Professors Scott Knowles (left) and Richardson Dilworth are reliving Drexel’s entire 125 years of existence in a new book and online oral history that will be unveiled later this year.
A lot has changed at Drexel since Scott Knowles, PhD, and Richardson Dilworth, PhD, associate professors of history and politics in the College of Arts and Sciences, began teaching here. First, there was a merger with MCP Hahnemann University in 2002 to create the College of Medicine when Dilworth started. Then there was the creation of the Thomas R. Kline School of Law in 2006, a year after Knowles came to campus. More recently, the affiliation with the Academy of Natural Sciences in 2011 renamed the historical museum and created a new department and collaboration with Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.
And that was just in the past 15 years.
Now, the two professors are reliving Drexel’s entire 125 years of existence in a new book and online oral history that will be unveiled in 2016, to coincide with the anniversary of Drexel’s founding in 1891.
“I have wanted to do this for many years, and the opportunity of the anniversary allowed us to make it happen. Drexel's history is intertwined with the city's history in crucial and fascinating ways, and telling that story is a privilege,” said Knowles.
With the help of student researchers and University Archives, the professors will explore Drexel’s history in the context of Philadelphia, which coincides with President John A. Fry’s idea of the civically engaged university.
“Like any university that’s become relatively big, Drexel has a bunch of disparate parts that don’t necessarily fit together cohesively. They fit together in the sense that they all have an educational mission, but Drexel is a complex organization. We wanted to create this cohesive narrative about Drexel,” Dilworth said.
To do that, they are seeking the help of everyone connected to the University — faculty, staff, students, alumni — to tell their stories and provide suggestions for what should be covered in Drexel’s history.
The academic book, to be published by Temple University Press, will feature relatively small chapters covering colleges, programs, histories and goals found on campus. Most of these chapters will be written by many Drexel faculty and staff, who will blend research with their own institutional histories about certain aspects of Drexel. For example, Director of Athletics Eric Zillmer, PsyD, will write about Drexel’s athletic history; David Raizman, PhD, a professor of medieval art and history of design, will write about the history of the college to which he belongs, the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design; Pennoni Honors College creative writing teacher Cordelia Frances Biddle will write about the Drexel family, of which she is a member of, and so on. Knowles and Dilworth used their connections across campus and suggestions from others to enlist Drexel faculty and staff as authors.
“This book doesn’t really fit into anyone’s research agendas, so people are kind of doing it as an extra project. I looked at it as an opportunity to engage a little in terms of understanding a bit more about an institution that I’ve been a part of for a very long time,” said Dilworth.
These short 4,000-word chapters will be bookended by Dilworth’s introductory chapter, which places the evolution of Drexel in the larger evolutional aspect of the city, and the final chapter written by Knowles, who will write about urban renewal at Drexel and in Philadelphia. Archived photos and snippets of oral histories will also be sprinkled throughout the book.
“It’s the virtue of an edited book that you have distinct enough topics that are separate enough that someone can flip around, but also read it cover to cover,” said Dilworth.
Knowles is also collecting online oral histories from anyone who wants to reminisce about their personal ties to Drexel. He even hired a Drexel co-op to help him interview subjects like President Fry, Provost Emeritus Mark Greenberg and many more.
“It's been remarkable to hear about the changes in the campus over the years. Getting to speak at length with President Fry — to better understand how he has formed his vision for the University — was a superb discussion for this project,” he said.
Though the book’s manuscript will be submitted next month, Knowles will continue to work on the oral history project, with the hopes of establishing a podcast series based on the interviews.
If you’re interested in contributing, email Dilworth at firstname.lastname@example.org or Knowles at email@example.com.
This piece first appeared in Drexel Quarterly's Winter 2016 issue.