Drexel University had already been in the midst of preparing for its future by pre-planning and planning its 2020–2030 Strategic Plan. With the COVID-19 pandemic and attention to systemic racial injustice that unfolded in 2020, the faculty and professional staff that compose the Executive Planning Committee (EPC) are continuing to develop long term strategies to secure the University’s ability to succeed in future opportunities while overcoming potential obstacles through new frameworks and goals. As such, members of the EPC came together (virtually) to share these updates with the Drexel community at a July 28 event co-presented by Executive Vice President and Nina Henderson Provost Paul Jensen, PhD, and Chair of Drexel’s Faculty Senate and Associate Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Kevin Owens, PhD.
Those panelists were:
- Executive Vice President, Treasurer and Chief Operating Officer Helen Bowman, who is co-chairing the EPC’s coordination committee.
- Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Kim Gholston, who is heading Drexel’s Anti-Racism Task Force and will integrate that work through the coordination committee into the strategic planning process.
- Executive Vice Provost for Research & Innovation Aleister Saunders, PhD, who is co-chair of the EPC’s research committee.
- A. W. Grosvenor Professor in the College of Engineering Antonios Zavaliongos, who is co-chair of the EPC’s integration committee.
Below is a lightly abbreviated and edited transcript of the July 28 event:
Drexel President John Fry: Hello, everyone, and welcome. I'm so glad that we have this opportunity to pause amid all the turmoil of the last few months.
Today, we're going to engage in long-term thinking about the kind of university we want to be over the next decade, even with the COVID-19 pandemic and the important work we're undertaking to deal with systemic racism. We have been working on a parallel track to develop a strategic plan to guide us over the next 10 years.
This work has been done collaboratively by the Executive Planning Committee, or the EPC. I'm so grateful to this group of 22 faculty and professionals who have undertaken the work of expressing an institutional vision for Drexel through an updated strategic plan, the third such plan since 2011.
The EPC built upon extensive preplanning work beginning in 2018, with the participation from more than 80 members of the faculty and professional staff. This larger group researched and made recommendations regarding academic resource planning, student retention, institutional effectiveness and big ideas for thinking forward. And that helped point the way for the goals and strategy that the EPC is now exploring. Since November, the EPC has met regularly to digest the pre-planning recommendations, establish goals and talk about strategies to guide our work as a community moving forward.
The EPC's work has been rigorous, transparent and no holds barred. It is my expectation that, out of this, we will develop a plan that is bold and innovative, positioned right to seize the opportunity to lead — particularly in areas where we can have significant academic and social impact and distinguish our University. We've adapted this process to the digital credit driven by the pandemic, and at the same time, we are incorporating the early framework of the Anti-Racism Task Force into the University's goals and strategy.
As you will see, we are trying to seek strategies based on the current thinking about how universities will adapt in the years to come. It's challenging work, but we believe we are fortunate to be doing long-term planning at a moment in time when we can have the greatest impact on the future. And this process demonstrates our capacity to be nimble in the face of changing conditions which could serve us well as the higher end landscape alters in the coming years.
Today, you'll hear from several of the EPC members leading this effort, and I'm grateful to all of them for responding to the urgency of this moment.
I look forward to hearing back from faculty and professional staff and then refining strategies as we move towards a completed plan on the end of the calendar year.
Now, to share an overview of the strategic planning effort, I'm pleased to introduce Provost Paul Jensen. Paul will moderate our discussion and introduce the other panelists.
Paul Jensen: I first want to thank everyone for joining our community conversation today. It looks like we currently have over 300 people on. I appreciate everyone taking the time; your input to this plan, this process, is critical. I want to also thank all of you who in advance submitted questions and comments. We'll try to get to as many as we can.
I want to start by thanking our panelists. I also want to thank Kevin Owens, who has agreed to co-present with me today. Kevin and I started touring the colleges in the fall talking about strategic direction and the EPC and the planning process. We were somewhat interrupted by COVID-19. I think we got through about six colleges. We visited CNHP [College of Nursing and Health Professions] virtually in the spring and we plan to continue.
