Update on the Current and Future ‘State of the Campus’

Activity around the Mario the Magnificent statue on the University City Campus during a "Walking Tour Weekend!" event in April 2021. Photo credit: Jeff Fusco.
Activity around the Mario the Magnificent statue on the University City Campus during a "Walking Tour Weekend!" event in April 2021. Photo credit: Jeff Fusco.

Please visit the ‘Drexel’s Response to Coronavirus’ website for the latest public health advisories.

Drexel University senior leaders recently discussed current and future plans to put Drexel on a path so that “our best days as a University are clearly ahead,” as Drexel President John Fry said during a May 12 event.

The University’s new strategic plan, recent figures for the incoming fall 2021 class and updates on student life, campus and athletics events were the topics of discussion at a “State of the Campus With President Fry and Senior Leadership Panel” event hosted by Drexel Alumni as part of its “Drexel Alumni Leadership Summit Series.” Fry spoke first before a senior leadership panel moderated by Senior Vice President of Institutional Advancement David Unruh which included Senior Vice President of Student Success Subir Sahu, PhD; Senior Vice President of Enrollment Management Evelyn Thimba; and Chief Strategy Officer and Senior Vice President for Graduate and Online Education, Dean of the Graduate College and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies and College of Medicine Professor of Pharmacology & Physiology Elisabeth J. Van Bockstaele, PhD.

And while alumni were the main audience for the event, there were discussed points of interest for all members of the Drexel community. Excerpts from that discussion have been summarized, consolidated and lightly edited in the transcript below.

The State of Drexel’s Response to COVID-19

“We weathered this last year in an unbelievable fashion,” said Fry. “The level of courage and resilience and flexibility and collegiality and … humanity has been on full display and we're never going to let that go. That just becomes part of the way we're going to roll going forward.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the University built a public health infrastructure plan related to safety, cleaning and distancing measures for those on campus, as well as COVID-19 testing and, more recently, vaccination clinics for faculty, professional staff, students and neighbors in the West Philadelphia community. Now, the University is planning a full return to campus in the fall, with undergraduate and graduate students required to be vaccinated by the start of the 2021-2022 academic year, with limited medical and religious exceptions.

“We are really looking forward to a full return to campus in September,” Fry said, later adding, “We're following the best public health guidance and we think this is going to make our campus as safe as possible so it can return to being its full, active and productive self.”

The State of the Fall 2021 Incoming Class

“The health and safety and well-being of our community has been our primary focus. But at the same time, we're also looking to replenish that community,” said Fry.

In the fall, the University will welcome a new first-year class that is “larger, more diverse and, in true Drexel fashion, academically talented,” as Fry announced in a May 5 message.

Evelyn Thimba and the recruitment team she leads have seen a 20% increase of applications over the past five years, including a 10% increase in applications from last year, as a result of newly implemented recruitment strategies. In recent years, the team has diversified its geographic recruitment in anticipation of an expected demographic shift of declining numbers of high school graduates in the next few years, as well as more diverse classes. The University is now holistically reviewing its campus operations, financial aid packages, and other practices in preparation for educating this population of students.

As with other schools across the country, Drexel has become more competitive with extending offers in recent times, and this year’s test-optional admissions model saw an increase in the average SAT and average high school GPA of the incoming class.

“More than any other year, this year was really about outcomes and sharing how successful our students are post-graduation,” said Thimba. “Families wanted to understand what the return on investment was going to be. And of course, in this environment, we truly expected that. So our narrative, in addition to talking very broadly about the institution, had to be about how we are preparing students for the 21st century workplace and how students are faring post-graduation.”

With the men’s and women’s basketball teams’ historic entries into the NCAA March Madness Tournament earlier this year, Thimba said she can’t say definitively that it helped with recruitment, but it definitely didn’t hurt it.

“Any positive and exciting news really helps energize the recruitment efforts across the University, and we definitely capitalized on the basketball teams’ success in terms of telling our story, showing our school spirit and adding another dimension to the Drexel experience,” said Thimba.

The State of Drexel’s New Strategic Plan

Officially completed in December 2020, the “Drexel 2030: Designing the Future” strategic plan is a product of three years’ worth of conversations, community input and planning carried out by a dedicated group of University faculty and professional staff, including the Pre-planning and Executive Planning Committee that spearheaded the plan’s creation and growth.

