A Deep Dive into Drexel’s 2030 Strategic Plan

Mario the Magnificent statue. Photo credit: Jeff Fusco.
Photo credit: Jeff Fusco.

“Integrity, integration, inclusivity, impact and innovation” are the watchwords of Drexel’s new 10-year strategic plan, which was released Dec. 17.

The two-year undertaking is summarized in a brief framework, called “Drexel 2030: Designing the Future,” that outlines the initiatives, values and goals that will guide Drexel through the anticipated challenges of the coming decade.

The plan was drafted against a backdrop of changing trends in higher education, specifically demographic declines in high school graduates and international students, and it was made more urgent over the past year by the closure of Hahnemann Hospital and the acquisition of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, the pivot to remote instruction, and nationwide calls for racial equity.

While prior strategic plans introduced high-concept aspirations like the innovation districts and civic engagement, the mood of this plan is one of integration. It’s a call to magnify Drexel’s distinguishing style of education by converging its strengths in experiential learning, research and external partnerships.

“The ‘big idea’ here is that we need to take everything that we do well and connect it so that it has maximum impact…so that the whole is much larger than the sum of its parts,” said President John Fry. “For the University, this means working differently going forward in a much more holistic way.”

The Executive Planning Committee of faculty members and administrators fine-tuned the final draft throughout the past year with feedback from staff surveys and the individual colleges and schools.

Their final document is a template for the transformation of Drexel’s structure, culture and operations around a contemporary mode of education that transcends traditional boundaries of academic knowledge and is in constant dialogue with society and the world of work. The Drexel of 2030 will marshal the University’s distinctive strengths — experiential education, impactful research, industry connections, civic engagement — to establish knowledge-clusters around health, tech/engineering, design, and social sciences to unlock new partnerships, agilely develop market-relevant programs, and enhance experiential and remote learning options, all in the service of tackling social challenges and while fostering an inclusive and equitable culture.

Accountability for implementation of the plan will be overseen by Elisabeth Van Bockstaele, PhD, who was designated in December as Drexel’s Chief Strategy Officer in addition to her other roles as senior vice president of Graduate and Online Education and dean of the Graduate College and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies in the College of Medicine.

Financial support for these advancements will come from improvements in operational efficiencies, a fiscal framework that rewards innovative academic programs and successful research, and current and future capital campaigns.

Drexel’s Responsibility Center Management (RCM) budget model will be fully implemented alongside the strategic plan, according to Executive Vice President, Treasurer and Chief Operating Officer Helen Bowman. Under RCM, revenue-generating units of the University assume full responsibility for managing their own revenues and expenditures while sharing in surplus funds at the end of the year.

The budget model will allow Drexel to reward academic units for focusing on initiatives the University has prioritized.

When the pandemic upended the University’s budget, Drexel was able to refinance its variable rate loans under a fixed loan at a very low 30-year rate. This allowed the University to repay $80 million to the endowment that it borrowed to acquire St. Christopher’s and to expand and renovate Bentley Hall for the Pennoni Honors College.

Still, the pandemic is expected to challenge enrollment for the foreseeable future on top of unfavorable demographic shifts. According to Bowman, delivering on the mission set forth in this plan will require that the University diversify its revenue stream, which is currently 80 percent derived from tuition.

This creates pressure, said President Fry, to make sure that everything Drexel invests in is worthwhile.

“I think that financial pressure actually will be our friend; we can’t waste any time or money,” said President Fry. “We need to grow our financial margins to invest in the really good ideas that have come out of this strategic plan.”

What follows are the main goals set forth in the plan, with deeper explanations from members of the Executive Planning Committee. 

Expand Drexel’s Research Impact

Goal: Generate new knowledge and impactful solutions by growing basic and applied research and fostering transdisciplinary collaborations, both within the University and with external partners.

Drexel’s recent achievement of earning an R1 (Highest Research Activity) Carnegie designation lays the foundation for one day qualifying for inclusion in the even-more-prestigious Association of American Universities, reserved for the largest and most successful research institutions.

To achieve its goal, the University must grow a research culture around its core academic competencies with an eye toward assembling transdisciplinary teams to tackle projects with social and commercial impact.

To determine Drexel's existing areas of research strength, members of the Executive Planning Committee conducted an audit of faculty research from 2017 to the present and sorted the results based on industry classification schemas. This is a grouping based on the Times Higher Education Classification system.
To determine Drexel's existing areas of research strength, members of the Executive Planning Committee conducted an audit of faculty research from 2017 to the present and sorted the results based on industry classification schemas. This is a grouping based on the Times Higher Education Classification system.

The Office of Research & Innovation intends to encourage researchers both by expeditiously seeding emerging ideas and by helping to coordinate cross-college teams.