I also want to talk a little bit about this concept of "being agile." You'll notice that this word is used in a number of places and we mean this both for the University as a whole, as well as for the students themselves. We want the curriculum to be agile. We want to be able to look for the future, see how things are changing. We also want to be able to respond to changes in the research world. With the COVID-19 crisis, there were a lot of research groups here at the University that turned on a dime to start doing work on this as soon as that happened. This concept of agility is going through a number of these things.
In terms of some of the strategies, we boil it down to three high-level strategies: integrating research, teaching and particularly partnerships. This is building on what we have done in the past with co-op, our industry partners as well as with our community partners. We want to generate solutions to the challenges that we face again by building on experiential learning; this is more than just co-op. We want to look for the interdisciplinarity within the curriculum as well as in research. And then something very important goes back to the founding of Drexel: we want to increase access and reach and we want to take advantage of this situation we're going through right now with the COVID-19 crisis and our digital pivot and couple that with the commitment to social justice that we're going to talk about today.
Paul Jensen: We have a whole bunch of questions for our panelists and Kevin, actually, I'll start out with a question for you. How have your experiences in educating through the COVID-19 reframed the strategic planning process? Will Drexel take this time to re-evaluate, innovate our practices as a result of what we've experienced and hopefully learned from navigating COVID-19?
Kevin Owens: Certainly COVID-19 has changed our world. It has led us to think deeper about what a university is probably going to be in the future.
It's important to remember where we started. The planning for strategic planning groups, they actually worked over a year ago. We started working in November thinking about the differences at the University at that point. Like the rest of the world, we're only slowly starting to see the pandemic starting to happen. We were already considering the demographic cliff of 2026, with the downturn of 18-year-olds in 2026. As COVID-19 hit, and we had a situation with all of a sudden people are rethinking thinking about going to university and certainly that's translated itself into enrollment in the fall for first time students, the saying that's come up is that 2026 is now.
As we've looked at what's happened, we've realized that the co-op system was maybe a little bit more fragile than we thought it was. We have to think about what to do about digital co-ops or remote co-ops and collaboration with our co-op employers. Some of these employers have difficulty in hiring all the students that they initially tried to do.
This kind of showed us some of the limitations of a face-to-face university. In some areas we need in-person experience, like in the laboratory sciences and engineering and design studios in Westphal. Our shift to digital was a little less satisfying in some of those areas. We have to figure out how to do a better job there. We are not an online university. We've switched to the online remote, as most other universities have in the country. It’s something we’re still trying to understand and still trying to figure out how to do better.
Paul Jensen: When we first went remote in March, I remember having a conversation with John [Fry] about the fact that this was going to change us forever. At that moment, we started having discussions about, just from a structure point of view, enrollment management for face-to-face programs and online programs, and we need to maybe rethink some of our systems and practices in more of a hybrid world. I know Evelyn Thimba [Senior Vice President of Enrollment Management] and Elizabeth Van Bockstaele [Senior Vice President of Graduate and Online Education and Dean of the Graduate College] are having those kinds of conversations.
Let's go to our next question. Helen, I think this is a question for you. Many students are studying virtually and now live off campus, causing Drexel's off-campus housing to be vacant and not adding to the revenue of the University. Is there a possibility that this housing could be offered a short-term listing for graduate students and or employees?
Helen Bowman: Based on our current housing applications, the city's requirements for social distancing, the requirement to move to singles, and the need to maintain about 10 percent of our housing stock for quarantine purposes, we do not currently have housing available for graduate students and our employees. That said, we'd always be willing to consider this on a case-by-case basis. Also, if for some reason the University is required to go totally remote, we could certainly consider this as an option and would do so.
I will point out, however, to receive and realize significant savings to offset the housing revenue that would be lost, should we be totally remote, it's much easier to totally close a hall versus keeping it open for a few. That would be the back and forth of conversation that we as a University would have to consider.
Paul Jensen:. I have two questions that are related, about diversity and inclusion and anti-racism. I'll read both questions and then ask Kim and Aleister to comment.
