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Behind Drexel's Transformation: A Q&A with Bob Francis

October 30, 2013

Bob Francis

The influence of Bob Francis is obvious to anyone who has stepped foot on Drexel’s campus lately. Gleaming new buildings and smartly refurbished historic ones present state-of-the-art research facilities, classrooms, retail spaces and student housing, amid the ubiquitous construction zones. In fall 2013 alone, Drexel has opened Gerri C. LeBow Hall at 32nd and Market streets, the new home of the LeBow College of Business, and Chestnut Square at 32nd and Chestnut streets, with 869 beds of housing and 20,000 square feet of retail.

Francis is helping to lead the transformation, not just of Drexel, but of urban university design in general. In 2009, Drexel became the first campus in the country to adopt the Green Building Initiative's Green Globes as its rating system standard for new buildings. Since January 2011, the campus has purchased 100 percent of its electrical energy in wind renewable energy certificates, meeting the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment—to be 80 percent carbon neutral—39 years early. In the past 10 years, Francis has overseen more than $3 billion in construction.

“Drexel is an urban environment, growing and developing at a pace that is unparalleled anywhere,” Francis said. “Time is an enemy you have to overcome, performance really matters and money counts. That makes this the best job anybody could have.”

DrexelNow spoke with Francis about the strategy—and the people—behind Drexel’s transformation and the Campus Master Plan.

How does the Campus Master Plan intersect with Drexel’s Strategic Plan?

We don’t build things for their own sakes. Everything we build is consistent with our academic programs, supports the University technologically and delivers experiential education.

We need to participate in the continued transformation of Drexel into a comprehensive research university, one that’s firmly anchored in cooperative education and experiential education. It’s a unique niche with unique challenges. You always want to stay true to your DNA. The DNA at Drexel is the cooperative education program, and everything we do keeps that firmly in mind.

Our first priority is instructional and research space. First, we need enough classrooms that are the right size to deliver our instructional programs. Two really good examples are coming online now. Gerri C. LeBow Hall opened with 550 classroom seats, and they’re all filled for the fall term. Then, for the College of Nursing and Health Professions, we’re adding instructional space in the Three Parkway building in Center City.

And, of course, we have our research commitments. We’re providing research space in Three Parkway and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Center City, and here in University City we have added behavioral research facilities for the Psychology Department in Stratton Hall and a computing co-location facility in Curtis Hall. Finally, we’re just starting to build out 3101 Market Street in the Innovation Neighborhood, what used to be called the Parking Authority space. Those will be laboratories for engineering, where we’ll develop an institute focusing on energy and the environment.

In addition to instructional and research components, we have to deliver space for student activities and public spaces. We are touching all the corners of the instructional, research, student life and public spaces and public image.

One of the four guiding principles of the Campus Master Plan is to “expand the innovation community.” Can you explain?

We think of innovation as something that suffuses Drexel. We have unique challenges in that we need to grow physically while not spreading out, but instead increase our density.

Part of our mission is to be technologically innovative within an urban environment. We’re organizing ourselves to take pressure off the traditional neighborhoods that we enjoy proximity to—Powelton Village and Mantua—and emphasize the strength of connection to 30th Street Station, which is a great transportation hub.

The area between 30th Street Station and the core campus is largely undeveloped, although we do have One Drexel Plaza—3001 Market St. and 3101 Market St.—as anchors of what Drexel is calling the Innovation Neighborhood. We’ve designed it to bring together faculty and researchers who are working on contemporary problems that are important to the Commonwealth and the nation in a larger sense. We want to connect startup companies with co-op students. We want to connect our academic programs to people and businesses that will help grow the local economy by creating new jobs that are creative in nature.

What does it mean to have a physical space devoted to diversity?

It's a visible manifestation of what we are doing on a daily basis to support diversity and inclusion. The Intercultural Center shows that we have a commitment to helping people learn and grow through intercultural engagement, and it provides a space for that. For example, it's rare for our gallery space on the first floor to be empty of people.