“One of the things that I think helped us the most as a community [during the pandemic] was to think about 2030,” said Fry. “We were obviously obsessed with 2020 and 2021, but thinking about 2030 — where our University is going to be in ten years and all the possibilities and all the opportunities — really felt good. It was a positive exercise that left people feeling optimistic and excited about what's going to happen for our University because we're in a very, very good place.”

The plan seeks to strengthen the University’s research capacity and the impact of that research on society, including more transdisciplinary problem-solving; advance Drexel’s national leadership in experiential learning; integrate and embed outcomes from the University’s Anti-Racism Task Force to dismantle racism in University policies and practices; and leverage external partnerships in terms of applied research, solutions-based learning, civic engagement and community involvement.

The plan prioritizes fostering transdisciplinary research opportunities, and building Drexel’s strengths in current fields (particularly in health care, business, technology and design) as well as new markets and diversified revenue sources (such as implementing lifelong learning opportunities across the University and creating educational platforms for employees of corporate partners to engage with). The recent and continued success of student enrollment is part of the plan’s implementation process, as well as supporting Dragons on campus.

Elisabeth J. Van Bockstaele, PhD, was named Drexel’s Chief Strategy Officer to oversee the implementation of the strategic plan. She said that there will be a diversity, equity and inclusion liaison on each one of the initiative teams carrying out the strategic plan implementation, and these individuals will sit on an equity culture imperative team that will be co-chaired by Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Kim Gholston and Westphal College of Media Arts & Design Dean Jason Schupbach.

“Their role will be to ensure, in all that we're doing in our initiative teams implementing the strategic plan, that we are infusing a culture of equity in all that we do,” said Van Bockstaele. “It's incredibly important, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done, but by partnering together and developing resources to support each other, we'll be successful.”

The State of Student Life on Campus

“This year has been challenging for sure as it relates to student engagement and making sure that students get that full, quote, unquote, college experience,” said Subir Sahu, PhD, but the University has made great strides in responding to those challenges as they relate to the on-campus experience, mental health, athletics and co-op.

With health and safety the No. 1 priority, Drexel created and supported virtual and in-person student events and implemented socially distanced spaces for students to meet on campus when they returned for winter term. It also expanded its offerings and support in the student Counseling Center, including virtual counseling sessions, creating mechanisms to engage students online and through social media, and working to holistically integrate support systems for students across the University, rather than just the Counseling Center. The Center for Black Culture was created this year as hub of information, activity and community for Black students, faculty, staff, and alumni; Van Bockstaele noted that she has worked with Sahu and others from Student Life to encourage graduate students to get involved. Additionally, more resources were added to the Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion to support students during these heightened times.

“As we head into this year, we really do want to set up that traditional college experience, and COVID has shined a light on how we deliver that experience,” said Sahu. “There’s so much of what colleges and universities do that is about packing a lot of people into small spaces and naturally letting those relationships blossom. I think we need to be a little bit smarter and a little bit more innovative about how we offer those experiences.”

Another important part of the Drexel student experience is co-op, which has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. The University rallied around student co-ops by creating positions with faculty and University-affiliated employers, engaging 750+ alumni volunteers to conduct nearly 3,000 informational interviews and facilitate opportunities with students, and creating a course for students who experienced a co-op interruption, as detailed in this Drexel Magazine article 

The pandemic hit two weeks before the spring/summer 2020 co-op cycle, and the employment rate for that period was 82%, down from about 98% normally. Since, then the employment rates for subsequent co-op periods has increased, with 92% for the fall/winter 2020/2021 cycle, and 94% (and climbing) for the current spring/summer 2021 cycle.

“That wasn't luck; that was people … who really dug in and fought hard for us and figured out a way of getting us networked into new co-op opportunities,” Fry said about the increased support and employment rates throughout the pandemic.

Drexel Athletics also overcame a lot during the pandemic, starting with the “high risk” basketball and wrestling programs that all made it to their respective NCAA Tournaments at the end of their “pandemic” season. This term, Drexel Athletics has seen continued success not just in its men’s and women’s lacrosse teams also making it to the NCAA Tournament and the rowing program winning in the Dad Vail Regatta, but also in ensuring the health and safety of its student-athletes. And with Director of Athletics Eric Zillmer, PsyD, stepping down in June, a search committee has narrowed down a wide field to a handful of professionals who will be interviewed in the next few weeks, with a new athletics director named sometime near mid-June.