How will our anti-racism strategy be considered with respect to our overall strategic vision? That's the first question. And then the related question: discuss plans to improve diversity and inclusion among faculty, staff and students. Also discuss plans to fund research initiatives to maintain our R1 status.
Kim Gholston: In order for either strategy to be considered successful, the anti-racism strategy has to be embedded in our overall strategic vision in order to create, disseminate and leverage knowledge, provide solutions for our world, which is our vision. As the Anti-Racism Task Force begins to work to dismantle racism in University policies and practices, it will be important for us to get comfortable with the uncomfortable so that we truly empower students from all backgrounds, provide development and investment opportunities for our faculty and professional staff, and look into our neighboring communities to provide community-driven transformation. This will help to propel and realize our overall strategic vision.
Aleister Saunders: Briefly, I completely agree with everything [Gholston] said. I think there's a lot of tactical approaches we can take and I think we've been discussing those in the EPC. But it's critical that the goals and the strategies overall are embedded with anti-racism efforts so we can come up with a number of different tactics to achieve that goal.
Kim Gholston: So the second part of your question was around diversity and inclusion among the staff and students. When President Fry formed the Anti-Racism Task Force in response to George Floyd's tragic death and the protests that followed, the EPC began working to ensure that the work of the Anti-Racism Task Force helped to inform the strategic plan. The EPC was already focused on diversity and inclusion in their planning, mostly through the lens of enrollment and providing access to education and also understanding the talent acquisition and retention of faculty and professional staff. The work of the Anti-Racism Task Force broadens this for us.
We have individual subcommittees that are focused on the recruitment of prospective students. We're looking at undergraduate student life, graduate and doctoral student life and the recruitment and retention of professional staff and faculty. We have a specific focus on creating a culture that gives all a sense of belonging. This will be an iterative process and we expect that the plans to evolve in response to each other.
Aleister Saunders: I'll follow up with the question about plans to fund research initiatives to maintain R1 status. In the EPC, we've talked many times about the importance of maintaining that status.
We're also developing our own internal metrics so we can measure success against our strategies and the goals that we're developing for increasing basic and applied research. We've discussed a number of different tactics to support that goal of growth of research, which includes identifying areas of current strength, responding to opportunities, anticipating possible trends and planting seeds to create a bunch of other areas that will blossom into new strengths down the road.
We've talked about different funding approaches. We're also trying to create clear assessment and evaluation tools to provide transparency around that, but also a path for us to decide what we're going to invest in, because we're going to do that as a group. No one unit can decide we're going to do this. We need to do this together because that will make us stronger.
We've evaluated our current research strengths and our gaps and how we can tie research more tightly to our curricular offerings. At this point, we’ve come up with sort of three broad focus areas of health, technology and design. Our strategies and our tactics are focused on how to integrate those into the research curricular activities, experiential learning as well as partnerships to expand research across the University.
Paul Jensen: This is a question about global; Antonios, maybe you can take a shot at this. I'm wondering why there isn't any mention of global in the strategies and why it doesn't seem to be a priority, given that it isn't used in the mission statement.
Antonios Zavaliongos: Global is moving through many goals and strategies and it's definitely important. It is actually explicitly mentioned in strategies related to partnerships and also increasing access and leads. As we move forward, then the text is fine-tuned, and it may actually become more explicit.
There is absolutely no doubt that a strong global presence is a desire and attribute for any university, not just that it opens new markets, but it offers a broad perspective to students, faculty and administration. If you think about it, recent scholarship and creativity in the most competitive forums are global. Online is inherently global and maybe hybrid as well. If you consider cultural awareness, it is definitely more complete when it is considered in its global form. All these are actually fundamental aspects of the strategic plan research, educational delivery, cultural awareness and partnerships.
This strategic plan is making a systematic effort to develop a differentiating character for Drexel as a competitive university, and that is based on strengths and assets. The plan attempts to build and strengthen a unique academic narrative that would supplement the easy arguments that we have, with the location and the co-op.