Our program coordinator for the Office of Equality & Diversity creates exhibits in partnership with the colleges and schools, and the community as well. Our first exhibit in the Intercultural Center was Singgalot, a Smithsonian exhibit about Filipino life in America. Our reception for that exhibit brought together our University community and more than 100 members of Philadelphia's Asian-American community. We hosted a Haitian exhibit with a gallery in Philadelphia that featured almost exclusively Haitian artwork. We've also brought in high school students from Philadelphia who created stained glass windows to donate to community groups around the country and in South Africa. It was a good learning opportunity for our community and for those students, most of whom had never been on a college campus.

What’s the inspiration behind another of the plan’s principles to “draw the community together around shared places”?

Creating shared places gives us the opportunity not just to take pressure off our neighbors, but to make life for students and our neighbors better. For example, a forthcoming project at 34th and Lancaster streets will provide housing for students, pulling them out of the neighborhoods while bringing in amenities that everyone wants. We are adding food and beverage places and recreational amenities that round out West Philadelphia and make it a rich, vibrant place to live.

What are the unique challenges of being an urban university?

The 19th-century romantic notion of what a university would look like was a cloistered, inward-looking institution built in a quiet area that allowed for contemplation. That’s the image that people carried into the early part of the 20th century. It’s changing very rapidly. The ideal is not on rural, grassy landscape. The focus is on the urban grid, city streets, on density of people and ideas and amenities.

We are implementing our strategic and master plans at a time in history when urban environments and diverse neighborhoods like ours are the places to be. Drexel wants to attract the creative class—young faculty members, graduate students, international students and businesses—to the University and community. One way we want to do that is by executing the master plan well and continuing our development in West Philadelphia without pushing further into the neighborhoods.

That’s what the master plan concepts are about. The Innovation Neighborhood brings together fun places to be, retail and recreation, fun places to work with an incubator perspective and fun places to study. That’s Drexel.

Sustainable building is an important part of your mission. How do you incorporate greener building practices into your projects?

It turns out that all the elements of urban development are very sustainable in terms of health and wellness, minimizing consumption of resources and encouraging the use of public transportation. There are so many things about urban life that lend themselves toward this notion, which is fairly new, that we have been consuming natural resources at too great a rate, and we need to reverse that trend.

Reducing energy consumption by living close to the University, getting here via public transportation, building with local materials, minimizing energy consumption, and looking at internal cost of energy are all things we’re actively interested in. Drexel has rightfully earned a position in the national dialogue for its focus on sustainability.

What are some projects that aren’t as visible, but have a big impact?

I love the behind-the-scenes projects that make a really big difference. It’s a mark of great progress that we opened LeBow Hall and Chestnut Square, but to me, centralizing the Psychology Department by renovating Stratton Hall this fall is a huge step forward. It takes a really important department that was split between three buildings and two campuses and centralizes them in one place. It’s a social science department in the College of Arts and Sciences, and it’s now in the heart of the arts and sciences precinct on campus. There’s nothing better than a project that really moves the ball forward in support of teaching and research. Next year we’ll do it on an even larger scale when the School of Public Health relocates to Nesbitt Hall.

A second gem of a project is the research co-location facility in Curtis Hall. This is a space that hardly anyone will ever see, but it’s where the most powerful computing on campus will happen.

Another example is Drexel Central. While it’s a smaller project in terms of scale, it has a large impact on improving the student experience. Smaller projects take just as much effort and personal attention and planning, and they get less external recognition, but they are projects that have an outsized impact strategically.

What kind of team does it take to see these projects through from beginning to end?

Everybody who works on project management and facilities has a critical role here in seeing these projects through from beginning to end. All the things that we do are designed to meet a mission and meet a strategic need that makes students’ lives successful in the time they are here and after they graduate.

A small platoon in planning, design and construction does the work of an army. This team of engineers, architects, designers, planners and construction managers carry the load for an entire comprehensive research university. They are tireless workers. There are no jurisdictional disputes over who’s going to do what because there is so much cross-over and they do what they need to do to complete a task on any given day.

Some say it seems Drexel’s campus will always be under construction. What are your thoughts on that?

I realize construction means inconvenience. There is noise, vibration, dust. There’s deviation from your path. But you know, one of the visible, tangible measures of progress is construction. So, from that perspective, I hope the campus is always under construction.

For real-time updates, faculty, staff and students can follow campus development via social media platforms such as a blog, Twitter (@drexelplan), Facebook and Instagram (@drexelplan).