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Drexel Deans Look Back at 2020 — Part Two

January 15, 2021

Drexel Deans Look Back at 2020

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series showing how Drexel deans reflected on 2020. Part one is available here.

In lieu of publishing its annual “Top Drexel Stories” article reviewing Drexel University’s top stories, news and social media posts, DrexelNow instead asked the deans of the University’s colleges and schools to reflect on the tumtultuous year that they had guided their respective units through. 

Their responses were so riveting and detailed that two stories had to be made to fully encapsulate their responses. Part one was published last month, featuring seven deans from the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Computing & Informatics, School of Education, Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship, Graduate College, Pennoni Honors College and Thomas R. Kline School of Law.

In this DrexelNow story, read on to see what six other Drexel deans had to say about the innovations, challenges and lessons learned from 2020.

School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems Dean and Distinguished University Professor Paul W. Brandt-Rauf, ScD, MD, DrPH:

On things to be proud of:

I’m proud of the way certain faculty members stepped up to address COVID-19. Amy Throckmorton [PhD, an associate professor] and Steve Kurtz [PhD, part-time associate research professor and director of the Implant Research Center], in conjunction with other faculty, including the College of Engineering, went through a massive effort to generate and use 3D printers to create personal protective equipment, AJFlex Face Shields. I’m sure that in the beginning, when there was such a shortage of PPE, that saved people from getting infected and saved lives. Other faculty responded with other ideas. Wan Shih [PhD, professor] is working on a new detection means for the virus [A” Rapid, Inexpensive, Field-Usable COVID-19 Genetic Test,” funded by the University’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Research & Development Fund] that led to an SBIR grant. Marek Swoboda [PhD, an assistant teaching professor] used 3D printing to create a novel way to share a ventilator between two patients — a ventilator splitter.

On things learned:

That came up actually at Drexel’s Board of Trustees meeting the other day, and you know what I said? I said, you never know what you can do until you’re forced to do it. We really didn’t do much online at Biomed before March and now we do have to do everything online. And it’s amazing when you are forced to do something, and you see how well you can do it. Not perfectly, certainly, at least in a few instances! Design workshops and labs are very, very difficult. But everything else went pretty well.

We hosted a very successful Immune Modulation & Engineering Symposium from Nov. 11 through Nov. 13 that was supposed to be in person. So on a dime, we had to rethink everything. A lot of research was directly related to the current crisis because it was a conference on immune engineering. We ended up hosting 27 speakers and eight moderators over three days, and there were over 500 participants from 16 countries. We even added in 14 school kids and their advisor, and prospective students, so we could actually use this to maybe leverage attracting prospective students in the future. We had 150 people come to the conference two years ago, so we learned that if you put it online, they will come.

On biggest challenges:

We were really anxious to keep our research going. We had external constraints from the central administration, but basically getting the research back up and running, I think was great. And in that process, because so many students had lost their opportunities for co-ops, the faculty stepped forward and had research for some of the students. It was critical, too, that some alumni came through to help with co-ops. And that’s an ongoing thing as well.

On responding to the events of 2020:

After the George Floyd incident, the faculty and staff at the very next faculty meeting decided unanimously that we wanted to do something as a school. The first thing we decided was we needed to better support our diverse student population. We actually just kicked off a Biomed Diversity Scholarship fund, which we’re in the process of funding now, and hopefully we will be funding students by next year.

We also responded to commencement, making a virtual commencement, and then also senior design was a big challenge. Ironically that actually helped us in many respects deal with the conference I mentioned, because we had to put together really good online presentations for that. And again, first time we had done anything like that. You never know what you can do until you do it.

LeBow College of Business Dean Vibhas Madan, PhD:

[Editor’s note: Madan was named dean in December 2020]

There were obviously extremely difficult circumstances, but I think the LeBow faculty was just amazing in terms of how quickly we flipped over to Zoom in the short time frame. We quickly formed our own return to campus group, faculty and professional staff came together in groups to support the various transition activities not just for the college, but also the University and other colleges.

We’ve created some committees within our Dean’s Advisory Board to support different activities in this virtual environment. Our undergraduate student advisory board really stepped in to help with our recruitment and outreach to prospective students. One event we held came out of an idea from the advisory board. It was the LeBow Dean’s Forum event where the ex-CFO of Johnson & Johnson, Dominic Caruso, who’s on our advisory board and is a LeBow alum, was joined by current CFO of J&J Joe Wolk, and I had an engaging conversation with them on leadership lessons as well as the race to the COVID vaccine.

