But some university and corporate leaders say there has been historic and institutional resistance to college CEOs taking on too high a community profile.
"In [Washington] D.C. and Atlanta and other cities, universities are an integral part of the business community. In Philadelphia, the impact of the colleges is so much more huge, in numbers, and in their economic impact. And yet, the universities have not been systematically engaged in the business leadership," said Hugh Long, head of the Philadelphia-based northeast U.S. division of Wachovia Corp., the region's dominant bank.
Long praises individual university leaders such as Drexel's Constantine "Taki" Papadakis and Penn's Amy Gutmann. But he says Philadelphia and its university leadership too often lack the collaboration seen in places such as northern Virginia, where he says George Mason University officials took the lead in preparing the workforce and planners for the huge influx in defense and telecom jobs in recent decades.
"There hasn't been the ongoing dialogue that could benefit what has become the biggest industry in this region," Long said.
Should university presidents take leading civic and business roles, weighing and supporting public policies?
Drexel's Papadakis says he has no problem identifying his school's interest directly with that of the larger community, and advocating for both.
Jefferson's Robert L. Barchi and Temple's Ann Weaver Hart say university resources should be available to political and business leaders, but they warn against the academy abandoning too far the neutrality that is part of its value to the broader society.
Penn's Gutmann says past conflicts between the school and its neighbors make it important not to throw its weight around, but adds that the university's reach is so vast that joining in regional leadership - along with national and global initiatives - is part of her job.
Drexel's Papadakis, a former General Electric Co. and Bechtel Corp. executive, sees himself as a corporate CEO. "A university is a business," Papadakis said. "The higher-education business, including the medical schools and the hospitals that we manage, has been for years now the major economic engine of Philadelphia. But until recently it was not recognized; we were not on the radar screen of the business community."
Papadakis has no qualms calling on such pals as Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to pressure them on such issues as malpractice insurance reform, or in backing corporate fund-raising drives for such groups as Select Greater Philadelphia.
"What's good for Drexel is good for Philadelphia, and what's good for Philadelphia is good for Drexel. And for the other universities," Papadakis said.
Papadakis said the city Chamber of Commerce and the university presidents began to work more closely together during "the last few years of Mayor [John] Street's mayoralty," when City Hall seemed distant from business concerns.
How close is too close? "University presidents have to walk a very fine line," said Barchi, who was Penn's second-ranking official before he was tapped for the Jefferson top job in 2004. "There is a traditional role for universities like ours to educate the citizenry and the workforce, and to do the research that provides tools for these folks."
At the same time, "we have to be engaged in the community without being seen to dominate," he said. "We have a special role as nonprofits. We can't be seen as becoming political leaders. That compromises our ability to provide other kinds of support."
He said, "We need to be partners with the political side and the business community, as opposed to our being the leadership."
Barchi gets enthusiastic describing work with corporate leaders such as Cephalon CEO Frank Baldino on relocation and job-promotion efforts such as BioAdvance.
"The Delaware Valley has made huge strides in biotech," Barchi said. "We should be driving that development."
Universities can afford to take a longer view than some other businesses, says Penn's Gutmann.
"We've been here for hundreds of years, and we expect to be here for hundreds of years to come," she said. "We see ourselves as a very important force for economic expansion."
Gutmann succeeded Judith Rodin in 2004 with a mandate to expand Penn's crowded medical campus and add housing and amenities for professors and students.
Penn is buying a $5 billion expansion - not in neighboring residential West Philadelphia, where land is cheap but prior expansion caused racial and class conflict in the 1960s and '70s. Instead, it went for the more expensive and complex mix of former federal postal offices, railroad properties and parking lots that lie between the heart of Penn's campus and the Schuylkill across from Center City.
Gutmann served alongside politically connected lawyers on Mayor Nutter's transition team, recommending what she called "the best and the brightest" for jobs with the policy-oriented mayor.
In Philadelphia, "we're the largest private employer. That alone doesn't create good relationships. It can create very bad relationships."
As another way of trying to bridge the neighbors gap, Penn has sponsored a program for recruiting more black Philadelphians into the city's predominantly white building-trades workforce.
In the mergers of the late 1900s, Philadelphia lost the regional bankers and manufacturers that once formed the backbone of its business leadership. They were replaced by national firms, with national markets and interests.
Gutmann said the current generation of corporate leaders had been reaching out to the university. Father and son Penn graduates Ralph and Brian Roberts stayed in Philadelphia to make Comcast Corp. the nation's largest cable company instead of following the well-trodden Penn "brain drain" to New York. They recently donated the school's new proton research center.
Also, CEO Gerry Sweeney of Brandywine Property Trust, suburban Philadelphia's dominant office landlord, is planning new space on the campus' Schuylkill rim, and working for and with Penn. That kind of corporate-university collaboration "is good for Philadelphia," she says, "and it's good for Penn."
Temple's Hart, a historian, sees a role reversal in the post-industrial city's relationship to its schools. "Great cities needed great universities in the 18th and 19th century. In many ways, in the 21st century, great universities need great cities," she said.
"We're centers of intellectual growth and questioning and thoughtfulness. We are part of shaping the future. It's a very exciting time to be the president of a larger research university. It places us right in the epicenter of the way we will construct our future."
But for Hart, as for Barchi, there are limits to how far the universities should stretch. Research fits; lobbying does not.
"It's appropriate for our transportation engineers to study the flow of traffic, how it bunches up. Or to develop water-permeable asphalt that allows groundwater to penetrate, not to run off. Or for Hai-Lung Dai, our dean of science, to work on a new special program to educate more science teachers. But we don't have a role advocating construction of a specific highway."
Margaret Marsh, acting dean of state-funded Rutgers University's Camden campus, said the university officials "don't want to tell the neighborhood what to do. We want to partner."
Rutgers is as close to Center City as Penn or Drexel. Marsh said she was spending more and more time meeting with corporate, government and business leaders from across the river.
In part, it's self-defense. Drexel has reached across the Delaware to start a military-contractor business incubator in Camden, right under Rutgers' nose. Rutgers, she said, wants Drexel to make it a partnership.
"We're interested in generating more jobs in Camden and in bringing more business to the city," Marsh said. "It just hasn't gotten up to Taki's level yet."