The University of Pennsylvania was founded in 1749, when Benjamin Franklin presented his vision in a pamphlet titled Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pensilvania. Unlike other American Colonial colleges, the new school would not focus on education for the clergy but would prepare students for lives of business and public service. In particular, Franklin stressed the development and application of knowledge to improve human welfare, calling such service, “The great Aim and End of all Learning…”
For most of its history, however, Penn was in but not of its community. Emerging from the Second World War as a quiet regional school with a large number of commuting students, the University began to attract government attention and research money. Ideally placed in a major eastern city and surrounded by its rich resources, Penn began to grow and expand its urban campus, often without considering the consequences for its neighbors. In the last several decades of the twentieth century, Penn emerged as a preeminent research university, ranked in the top ten in the country. But as the University flourished, much of West Philadelphia declined, losing economic and social capital.
Many people, however, were coming to realize that the futures of Penn and West Philadelphia were intertwined. Beginning in the 1980s, serious attention began to focus on how Penn could help play an active, collaborative role creating partnerships with key strategic community institutions- schools, neighborhood organizations, and communities of faith- to effect positive change.
In 1983 two important organizations were created: the West Philadelphia Partnership, a 501(c)(3), and the Office of Community-Oriented Policy Studies at Penn, the predecessor to the Penn Program for Public Service in the School of Arts and Sciences. Then, in 1985, the seeds for academically based community service courses were planted when four undergraduate students proposed a summer job training corps for their honors seminar class at Penn. The project, known as the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps (WEPIC), became an after-school program at a local elementary school. Over the next five years, WEPIC grew, evolved and thrived, and the idea of the higher education-assisted community school was born. In 1992, with these initiatives indicating the potential for success, the university announced a commitment to focus its resources and energy on the revitalization of West Philadelphia. The Center for Community Partnerships was formed to direct this large and important effort. The Netter Center is housed in the Office of Government and Community Affairs. In 2007, the Center was renamed the Netter Center for Community Partnerships in honor of Penn alumnus Edward Netter, C'53 and his wife, Barbara.
The Netter Center’s work has created a new vision for university-community relations. Each semester hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students go out into West Philadelphia to teach and to learn. Working with faculty, they have tackled critical community issues on the environment, health, the arts and education. Enduring democratic collaborations, now in place with public schools, community organizations and communities of faith, are generating new areas for mutual efforts. The Netter Center for Community Partnerships will continue to develop these linkages into the future, reaching further and further into the West Philadelphia community. Its approach has also become a national model of university civic engagement.