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The Heart of Drexel’s Enterprise: A Continued Commitment to Academic Excellence

November 24, 2014

academic investments

There’s an evolution underway on the left bank of the Schuylkill River, and it’s changing everything.

When President John A. Fry came to Drexel University in 2010, he set Drexel on a course to become “a modern urban university of the future.” His vision called for a bigger, more engaged institution with global reach and an enhanced reputation for translational research.

Over the past five years, his ambitions have been visible in the cranes and construction scaffolds peppering campus. The 14-odd square blocks of Drexel’s University City Campus now boast stunning new architecture, shops and open spaces that infuse the area with fresh energy.

The campus is quickly becoming a vital center for intellectual exchange — there are now upgraded buildings and classrooms where students can gather and trade ideas, and outdoor spaces where they can meet with professors and peers.

Even as Drexel’s campus and amenities have improved dramatically, so too has the environment for learning and discovery. Superior academics rely on state-of-the art facilities, and in the past year, 84 cents of every dollar of Drexel’s direct capital spending has been dedicated to academic projects.

That’s equivalent to about $38,000 per full-time Drexel student — a number that exceeds spending by peer schools by several thousand on average.

Spending has gone toward the creation of a new, one-stop student services office; an impressive new business school building; and the creation or renovation of numerous learning spaces including URBN Center, Stratton Hall and Nesbitt Hall.

But buildings and facilities only go so far. Dedicated instructors are the cornerstone of a great student experience. Drexel has a higher ratio of faculty to administrators than most of its closest peer institutions, and Fry recently set a goal to recruit 100 new tenure-track faculty members over the next five years, with 66 new lines filled to date.

At Drexel’s 2014 Convocation, President Fry affirmed that academic investment has been his No. 1 budgetary priority since he took office.

It is my absolute commitment to keep the academic enterprise at the center of our University. That commitment has driven every decision I’ve made in the past four years. – President John Fry

“I know that the pace of change at Drexel has not slackened; and it won’t,” Fry said. “But it is not only our faculty and deans who keep our academic goals at the center of their plans. I reaffirm to you today that the University administration and the Board of Trustees do the same, and we will continue to do so, for as long as we are privileged to lead this great university.”

Fry pointed to the numbers as proof.

In fiscal year 2014, the University invested $21.4 million of new funding from the operating budget in academic initiatives. Fry also dedicated 61 percent of the Presidential Strategic Fund toward academic projects.

In all, 45 percent of all new strategic initiatives last year were academic in nature. That’s up from 20 percent when Fry took office.

“The statistics might be surprising, because we’ve continued to pursue transformative, high-profile projects outside the traditional academic sphere,” Fry acknowledged.

The University’s 2012 strategic plan called for greater global impact, economic development and the creation of a research and entrepreneurship hub around 30th Street Station — all of which have progressed alongside enrollment growth of 23 percent since 2009.

Drexel has extended its global reach with the establishment of a half dozen new strategic international collaborations, including the creation of the Drexel-SARI Center in China. Student entrepreneurialism is being fostered on campus through the Close School of Entrepreneurship, while faculty inventors can turn to a new incubator, Drexel Ventures. Innovators also have support through the new ExCITe Center and ic@3401, the University’s innovation hub.

Still, “the first question we ask when vetting our major projects is: Can this be done without shifting our focus from academics?” said Fry.

Drexel’s achievements have been made possible because of its innovative funding model based on smart partnerships with external developers, donors and institutions.  

For example, an inviting new outdoor gathering space called Perelman Plaza — Drexel’s answer to the quad — has been made a reality thanks to benefactor Ray Perelman, who shares the University’s vision for community.

Philanthropists Dana and David Dornsife and the late Phil Lindy have invested significant resources to help the University serve the community and build relationships within the Mantua and Powelton neighborhoods.

And in North Philadelphia, Drexel is expanding its 11th Street Family Health Services facility with a gift from Sandra and Stephen Sheller.

Last year, transformation began on two major campus arteries along Chestnut Street and Lancaster Avenue through land-lease deals with American Campus Communities, a national developer with expertise in mixed-use projects.

The savvy arrangement is bringing new retail, residences and street life to Drexel’s campus at no cost or risk to the University.

Currently, developers are competing to invest in similar arrangements that would flesh out Fry’s vision for the Innovation Neighborhood, a long-term project to transform the blocks around 30th Street Station into a high-tech business and education park for research and collaboration.

“We have no shortage of partners, both philanthropists and investors, ready to support our shared vision,” Fry said. “Each of those projects will have a huge positive impact on our academic enterprise in the long term, from the recruitment effects of a first-class campus environment and safe and vibrant neighborhood, to the academic space and research and co-op opportunities that we’ll build into the Innovation Neighborhood.”

Drexel’s emphasis on academic initiatives has not been solely financial. In the past year, Fry has announced several structural and administrative changes that will underscore and strengthen the University’s academic mission.

Starting in 2014, the University is moving to a new budget process that gives Drexel’s colleges and schools greater control over where they invest the revenue they generate.

“They decide how to invest it. They pay their own expenses. The connection between our academic priorities and our budget will be clearer than ever before,” said Fry.

Drexel also reorganized a number of colleges and schools to improve student experiences. The College of Computing & Informatics, for example, was formed from a collection of separate schools to put it in a better position to address critical challenges in information such as cybersecurity. The School of Education is now an independent unit and plays a key role in Drexel’s academic and civic activities around education. And this year marks the first full academic year for the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management.

The changes underway are even evident in the search for a new provost. The next academic leader at Drexel will hold a new title: provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. 

The national search to fill this new position marks a watershed moment for the University, according to Fry, because the role will entail increased impact and responsibilities — including overseeing the College of Medicine.

“That’s another major step in our continued pursuit of the ‘One University’ ideal,” Fry said. “Medicine is a central element to our vision for Drexel, and the College of Medicine deserves to be treated as part of our core academic enterprise.”

In the midst of all of this transformation, Fry said his dedication to academic achievement has not wavered since he assumed office in 2010.

“It is my absolute commitment to keep the academic enterprise at the center of our University,” Fry said. “That commitment has driven every decision I’ve made in the past four years.”