Q&A with Executive Vice President and Provost M. Brian Blake

M. Brian Blake

In November, Brian Blake had been at Drexel for just three months. In that time, he’d met everyone, found a Chestnut Hill home for his family (his wife Bridget is a fellow Georgia Tech engineer and Johns Hopkins MBA who works remotely for The MITRE Corp.), enrolled his sons Brendan (11) and Bryce (4) in school, and even traveled to Asia to help cultivate Drexel’s international partnerships. It had been a whirlwind, but he had survived Drexel’s probationary rite-of-passage: The first 90 days.

Not that there was any question of whether he was the right executive vice president and provost for Drexel.

With a résumé packed with impressive credentials in teaching, research and administration, plus a personal history steeped in experiential learning, Blake is equipped to put Drexel’s academics and research on an ambitious path while enhancing the University’s stature as a co-op leader in higher education.

He’s announced some of his ideas already — videos are coming in from students interested in being part of his Dragon-24 student advisory group and he’s building a committee to improve teaching and learning assessments. More of his plans and thoughts will become known as he releases routine blogs to the University community.

In the meantime, let’s make this about us. We want to know, what were Blake’s first impressions of Drexel?

Q: You spent your first 90 days visiting deans and talking with administrators and faculty. What was the takeaway? Did you learn anything that surprised you?

A: This may surprise some people, but the level of collaboration here is much higher than at any other place I’ve been. There are hotspots with respect to strong personalities, but if you take a temperature map, it’s not as intense as other places, and I really appreciate that.

I also think Drexel has an impressive number of contemporary, first-class schools that could not be achieved at other institutions. For example, in my past institutions, media arts and design have been pieces of programs, so having a phenomenal facility like Westphal, with design, fashion, gaming and performing arts all in one school, is amazing.

Drexel also has a unique structure, in context of my past institutions, considering the significant body of teaching faculty and adjuncts alongside tenure-track faculty, which I think is an advantage for Drexel. The amount of teaching faculty is much higher than other private, research universities. When I first came I couldn’t really understand it, but when I saw how it operates, I realized how valuable it is. Here, teaching faculties have the ability to make a big impact and innovate; they are free to change their areas and reinvent themselves. In universities that are too heavily stacked with tenure-track faculty, research dominates the conversation and over time, I think the attention to teaching gets somewhat diminished.

Q: With your background in teaching, research and private industry, you could choose from many career paths. What made you decide on higher education administration?

A: In graduate school, I finished my master’s degree while working at Lockheed Martin, where I worked for a small consulting arm of the company. Our unit received projects to join the engineering groups of different Lockheed sites where software teams were at risk. Our job was to address the unsolvable problems. If you saw members of our team coming, you knew your project was in bad shape. I loved that work! That’s where I learned the term “stick-with-it-ness”….not solving a problem was not an alternative.

I sought a PhD in software engineering because I wanted to run a company like that. Then someone asked me, “You’re getting a teaching degree and you have never even considered teaching?” I remember vividly that afternoon sending emails to Georgetown, Howard, John Hopkins and Marymount universities asking if I could teach a software engineering course. I got replies back the next morning (this was 2000 when it was very en vogue to be a computer scientist). I eventually taught a course at Georgetown.

I had fun with the course and realized that I really enjoy teaching and working with students. I received offers after graduation but Georgetown said, “We will match those and we will also allow you to consult.” So for the next seven or eight years I continued to consult and be a professor at the same time.

My first administrative role was in my seventh year. I had just been granted tenure when I was nominated for chair. Some mentors said, “It’s crazy to do that,” and other mentors said, “If you don’t do it, how will you know whether being a chair is for you?” I ended up getting elected to the role and it took about a half a second for me to realize that I had found a calling. Being the chair of computer science at Georgetown meant that you interacted at the highest offices in government and industry — imagine being in your office on a Thursday and getting a call from some presidential staffer inviting you to the Capitol building on Friday. It is at Georgetown where I first led the creation of a new graduate program.

From that role is where I started to receive a string of very nice opportunities  — I was called to consider being an associate dean, I was later called to consider being a dean. I’ve had great transitions, great interactions and we’ve started many more academic programs. The best opportunity by far is here at Drexel.

Q: This will be the first year in 16 that you haven’t also been teaching. Do you miss it?