I was also really proud of that the way we did our virtual graduation. We created a very engaging graduation website which I think we will continue to include as part of our celebrations even after we are back to in-person graduations. For the virtual celebration we also made it a point to recognize each and every student individually. Our speaker was from the Walt Disney Company: Rebecca Campbell, chairman, Direct-to-Consumer and International.

One last thing: I’m proud of just how far we have come within the college with our own alumni engagement group, which connects our alums to students either through mentoring relationships or in classroom settings. In the last four or five months, about 50 alumni engaged in individual interactions with students in a panel or a guest lecture or by judging case competitions.

Since we went into this remote environment, every Friday, except for maybe the Friday after the presidential election, I’ve sent an email to people in the college as a check-in. It’s not an official Office of the Dean email, but from my personal email. I have a listserv for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and professional staff, so I’ll send an email to everybody or I’ll send separate ones to different people. Sometimes there’ll be something about, “Hey, stay off Zoom this weekend.” Or, in October, I wanted to share my feelings about the Walter Wallace, Jr. incident. I typically end the email with saying, “Just be safe, be well. But if you go out, hand on your heart, six feet apart.” That’s my signature. One of my colleagues said they tell their kids that all the time now: “hand on your heart, six feet apart.”

On challenges faced:

Obviously there’s the challenge of not being in the same place and using the medium we are using right now. We’re trying to think of other ways to make sure we know what the right amount of communication is. There are also the challenges related to social justice which we must address as a University and a college. We put together the LeBow Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) action group, which has completed the first phase which focused on assessment as well as the second phase of initial recommendations.

Fundamentally, we’re here because of the students and their experience. So how can we make sure we are providing not just a straight online experience? We’ve tried to address that with some of the technologies and what faculty are doing, like using breakout rooms in classes and bringing alumni into classrooms.

Another challenge has been co-op, and we tried to address that by working with the Steinbright Career Development Center in terms of flexibility around the co-ops and have also added additional courses with experiential learning elements. Last summer, we ended up doing eight consulting project-based courses with different companies as compared to a typical four or five projects during the summer.

College of Engineering (CoE) Dean and Distinguished Professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Sharon Walker, PhD:

On proud moments:

I’m proud of faculty, staff and students particularly in terms of moments in time — meaning the outset and initial crisis response; ongoing work; and forward-thinking solutions.

We were the “first college” in a number of ways, with colleagues openly sharing they used our approach as a guide: setting up an informational website with engineering-specific COVID response information; formatting dense informational messages with previews/summaries for better readability and accessibility; offering just-in-time training for remote work (and in fact, CoE went remote one day prior to the rest of campus); creation of faculty and staff online repositories with resources and training for faculty and teaching assistants/online coaches, as well as staff for effective and engaging remote work.

There are ongoing “in the thick of things:” advancing critical research activities — faculty stepped up to the challenge of seeking solutions, from webinars to filling the need for masks and respirators; maintain admitted and prospective student outreach (shifted to virtual admitted student days, created new digital brochures in just one week, and continue to expand ways for students to engage with us, like through Minecraft meet-ups).

I’m grateful to the leadership team, college re-entry planning group, engineering staff assembly, research, dean’s student leadership council — all of these groups and more have guided us through the latter phases of planning for upcoming quarters from academic, research, space, social perspectives and have ensured the voices of all of our faculty, staff and students are being heard.

On lessons learned:

You can never over-communicate — we have reiterated messages through town halls, email, Microsoft Teams, newsletters, shared broadly as well as customized for specific groups (faculty, staff, undergraduates, graduate students). Of course we’ve received some critical feedback, but by and large I’ve been so pleased to hear from our faculty, staff and students that they feel we are keeping them informed. 

On challenges faced: 

Contingency planning in rapidly evolving environment: use of Microsoft Teams/Zoom to increase frequency and kinds of communications (believe it or not, as a college we had only recently begun to “dip our toes” in use of these tools — so all the more proud of our community for responding positively to the quick learning curve).

Maintaining trust and sense of community — we held a number of town halls (faculty and staff as well as graduate student) to emphasize the prioritization of the entire college community’s well-being and our commitment to academic/business continuity.

On responding to the events of 2020:

For research: course adaptations, responding to the call for face shields, environmental/park usage during COVID. [Editor’s note: for more information on College of Engineering faculty responding to the pandemic, click here.] 

