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Convocation 2019

Drexel University 2019 Convocation Address
by Scott Gabriel Knowles

One of the University's oldest traditions, Convocation 2019 brought the University community together to celebrate the start of a new academic year on September 26. During the Convocation ceremony, the Drexel community recognized the celebration of 100 years of cooperative education. Drexel administrators, faculty, and students all spoke about the history and importance of our co-op program and how it has set the Drexel education apart for over a century. Among other remarks, keynote speaker Scott Knowles, PhD, department head and professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, provided more context to this rich history of co-op and the ways in which Drexel and the co-op program — both historically and today — can affect change in times of “great crisis.” Read the full keynote address by selecting the blue box to the right.

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Convocation 9.26.19

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What can Drexel and other schools like it do in this time of great crisis?

Drexel University Convocation Address
Scott Gabriel Knowles
26 September 2019

President Fry, Provost Blake, Chairman Greenawalt, distinguished faculty colleagues, inquisitive students, amazing staff, loyal alumni, I offer you warm greetings this morning and I welcome you all to the new Drexel University academic year.

Convocation is a celebration focused on what we aspire to accomplish in the year ahead. And with that in mind, I hope you will forgive me as I dive directly into serious matters. “The part that trained minds are to have in saving the world from destruction is our great interest today. What can . . . Drexel . . . and other schools like it do in this time of great crisis?”

Last year well over a million students—led by mass shooting survivors from Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Florida—filled the streets of cities around the world in the March for Our Lives, demanding awareness and legislative action on gun violence. Likewise, across the nation students are at the head of movements for gender equality, the right of inclusion for the disabled, and LGBTQ liberation. Just last week, an estimated four million students around the world, and thousands right here in Philadelphia, led the greatest mass movement for climate change action we have yet seen. At the broadest level there is a very real worry that capitalism and democracy as they currently operate—the systems these young people are poised to enter and spend their lives shaping—may not be fair or even sustainable systems much longer. 

Even those young people not in the streets and carrying banners share similar concerns. A major recent poll of Americans between ages 18 and 29 found that 59% believe “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing,” and only 16% believe that elected officials care about their views.

These young people want change, you can see in their eyes and hear in their words their impatience with institutional inertia and the status quo.

And so, once again, this is the question I bring to you today: “What can . . . Drexel . . . and other schools like it do in this time of great crisis?”

This is my question. But in fact it’s a question I’ve borrowed word-for-word for this important occasion. It is a question posed almost precisely 100 years ago, in 1919, by Drexel’s second President, Hollis Godfrey, at the Drexel Institute commencement exercises in June of that year.

Let me take you back now, to Godfrey’s time, so that we can see the crisis of 1919 with more clarity, and hear his words more urgently. Godfrey addressed the Drexel community in 1919 only 10 days before the Treaty of Versailles was signed, a treaty that brought a formal end to the Great War. Their Great War, what we now call World War I, resulted in approximately 19 million military deaths. Closely connected was the great Influenza of 1918, which led to an estimated 50 million deaths globally. It was also a war that spawned war, in its midst giving rise to the 1917 Russian Revolution and the founding of the Soviet Union. Lynchings and segregation terrorized African Americans in the Jim Crow south, while race riots tore through northern cities, including Philadelphia in the summer of 1918. Suffragists protested outside the White House, demanding action on voting rights for women, with many among them regularly hauled away to jail and prosecuted. Labor leader Eugene Debs was arrested in 1918 for protesting the war, and mounted a Presidential candidacy from prison as strikes swept the country and the Justice Department planned major raids and deportations of politically active immigrants. The world was cracking along every fault line.

Drexel’s President Godfrey looked at those cracks and thought about what it all meant for the school he led. “In such time of crisis as we are in today,” he told his audience in 1919, “the educational policy of the Drexel Institute . . . affects the bread you eat, the clothes you wear and the work you do and may affect, as it did in the great war, your very life itself.”

Godfrey was a graduate of MIT, an engineer who had trained with the famous “efficiency expert” Frederick Taylor in Philadelphia, before undertaking a major study of the city’s streetlight system. Drexel’s trustees, seeking a new President, took note. He was already among the most famous and prolific engineers in America when he was brought on board as President of the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in 1913. When he arrived, Godfrey found an institution just over 20 years old, not yet granting degrees. He set out to transform Drexel away from a vocational school and into a technical institute with three schools: engineering was the centerpiece, focused on training young men for industrial leadership. Domestic Science and Arts focused on training young women, and the Secretarial School, later becoming Business Administration, rounded out the trio. Drexel history professor Tiago Saraiva, writing in the 125th anniversary history of Drexel, tells us that President Godfrey “planned to make Drexel a ‘demonstration plant’ of the value of scientific management in engineering education.” 

Formal engineering education then was still very new in America, and the place of these engineers in society was still uncertain. Godfrey demanded a “scientific outlook” towards global challenges, rooted in a confidence that engineers were uniquely equipped in this age of technological wonders, and horrors, to answer the call to public service.

Godfrey’s tenure at Drexel played out as Europe threw itself into war. And in 1917 the United States entered that war. He took up service for President Woodrow Wilson, becoming a primary steward of the newly-minted Council of National Defense. In this role, Godfrey grew distressed over the lack of public enthusiasm for the war effort, over the labor unrest and the slowness of industry to meet military needs, and the lack of technically-trained managers to oversee tasks that he and his colleagues saw as the “life and death tasks” of democracy itself. In the Council, Godfrey represented American institutions of higher education. Back on campus, Godfrey implored a Drexel convocation audience in 1917 to see his side of things: “Education and industry finally will come together,” Godfrey implored. “We now are of one idea and one purpose, and that is to serve.” 

