The following is adapted from the speech given by President Judith Rodin as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Program on January 20, 2000.

Martin Luther King's Challenge: Service to Society

by Judith Rodin

More than 30 years after his earthly journey ended in Memphis, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains a part of the light by which we chart our ongoing struggle for justice and human dignity for all.

While braving tear gas, bullwhips, bricks, police dogs, fire hoses--and a ceaseless cascade of death threats--Dr. King never stopped witnessing for justice. He never stopped working to create what he called a "beloved community."

I am sure that were he with us today, Dr. King would compliment universities like Penn for producing brilliant, imaginative doctors, lawyers, scholars and scientists who press the envelopes of their disciplines and professions. He would commend us for conducting research that yields important advances in the health sciences and other fields.

But he would also say that it is not enough. It is not enough to expand the intellect and talents of our students if we fail to rouse their souls to serve others and engage them in the larger issues of the day. Nor is it enough, he would say, for us to make great discoveries in the lab and develop theoretical solutions to society's problems if we do not use them to tackle the kinds of challenges we face every day.

Dr. King would be right. But I also believe he would be right at home at Penn, whose founder professed a similar philosophy of education that today guides us more than ever.

Dr. Franklin declared that "the great aim and end of all learning is service to society." For Penn, society begins right here in West Philadelphia--right here in this beloved community that we are building together.

I would like to reflect on what Penn has done and can do to witness for a "beloved community" both on campus and throughout West Philadelphia. First, what can Penn do to instill the idea of service in its students?

The answer is, we are doing a lot--more than I could possibly even begin to describe in this space. We believe that a student who never ventures beyond the campus boundaries forfeits the chance to become a properly educated citizen.

Society needs men and women who can think critically, act responsibly, and interact respectfully with people from many different social, racial, national, and religious backgrounds.

That is why Penn has woven community service into the very fabric of the University. The commitment to service permeates our College Houses, blooms in nearly 40 student service organizations, and thrives in partnerships between Penn students and faith-based communities in West Philadelphia.

About 25 percent of all Penn undergraduates lend their time, talents, and passion to serving others. Our students are out in the community fighting homelessness, hunger and poverty as volunteers for groups like Habitat for Humanity. Our students are promoting health and nutrition. And they are mentoring and educating our young people in programs like the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, whose team leader, Penn senior Sarah Zimbler, was recently awarded the prestigious Truman Scholarship for her contributions.

Penn is producing outstanding leaders like Charles Howard, who is carrying on Dr. King's work through his efforts to bring our diverse communities together and through his service to young people in West Philadelphia.

Service is not just about caring for others. It is about learning and applying what is learned in the classroom. In that regard, Penn is setting the national standard for developing courses that link scholarship and service.

We currently offer more than 60 "service-learning" courses. These are not second-rate, watered-down, "applied" field sessions. They do not offer academic credit for what should properly be volunteer activities, which, as I mentioned, Penn already has in abundance.

Rather, these courses bring about structural, enduring community improvements such as effective public schools, neighborhood economic development, and vital community organizations.

Under the capable leadership of Provost Robert Barchi and Deputy Provost Peter Conn, Penn will continue to embrace, enrich, and incorporate "service-learning" into our core academic mission.

So far, I have touched on what individual students and faculty can do to build a beloved community here. What about Penn's role as an institutional "citizen"?

I believe universities can and should shoulder extensive civic responsibilities to improve the quality of life throughout the community. Penn is meeting those responsibilities. We and our neighbors have worked creatively and energetically to revitalize West Philadelphia.

For starters, we have worked with neighborhood groups, businesses, and community organizations to make our neighborhood cleaner and safer through initiatives like UC Brite and the formation of a special services district.

We have worked together to attract restaurants, retail and entertainment establishments to our neighborhood, creating a broad range of jobs and opportunities for West Philadelphians.

We have worked together to ensure that all Penn purchases and construction projects create substantial access and opportunities for local businesses, particularly businesses owned by minorities and women.

We have worked together to encourage home ownership throughout West Philadelphia. We have also targeted strategic investments toward rehabilitating neglected houses on otherwise stable blocks.

Nowhere is this partnership more comprehensive--or challenging--than in our drive to improve public education. Penn, the public school district and the teachers' union are working together to build a new university-assisted pre-K through 8 neighborhood school.

This new school will feature small classes and learning communities, active professional development for teachers, a cutting-edge curriculum and other important innovations.

This will not be a Penn lab school. It will not be a charter school or a magnet school. It will be a neighborhood public school that will be a genuine partner with and resource for other West Philadelphia schools.

We want parents, teachers, and principals from all West Philadelphia schools--including this new school--to pool their expertise and ideas together to help all schoolchildren reach their potential.

While Penn cannot educate every public school child in Philadelphia, we will continue doing what we do best. We will leverage our research and expertise in our Graduate School of Education toward improving city schools and programs like Head Start; we will assist in the professional development of Philadelphia teachers; and we will continue preparing our graduates to teach in city classrooms.

We have all worked hard to forge a relationship of trust in which we cooperate on social, economic, and academic ventures, in which we find ways to deal with problems of here and now, and in which we enjoy true fellowship with one another. We must continue to build on these impulses and accomplishments.

During his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a supreme challenger. He challenged the nation to change unjust laws. He challenged a U.S. President to forsake war. And he challenged each of us to love and serve humanity as best we can.

By meeting Dr. King's challenge and rallying to his call, each of us can help make Penn the national model for building a beloved community.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 18, January 25, 2000