For academic: There were take-home kits for students in first-year design, recognizing the importance of the laboratory experience, bringing the classroom home while students were remote. [Editor’s note: for more information on College of Engineering coursework responding to the pandemic, click here.]

We held unplugged days for faculty and professional staff to have uninterrupted thoughtful reflection on strategic planning, back burner projects and re-energize in lead up to already hectic times of year (i.e., pre-commencement, pre-fall term start, pre-fall end wrap up). We also used VR for end-of-year gathering with faculty and staff, as both a contrasting social interaction from typical Zoom meetings, as well as opportunity to explore alternative modes of delivery for critical CoE experiences, such as senior design presentations, going forward.

Westphal College of Media Arts & Design Dean Jason Schupbach:

[Editor’s note: Schupbach started as dean at Drexel on Sept. 1.]

On challenges that Westphal is embracing going forward:

I think we have a generational challenge and opportunity. There is a lot going on right now in the creative fields and higher education that we all knew was coming. There’s also a generational reckoning around race and gender and intersectionality issues.

For example, we all knew a lot of the models around higher education were going to shift towards online education; Drexel is already ahead on that curve. I question whether there will ever be just a 100 percent face-to-face degree in America ever again! Right now, we’re all experimenting with a version of teaching online, using tools not developed for higher education.   It reminds me of when email was introduced — it didn’t get rid of all mail, but it fundamentally changed some aspects of how we communicate, the same will happen in the educational environment post-COVID.

As part of getting hired at Drexel, I proposed that Westphal become a college that leans into the future. Forgive the clunky metaphor, but I see Westphal as an impressive ship filled with students, faculty and staff doing wonderful things. It’s NOT the Titanic, but a strong ship that needs to steer itself straight through the storm to get to the other side. All of these reckonings are opportunities. There’s no sailing around it. Westphal needs to be the experimental place that is steering right into that storm, figuring out what the creative careers are going to be in the future and where the opportunities lie. The people that get this right are going to be the people that build the future of our industries and 21st century creative careers.

So, we’re asking ourselves questions like, how do we restructure what we’re doing here at Westphal to meet the challenges of the moment? We must have those hard conversations about race, gender and intersectionality. We have already had a lot of hard — and exciting — conversations about what the future of our fields could look like, and we will use that knowledge and embrace the opportunity that technology is providing us. I don’t think we need to totally redesign everything. It’s really about transforming and shifting into this future. We have a strong base to build off of and that’s what I get excited about! We are already very strong, but what does it mean to truly be that 21st century creative college?

On what he’s learned about and is the most proud of when it comes to Westphal:

Westphal is an incredible college, and it’s no joke that the students and faculty here are the best in the country in many, many ways. A photography student, Hannah Beier, shot the cover of TIME magazine and was just recognized as one of the best portraits of the year by TIME. We have a faculty member, Ryan Schwabe, and alum, Jonathan Low, who were just nominated for Grammys. We’ve had faculty members and students that won Emmys. Students in our Game Design & Production, Animation & Visual Effects, and Music Industry programs won the 2020 Games for Change Best Student Game Award. We have a fashion design student, Amanda Forastieri, who won the 2020 Supima Design Competition—the second year in a row our fashion design students have won. There’s just so much to be proud of and excited about and I don’t even realize the scope of success sometimes, because I’m so new. The list is long of what people are accomplishing in our college!

Drexel University College of Medicine Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Dean and Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs Charles B. Cairns, MD:

I am extremely proud of how our students, faculty and staff have addressed the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. We not only rapidly adapted to the need for online instruction, but we incorporated new virtual technologies that will be enduring past the pandemic, including telemedicine, virtual seminars across all of our clinical sites and the direct engagement of faculty from all of our regional campuses and clinical affiliates.   

The opportunities to incorporate new technologies to bring our faculty together across disciplines and geographies are endless. We also developed novel technologies for COVID-19 testing and symptom tracking to better serve our campus colleagues through new testing, app and information systems. 

On challenges faced:

The biggest challenge we faced is social distancing. Medicine is inherently linked to person-to-person interactions for education (physical examinations), training (management of illness and disease), clinical care, clinical research and to better understand individual components of the social determinants of health. Thus, it was important to incorporate new technologies as well as innovative educational, training and research and clinical care models to address this challenge of physical separation.

