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 Knowledge at Wharton 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: Was post-World War II the greatest time for expansion for the university?
Puckett: Yes. There was a national boom after World War II when you had so many professors involved in defense activities, medicine, penicillin, distribution systems and so forth. Penn and many other universities had a lot of people involved. The federal government realized that it had a huge talent pool and figured it would get money into these places and, ultimately, “let ’er rip.”
This resulted in fierce competition for federal dollars and Penn was right in the middle of that. It was well positioned to get that money because it had a great track record from World War II. There was this competition among the institutions to become the best, brightest and most eminent.
Knowledge at Wharton: Gaylord Harnwell was instrumental during this time, correct?
Puckett: Yes. I think the record shows that he was one of the most important university presidents of the entire 20th century. But I don’t think his role has been full recognized yet because nobody has written about him…. This is the first book since 1940 that looks at the institutional and social history of the university.
Knowledge at Wharton: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Wharton School in relation to the development of the university community.
Puckett: Yes. The Wharton School probably benefited more than any other school simply because of its size. The Wharton School was created in 1881, and it moved into Logan Hall [now called Claudia Cohen Hall], which was the second building in the campus core. It was there until 1952 when it moved into Steinberg-Dietrich. The big boom came when it started to expand under Gaylord Harnwell and moved to Vance Hall. Then with Sheldon Hackney, you got the Aresty Institute of Executive Education. And with Penn president Judith Rodin you got Jon M. Huntsman Hall.
“It all comes down to the question of public good. I haven’t fully resolved how much public good was created versus the costs. My sense is it’s a far, far greater public good.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Looking back at the development of the university, as you mentioned before, it was a fairly regional university for a long time.
Puckett: It didn’t have a regional market in terms of students. Most of these kids were commuters. People might have called it a sleepy community university, but I don’t think it was sleepy at all because the city was running right through Penn at that point.
Knowledge at Wharton: When did it start to see the big expansionary boom?
Puckett: The university planners and Harnwell’s leadership team, along with the West Philadelphia Corporation, recognized that they needed undergraduate students to eventually create a viable graduate program. Ultimately, they needed to do all the things that a major university would do, which included putting up student housing on campus, particularly west of 38th Street. Then they developed a residence hall for women and people started coming. It got more and more competitive, and it ultimately became Penn, as a brand name, not to be confused with Penn State.
Knowledge at Wharton: It is interesting that without all these different elements, including the urban renewal project and other programs, the university would look a little bit different today.
Puckett: Yes. It all comes down to the question of public good. I haven’t fully resolved how much public good was created versus the costs. My sense is it’s a far, far greater public good. This would not have happened without federal funding and without the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. And it would not have happened without one other player – the General State Authority – which was created in 1956 and essentially gave Penn free buildings and cheap architects. These modernist low-rise buildings were built with redevelopment authority funds.
Knowledge at Wharton: What role did the City of Philadelphia play? You’re talking about a very important, transformative time in Philadelphia’s history in terms of the people who were leading this city, including former police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo.
Puckett: Well, go back into the late 1940s and early 1950s… Who was chairman of the City Planning Commission? Who was the president of the executive committee of the Pennsylvania Transportation Authority? Francis Hopkinson Jr. held both roles.
Knowledge at Wharton: Therein lies the connection.
Puckett: He was a devoted Penn alum who graduated in 1907. He recognized he had to get trolleys underground, which required the approval of the City Planning Commission and the Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. In effect, he cut this deal himself.
Knowledge at Wharton: The university was able to get the Transportation Authority to take the trolleys from above ground and put them underground to provide more space.
Puckett: The city would have said the move was about protecting pedestrians at these intersections. There was a large flow of pedestrians, particularly through the center of the Penn campus.
Knowledge at Wharton: Benjamin Franklin obviously had a design in mind for the university. I think that if he were here today he would be thrilled with all of the innovation, research and development that has transformed the university over the last 50 to 60 years.
Puckett: I think you’re right. He’d be particularly happy with the service citizenship component because Franklin had famously said that a university should cultivate in young people an ability and an inclination to serve. That would certainly please him. There was also pragmatism here, which is one reason we called the university a “pragmatic” university in the title of the book. It was Franklin’s university….
Knowledge at Wharton: Can this type of university development we saw at Penn happen in other cities even today?
Puckett: Yes. Columbia’s doing it. They have a 17-acre area in what’s called Manhattanville, which is north of the campus. From what I remember, they were putting professional schools and other services into those blocks, and those were urban redevelopment blocks.