Paul Jensen: Our next question is an RCM question for Helen. Can you describe in detail the operation of any RCM changes planned by the EPC in relation to the following components of RCM that will impact both research and individual college freedom to operate? Concerns are in three areas: any year-to-year retention of overages by the colleges; number two, the research incentive and reimbursements; and number three, the indirect cost funds flow to colleges. In what ways do you expect that the changes will help or impact research and support our R1 status in these complex times?
Helen Bowman: So as far as what is EPC doing? There are recommendations from the preplanning group, the academic resource planning group, and there were recommendations that came out of that that the coordination committee is working to ensure that that committee moves forward with the recommendations. Many of those recommendations center on the allocation of support and retention. What it's missing today, I'd say, is the accountability of the model. We have to commit to the next steps of our system.
As far as addressing any year-to-year retention of overage, or what was called “in the black funds,” the real goal is, if at any end of year a primary unit is in surplus, that they will be eligible for the gain sharing retention. Each unit would have the ability then to bank and utilize this gain sharing methodology to build up their RCM-designated funds so they can invest in themselves rather than coming to Central. The remaining percentage would then be used to help support overall University strategic initiatives, both for the provost and for the president, as well as ensure financial stability across the board for the University. This gain sharing will also be made available not only to the academic units, but also to administrative and support units, because we want to encourage and incentivize them to also ensure proper budgeting and financial discipline.
All of this is under the assumption that this is post-COVID-19 and the University's financial stability will allow for this gain sharing, because that's where the current RCM model is falling short. That said, if a unit is in a deficit, then we would have to have the conversation to talk about accountability standards, including either a repayment of that deficit or some financial plan to address it moving forward. That's the goal for FY22.
As far as the research incentive or reimbursement, the current and the future model contains a research allocation to each school based on their three-year average of sponsored research activity. This amount is allocated currently calculated at 20 percent of the undergraduate face-to-face net tuition revenue. It's allocated to the school and is factored into their financial performance, and that helps determine that surplus or deficit. While there's no direct reimbursement of this allocation, it is part of the individual score of the college's financial model. Then it's the responsibility of the school to build this allocation into their overall financial plan to include incentives within the school. We need to work to build those incentives so that the research incentives are within each school.
Lastly, the research buyout and the indirect cost recovery portion of the question will no longer be necessary under the gain sharing methodology as far as it's a holistic view of the primary unit's financial performance. To compensate for the indirect cost recovery in the budget process, all units will be permitted to keep 100 percent of their budget of this indirect revenue into their financial plan. This is a draft within the current model that the coordination committee is discussing with various deans of schools and colleges, as well as Faculty Senate, Aleister and Paul.
Paul Jensen: Aleister, how does the plan affect the Academy of Natural Science and how is ANS represented in this process?
Aleister Saunders: In terms of ANS representation, there are 22 members of the EPC representing the academic and administrative parts of the University. We weren't able to have representation from every unit. We're looking for feedback from ANS in venues like this and we're considering ANS' value to the University's expertise in crafting the strategic plan.
In addition, ANS needs to align to the strategic plan, just like any other member unit of the University, and that's for its own benefit. ANS is a unique and valuable asset. If you've been there, if you've seen the collections, it's just breathtaking what they have, the research expertise they have, the partnerships they have. the civic engagement activities that are current and possible are very impressive. What we have to do with ANS is to realize the opportunities that ANS can provide to us. Also, ANS has to realize the opportunities the University can provide to them.
Having said that, we know that ANS' new strategic plan explicitly states its desire to become one with the University. It’s much more aligned with our curricular and research activities. In the weeks ahead, ANS leadership is convening a group of faculty and leadership from the College of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences to align efforts and the opportunities regarding climate change. ANS offers a number of opportunities across focus areas and gives us an opportunity to integrate research curricula, experiential learning and civic engagement, as well as opening up opportunities for new partnerships regionally, nationally and globally.