A: I do, but it’s important when you teach to have a clear focus, so as dean I was selfish because I was like, “if I’m teaching, I’m teaching” and I focused on the class. But I admit that I also felt a bit scattered the last time I offered a course. It’s a huge rift because you’re in meetings all day and then you must quickly change context. I miss teaching, but I don’t miss that rift.

Q: How will all of those years of teaching and your other experience help you as a provost?

A: I understand the classroom, and I have been a researcher for many years, and I still advise PhD students, so I’m a true academic because I’ve been engaged and I’m so close to it. Some administrators may have stopped doing research as a dean or may have stopped doing research as a chair or associate dean. I’m still doing research so there’s no disconnect from knowledge of what it takes to be a professor and my decision-making as a provost.

Q: What is your research right now?

A: Software engineering. Right now, we’re investigating how you take people’s social networking profiles and assign them to crowd-sourcing tasks most effectively. For example, the Boston marathon bombing was one of the first times the FBI released a picture asking for the public’s help. They were flooded with more information than they could process, but the FBI released it because they wanted to do the investigation in just a couple days. So if you have all this information and you have image-recognition software that can do some things but that is  limited in capabilities to do other things, your best resource may be actually having people help you with some aspects of the job, and some people are going to be more effective based on their context, such as where they live or who they know. So we might look at whether you should have people go through the data first, or use machines first and then people. It is basic resource allocation: Who and in what order do you use people or software resources to complete a large data analysis task.

Q: If there’s one thing you could transform about Drexel during your time here, what would it be?

A: I would love to see the true story of Drexel get out more broadly. When I was hired here a mentor said, “Oh it’s good, they have a focus on engineering.” Drexel’s reputation is very good regionally, but it tends to be constrained around STEM. Some people think that Drexel is just a regional school, or even a Catholic school. And some people just haven’t heard about it.

One thing we’re going to do is what we call an “academic campaign,” where we’re going to develop materials so that we can reproduce the magic of Drexel across the country. The idea is to go to a couple of places a year and meet with guidance counselors, students and alumni in areas such as Texas, California or Chicago. We might take students from our Dragon-24 group, as well as faculty, and perhaps some Provost Fellows and some administrators and…we’ll do a road show. And in the same vein I want to write op-ed pieces. The environment here is so unique, but I think the incredible Drexel story is not as widely spread as it could be.

Q: You’ve announced some initiatives you’ll be pursuing — for instance, projects to stimulate interdisciplinary research and market-based startup academic programs. What are some areas you think should be given priority attention?

A: In my first year it’s difficult to know what areas people are most compelled by, so when you make these decisions they can’t be top down; they’ve got to be mostly bottom up.

One initiative is the Drexel Areas of Research Excellence (DARE), where we’ll fund up to four planning grants to support the development of multidisciplinary research efforts. We sent out a call for that in January and we’ll hopefully have some submissions around March, with the idea being that it will start in the next academic year. From the bottom up, the competitions allow the community to decide what areas they think are most fruitful. The idea is to allow the Provost Office to capture information from both ends, through both competition as well as assessments, and use it to develop promising areas.

One area that is strong at Drexel is urbanism. We have many units that are doing things related to innovations in an urban area. So, if we can combine the work, we can develop distinctive multidisciplinary innovations that other institutions can’t do because they do not have the breadth of competencies.

Q: Your first message to the University community was titled, “Reinventing the Academic Experience in the 21st Century.” What does a 21st-century university look like to you?

A: If you look at a place that’s more of an Ivy League school, it’s very legacy — they have traditional arts and science and engineering and maybe business disciplines. I think those places are limited in how they connect the dots. At Drexel we are not purely theoretical; we have the ability to develop programs where students get a theoretical education that’s completely infused with application and hands-on design. The fact that we are broader than other institutions in the country is amazing. I think the next great institutions of this century will not aspire to look like Harvard looked 300 years ago; to be truly one-of-a-kind, they’re going to want to look more like Drexel.

Q: What is the one thing you want faculty and staff to know about you?

A: I like to think I’m really flexible, and I’m OK with being wrong. I’m happy to change direction if a path that we’re on is not appropriate. I try to check any ego that I may have outside the door and think about the bigger picture.

This piece first appeared in Drexel Quarterly's Winter 2016 issue.