higher educational institutions to facilitate that. Penn was well positioned. Penn actually needed to be prodded by the city to get moving.
[email protected]: What was the reaction of the people who were living in the community as this was happening?
Puckett: There were two zones of development. The first zone was the core campus, and that expansion was facilitated by the City Planning Commission and the Redevelopment Authority. The area was mapped out by 1950 and called the University Redevelopment Area. The Redevelopment Authority was in charge of presenting plans for redevelopment, which went through a clearing process with the city. Penn could legitimately expand its core campus and it used a number of agencies to do this, but most importantly it used the Redevelopment Authority and federal funding.
Penn got in trouble in the second zone – the area it did not have legal authority to make changes – which was north of Chestnut Street in an area that we called the Market Street Corridor. Penn wanted a “compatible neighborhood” in that area. That’s where Penn got into trouble because that redevelopment required the displacement of a largely African-American neighborhood.
“That redevelopment required the displacement of a largely African-American neighborhood.”
Penn created a shadow expansion through the West Philadelphia Corporation, which was a proxy corporation that was created largely by Penn and some institutional partners such as Drexel University and the Presbyterian hospital. But Penn absolutely controlled it. It was tweaked to do Penn’s bidding. The University City Science Center [the country’s first urban research park, set up in 1963] was a product of these efforts by the West Philadelphia Corporation.
[email protected]: But your book notes that in the last 20 years or so, Penn really focused on making this campus a more integrated part of West Philadelphia.
Puckett: Yes. That started in the 1980s when Sheldon Hackney was president of the University of Pennsylvania. By the end of his presidency, Hackney created the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which has been one of the most extensive large-scale university outreach programs in the country. It’s a signature development on the Penn campus, which has helped create about 200 academically based community service courses across 26 departments that focus on issues in West Philadelphia. We call it a democratic civic engagement movement, which has been led by the Netter Center’s founding director, Ira Harkavy.
This hasn’t completely offset some of the bitterness and frustration that stemmed from urban renewal in the area that’s north of Chestnut Street, called the Black Bottom. But an enormous effort has been made.
[email protected]: Was post-World War II the