The Public Service Center was founded in 1991 by President Emeritus Frank H. T. Rhodes to expand faculty and student community engagement and outreach. It grew out of the Cornell organization, CIVITAS, an existing community service organization founded in 1965. CIVITAS – Cornell Ithaca Volunteers in Training and Service – provided volunteer opportunities for members of the Cornell community, primarily undergraduate students, to serve county human service agencies, the Ithaca school district and other such organizations. CIVITAS served as a placement agency referring students to community organizations in a variety of settings, and also helped place work/study students and interns.

Expanding on the work of CIVITAS, the PSC encompassed civic and community development projects, student organizations, school programs, student leadership development, academic-based programs and related community-based learning courses that work with communities to strengthen democracy and the public good.