But how could higher education—how could the Drexel Institute—meet such an enormous need? In thinking it through, Godfrey emphasized what he called the tradition of the “Drexel idea”—the idea that animated A.J. Drexel’s founding of the institution in 1891, a commitment to education as a tool for social progress and enhanced quality of life for working Philadelphians. 

In the winter of 1919, with the Great War at last at an end, Godfrey’s future vision for Drexel fully crystalized. He proposed a new formulation of the Drexel idea: the creation of a cooperative learning program, “the Drexel co-op”—today a central part of a Drexel education, for which we celebrate a centennial anniversary with pride this year.

Godfrey imagined that cooperative students would spend time in classes but also on the factory floor, at the lab bench—the structure of their educational program would itself be a marriage of the theoretical and the applied, in the spirit of training young people to meet the demands of public service so acutely present during the Great War. Certainly the co-op was a program of career preparation. Co-op was also imagined, crucially, to be an instrument for students to help pay for their education as they proceeded, not inconsequential for students then, or for students today.

But we must be careful not to leave out of the history Godfrey’s sense of why it was so important for cooperative education graduates to join the ranks of industry and government in that unsettled time: it was to them, Godfrey believed, that fell the challenges of forging ahead with industrial progress, protecting and expanding democracy, and preventing future wars. 

That was pretty bold, in a crucial way it was a re-invention of the Institute. And yet, none of it would have mattered had students—the young people entering the world ravaged by disease and war—not have been willing to share the vision and follow the uncertain curricular path of the Drexel co-op—one part theoretical and academic, and one part applied and “of the world.” 

It’s important to note that revolutions make new worlds, but they also reinforce existing orders as well. The same can be said of Drexel in the early years of the co-op. It’s critical to see who was and who was not part of Godfrey’s vision for cooperative learning. The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 opened the way to a different society, but nothing was granted, and women had to form coalitions, and demand changes in their homes, their workplaces, and their schools. At Drexel, women took up co-op training through the Secretarial and Domestic Science schools, but women were segregated from engineering until World War II. African Americans were almost entirely absent from the Institute in these years. Godfrey’s vision of an institute finely tuned to serve industrial democracy did not include the advancement of civil rights any more than the industrial firms that Drexel students would enter, the military ranks they would join, or the government agencies in which they would serve.

In 1921 Godfrey left Drexel, moved to Boston, and founded a post-graduate management training school. But the co-operative program that he left behind remained, prospered, and within a generation became the defining feature of a Drexel education. By 1925 every Drexel engineering student was in a co-op program, with business administration adopting the co-op in 1926, and retail management in 1929. In 1936, the year Godfrey died, the Drexel Institute was renamed the Drexel Institute of Technology. The transformation Godfrey had begun during the crisis was complete.

We know what happened next—the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, World War II. Industry failed, and then industry was revitalized towards war-making production in a manner never yet seen in human history. How did these co-op students of Drexel fare in this environment? How did their co-op training prepare them for the uncertainties of the economy, and of the world? The enduring desire of students to embrace this mode of applied learning through World War II, even through the regional industrial collapse and another reinvention of Drexel in the 1990s, speaks to the resilience of the co-op, and to its enduring value as an institutional anchor. It is not and has never been merely a way to “pay for college,” if so it would have outlived its promise and possibility years ago.

So, it’s not just a coincidence that we discover and rediscover the Drexel idea today, 100 years after Godfrey’s “crisis” speech. It is a requirement that we do so in order to be honest and careful with our institutional history. It is a foundation upon which to build the University that we want to see in the future.

According to data kindly provided by the Steinbright Career Development Center, the hard working unit that manages co-op, last year, 92% of Drexel undergraduates participated in co-op. It remains our defining educational element. Do we still have the will and the ability to support students who spend time with us, as they prepare to meet the global crises of their time; do we still value the co-op as an instrument that makes Drexel uniquely fit for such a heavy task? How can faculty and staff across the institution intellectually prepare, ethically prepare, our students as they work to translate their lessons from class to the workplace, to the sphere of public service, and back again. These are not easy tasks to face. 

And so, I think once again of the climate marches last week. Some of those students are here on campus today, some will be with us next year, and the years afterwards—perhaps my own children among them. Does the co-op meet their demands for change? How can we, the students, the faculty and the staff, and the leaders of this institution make it and the university that supports it even more inclusive, more bold? 

In closing, I think also of another crucial finding in the poll of young Americans I mentioned earlier: 53% of them still trust colleges and universities to do the right thing in these times. That statistic might give us some comfort compared to the other statistics I cited, but it should also give us the conviction to ask the hardest questions of ourselves as we continue the tradition of a Drexel co-op educational model.

We have before us the example of our history, of 1919 and the decades and changes that have made co-op more inclusive, more international, more diverse, and stronger since then. We can bring that history to bear on our moment in time. 

I humbly bring that charge to all of us today as we enter this new academic year. May it be one of great intellectual excitement, concentrated service, impactful co-ops—and a renewed spirit of purpose for us all.

Thank you.

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