The other thing that ANS provides is a very unique venue or stage. This is a museum that's meant to house the general public. We need to leverage that. If you've ever been to the events there, it's a great stage for not just what happens in the Academy, but I think what happens in the University. As we finalize our strategic plan, the alignment with ANS and their desire to be aligned with the University is critical and becoming one with the University is going to benefit all of us.
Paul Jensen: Our next question, Helen, is for you. Everyone is concerned about the financial future of University in light of the pandemic. I am sure we would appreciate as much information as possible about how the University will survive the enormous budget shortfalls that result from this.
Helen Bowman: Yes, this is complicated. And actually, there's another question out there that I feel like I need to answer before getting into the details of this one: at what point do the challenges Drexel face justify drawing funds out of our endowment?
Drexel has already asked the Board of Trustees to increase its draw to six percent from its current 4.75 percent. We actually did mention going as high as the allowable seven percent and they were open to that possibility. Every one percent increase in the draw does lead to about 5.3 million dollars in additional spend. I'd be remiss to say the more you take today, the less we'll have in the future. That said, we have to balance both the today and the future.
Just last week, the University successfully went to the bond market with a 256.4-million-dollar debt issuance that was almost four times oversubscribed, which means there is great interest in Drexel out in the bond market due to the strength of Drexel's credit. Both Moody's and S&P reaffirmed our ratings when we went out to the bond market and it was oversubscribed, leading to an extremely favorable interest rate for the University with the primary purpose of refinancing all of our outstanding variable rate debt. That de-risks the entire debt portfolio, and also allowed us to pay back several of the loans that the University took from its own endowment to acquire St. Christopher's and to build out at Bentley Hall.
All those funds will be paid back to the endowment by Aug. 3, and that's over 80 million dollars of funds. Those funds will be invested to remain liquid in case the University needs those funds from the endowment. I wanted to go over that first because that addresses some of the liquidity and some of the things that we proactively did and timed, thankfully perfectly, to help the University through these troubling times.
In addition to that debt issuance and the endowment opportunities that we have, the University proactively secured three additional lines of credit with three different institutions to provide additional liquidity if need be. These are there as an insurance policy. They are not things that we are using today, they are things we are using in case the pandemic effect lasts longer than anticipated.
There are many short-term initiatives undertaken this year to address FY21 to help. The pandemic happened quickly, and we needed to do some short-term things. But longer term, we need more permanent initiatives to address and assess what is needed to be done to balance FY22 and beyond. And so, as chair of the coordination committee, I can also report that this committee is championing various efficiency initiatives identified in the University's preplanning work, ranging from organizational structures, duplication and administrative structures. We know we need improved communications, top down, bottom up and lateral, and we're going to address those. We have policies and processes that are not allowing us to be nimble. There were about 20 initiatives and we are ensuring that the work continues so that we can set the University up to be as efficient and effective as possible. We're also looking at the other pre-planning work to determine what should be transitioned to the integration committee so it can be part of a strategic plan, including the Anti-Racism Task Force work.
In addition, we're talking a lot about the expense structure here, but we also have to look at what key investments are needed so that we can continue to grow. We have powerful growth opportunities in many of our schools and colleges, and we have to prioritize our investments into those areas to help the University further support future growth. As Paul mentioned, he's also looking at academic initiatives at this time.
Paul Jensen: I think what's interesting about the question for me is that when I started working with Kevin in the fall, we thought we were thinking ahead to the demographic shifts that are expected in 2026 and we anticipated working on two things: growing new revenue streams in the future, growing new programs in the future, but simultaneously being prepared to have a smaller student body.
This crisis has just brought that 2026 moment to us now. We have to continue to try to grow where we can, but we have to be prepared to scale. I've had discussions with deans and with Faculty Senate about thinking through our academic structure in terms of efficiency. We need to evaluate our academic programs and see where there are opportunities to consolidate programs. We have a plan where even if we do become a smaller university, we will still be a high-quality, large private research university.