Our COVID-19 research led directly to impact. We incorporated an interdisciplinary team focused on innovative approaches to better understanding the basis of infection, the characterization of the immune response, the further development of effective vaccines, development of novel personal protective equipment (masks, shields) and leading clinical research studies and therapeutic trials. In fact, we had a record quarter for research funding, up 53% (increase to $14.3 million in Q1 FY21 vs. $9.3 million Q1 FY20).  

College of Nursing and Health Professions (CNHP) Dean and Distinguished University Professor Laura N. Gitlin, PhD:

On proud moments:

In this most unprecedented historical year, I have been in awe of our students, professional staff and faculty, who have assumed very important and meaningful roles in the COVID-19 pandemic and in response to criminal injustices. As a community of nursing and health professionals, they have demonstrated what it means to lean in when their expertise is needed most. Many alumni, students, faculty and professional staff have responded to requests for help. Volunteers are providing care on the front lines by conducting COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, students are helping with food distribution and drives to battle food insecurity in Philadelphia, faculty created short “Learn from Home” videos covering health and wellness topics, professional staff created communications and activities to stay connected, students, researchers and practitioners continue their efforts to solve society’s most pressing challenges and advocate for vulnerable populations, our clinical practices continue to care for patients in challenging environments, and our students are engaged in peaceful protests and listening sessions hosted at CNHP to help us learn and understand how to address inequities and improve our curriculum to address social and structural determinants of health. Detailing all of the important ways the College has responded to support each other, our students and the communities we serve would go way beyond allocated space. Suffice to say that I am very honored and proud to lead this team that is preparing the next leaders in care and service, who make life better for individuals and communities.

On lessons learned:

I have been incredibly impressed by our CNHP students who are pushing us to make faster cultural shifts in the College that more directly and deeply address racism, and the social and structural determinants of health. I have learned that the students, our next great leaders, are full of ambition and purpose and want to change the world. This year has only further highlighted the importance of health and nonpharmacological treatment strategies, as well as uncovered the historical health inequities in our country. Our students represent a force for health equity, innovative thinking and compassion. They are our heroes.

On challenges faced:

Almost immediately, it was clear that we were going to experience challenges obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) with the nationwide n95 and face-shield shortage. The standard vendors were not able to supply us with enough PPE, as they appropriately prioritized their supply to hospitals and front-line workers. At CNHP, thanks to an amazing team, we were able to find new vendors to ship PPE quickly, providing us with the necessary masks, gloves, gowns and face-shields for our students, faculty, and researchers who need them for courses, clinical placements and research.

CNHP also contributed to an interdisciplinary team at the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems to design and build face-shields for Philadelphia and regional hospitals and health systems. Their work focused on a reusable and flexible face-shield for frontline health care personnel. From request to initial production, the team pulled together a critically needed resource in-house very quickly, and to date has donated more than 30,000 face shields. Drexel University has acknowledged their incredible efforts by awarding them a Drexel Rapid Response Research & Development Fund.

On responding to the events of 2020:

Innovation drives our College activities and this year was no exception. I want to mention just a few of the numerous ways, through interdisciplinary collaborations and passion, that our community is part of Drexel’s great legacy of bringing knowledge to action through innovation.

From the outset of the pandemic, there was a collaboration between our College, the College of Medicine and the Dornsife School of Public Health to offer COVID-19 testing and tracing for the University. With the Nursing and Health Professions faculty from CNHP leading the testing and contact tracing teams, they have grown to include co-op students, graduate students, and volunteer student groups all contributing to the health and wellness of the Drexel community. The extraordinary dedication of this group to lead in a moment when the University needed them most is inspiring.

Teaching and learning innovations have been key to our shared success. Virtual reality has taken center stage in a few very important ways: faculty and professional staff have been instrumental in setting up creative and forward-thinking simulation lab experiences for the students, including an immersive virtual reality course beginning in the winter; and CNHP received four Rapid Response Grants from Drexel to address racism and racial injustice, one of which is being used to leverage immersive learning technology in a course called Examining Whiteness available for faculty and staff.

Our goal was to stay connected as a community during these challenging times. We started by opening up a dialogue about how we could meaningfully support them during this extraordinary year. Based on their feedback, we have taken the following steps: we offer research-informed best practices for working and learning remotely; we have an expert team of faculty leaders who connect with faculty weekly in both formal and informal ways to support their work; we have and will continue to hold Town Hall events for current students and their families; we host staff-led events and initiatives; and we have created an interdisciplinary student affairs committee.