Kevin, I'll ask you to start with our next question. Describe the process that will be used to integrate and focus curriculum to create clusters around broad sectors. What does this mean in terms of existing programs? What does this mean in terms of existing colleges, schools, departments? How will the University ensure that faculty are involved and able to select their own representatives to any groups with the mandate to change the curriculum? What process will be used to ensure that changes are reviewed and approved by faculty?
Kevin Owens: Certainly, I think, related to your last comment about consolidations, there's been a lot of discussion amongst faculty about consolidations and what that means. The whole idea of realigning — and, maybe if you want to call it resorting — of programs and departments: of course, people are worried about this. One way you could look at it, though, is also about breaking down silos. Faculty are going to be absolutely involved in this process.
Some people might be concerned with, are we going to be picking winners and losers in this process? If you look at the University as a whole, we have a large fraction of the University devoted to health sciences, but there are a lot of other areas at the University that have a lot of success. There are the MXenes that were developed in Material Sciences improving battery technology and energy-related stuff. We have the functional fabrics area. Aleister mentioned that the Academy of Natural Sciences has been working on its own strategic plan and mentioned the environmental collaboratory and the whole concept of climate change. There are significant needs in the world that are way beyond just health care. These are all things that we can participate in.
A lot of things are interdisciplinary and we need to encourage people to work together. We have to develop good evaluation processes around here. Many of you probably remember the DAREs and the MPVs that started a number of years ago. We have to evaluate these things. We have to build on the strengths and improve upon the weaknesses. One of the things that I talked about in Faculty Senate is we have to develop a new PAR process. We need to think as a team and we have to work as a team.
As the chair of the Faculty Senate, one of the things I'm going to say is that I think as faculty, we need to educate ourselves about what is the business of higher education. We can't just ignore the concepts of revenue and expense, but we maybe have to also educate some of our administrative colleagues on the practice of higher education and that they go beyond the concepts of revenue and expense. There's a lot of work for us to do. We have to do it together.
Paul Jensen: I think that for us to move forward in terms of curricula in academics, the idea of shared governance — the provost office, Faculty Senate and the deans and schools and colleges working together — is absolutely critical.
Antonios, how has our expected enrollment, new and returning students for the upcoming full term, affected our strategic plan?
Antonios Zavaliangos: The enrollment issue actually has three different components. One is the dropping in freshman enrollment, and that corresponds to roughly a four percent revenue reduction on the basis of the overall undergraduate revenue in a five-year horizon. This is a problem that many units of the University are trying hard to decrease its magnitude.
The second one is the issue of international students, primarily the international students that are outside the country, new ones in particular. That is something that plays out in the national scene right now.
The third one is the unknown issue of the effect of COVID-19 on the retention of current students.
In the context of this strategic plan, number one, the drop in freshmen is important because it has a corrosion of five years. The second one is hard to consider within the strategic plan because it plays currently and perhaps there will be changes in a few months about it. The third one, which is the issue of retention: my personal feeling is that it's not going to be as large as I was afraid of it in May. An indication for this is that summer enrollment is pretty much on par, maybe a little bit more than last year. Maybe some of that increase comes from co-op students that didn't get a co-op and got a couple of courses. Of course, it's an unknown.
From this strategic point of view, the enrollment issues present an additional financial constraint. It puts an increased weight on the financial performance of the University and the awareness that we have, at least those of us on the academic side, about the importance of better stewardship of resources.
I would say that COVID-19 overall also had some positive effects. I want to single out particularly the transition to remote, which enabled several of us, myself included, to see online and hybrid with a completely different point of view. This was experiential learning in action. Obviously that experience affected the opinions of some of us in the EPC.
Paul Jensen: We apologize for not being able to get everyone's question today, but we have collected all the questions and feedback and we will be working to respond to those questions and to integrate that feedback into the planning process in parallel. Kevin and I will be continuing to work with the schools and colleges and of course, we'll continue to develop the plan over the summer, working with Faculty Senate and the schools and colleges. We will be working on the implementation plan this fall. So, again, your feedback and continued engagement through the summer and the fall will be critical. I want to thank you again for giving us time this afternoon for this discussion and all your feedback and suggestions. We look forward to further discussion.