According to President Fry, Drexel’s future rests on the University creating a formal infrastructure for backing “big bets.” To date, Drexel has done this through mechanisms like Drexel Areas of Research Excellence (DARE) and through investments in individual schools. It has also happened informally, by empowering individuals with vision and motivation — as was the impetus behind the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and the Center for Functional Fabrics.

“We’ve been able to do things like this in the past, but we need to make that a regular way of doing work,” said President Fry. “The way we’ve done it in the past has often been finding people who need help and figuring out how to set them up. There’s nothing wrong with doing that to get started, but you want a system that consistently encourages those bets, and investments that make sense.”

The research subcommittee then grouped Drexel's research into three large categories, as shown by this overlay, to come up with three overall categories of Drexel strengths: tech/engineering/design, health and social sciences.
The research subcommittee then grouped Drexel's research into three large categories, as shown by this overlay, to come up with three overall categories of Drexel strengths: tech/engineering/design, health and social sciences.

The Office of Research & Innovation wants to “double down” on the DARE approach and use more Rapid Response-style grants such as the ones it created for COVID-19 and racial-equity research during the summer. These timely, small-scale seed funds put Drexel researchers ahead of the curve to compete for external grants.

“We spent $170,000 on COVID-19 research and $100,000 on racial-equity projects and we funded 40 teams,” said Executive Vice Provost for Research & Innovation Aleister Saunders, PhD. “We awarded the COVID-19 funds in mid-April and as of now, those researchers have almost $2 million in follow-on funding, six patents, a clinical trial, 30,000 pieces of PPE produced, and numerous new partnerships. It had a tremendous impact.”

The Office of Research & Innovation also hopes to expand its business development services to assist faculty researchers in writing grants and building out the kind of diverse, interdisciplinary teams that are most attractive to prestigious national grant sponsors.

Saunders equates this work with “planting seeds.” He notes that Drexel’s investment in high-tech knitting machines for Westphal College of Media Arts & Design Professor Geneviève Dion bore fruit in the form of the Center for Functional Fabrics. “Who would have thought that a fashion designer 10 years later would be getting $4 million in Department of Defense money this year with potentially $10 million slated for next year?” he asked.

One concern raised by faculty members is how research will be assessed for its worthiness to receive University support. What about social sciences and liberal arts research that isn’t likely to attract big grant dollars?

Saunders said the research subcommittee has developed a framework that permits Drexel to understand unconventional ways a given research project may have strategic value.

“We have to create a common language by which we understand what our activities are and aren’t,” said Saunders. “Our criteria are for deciding what things are and how to support them. Some things are going to generate dollars. Other things are more likely to generate partnerships. We have to weigh that out. We have to foster things that are early stage and also figure out how to move the things that are already well-established to the next level.”

To determine Drexel’s “core competencies,” the research subcommittee sorted Drexel’s recent scholarly publications using standard academic classification systems and asked associate deans of research to classify current projects.

This revealed clear existing strengths in health, tech/engineering, and design. Embedded in the notion of “design” is research “in service to society,” a term that the Office of Research interprets broadly.

“There are a lot of paths toward social impact,” explained Saunders. “You can start a company based on technology that we’ve patented, or you can start up a program like Mariana Chilton’s Center for Hunger-free Communities that helps feed people. Ted Corbin and John Rich are taking their Helping Hurt People program to scale by moving the program across the country; that’s like a company taking tech and growing it to scale. It’s OK that these projects aren’t based on intellectual property. The principle is the same, and we should support this type of innovation and impact.”

Harness the Power of Partnerships

Goal: Integrate and align curricula, scholarship, community engagement and global partnerships in an internationally recognized problem-solving model for university/community collaborations.

Drexel’s unique academic design puts the University in a position to serve as a national model for reshaping the relationship of universities to external partners.

Already, Drexel scholarship is enriched by relationships with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in South Korea and the National University of Equatorial Guinea. Numerous faculty members and alumni have taken their inventions to market by pairing with business people affiliated with the Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership Program or the startup incubator ic@3401. In West Philadelphia, Drexel’s community partners contribute to residents’ quality of life by providing local jobs and social services.

And of course, the mutual respect between Drexel and top employers, cultivated over a century through the Drexel Co-op program, is an unrivaled asset and the entree to many other collaborations with industry.

In the Drexel of 2030, not only co-op students but also many faculty will be involved with industry — through experiential learning courses, custom workforce training, or research that calls on their expertise, on and off campus.

These arrangements will give faculty a first-hand understanding of emergent trends that can influence programming. Drexel’s co-op employers are seeing shortages for skills in artificial intelligence and data analysis, for instance, and adjusting to disruptive technologies and climate change.

“Drexel is positioned incredibly well to address these complex changes,” said Executive Vice President and Nina Henderson Provost Paul E. Jensen, PhD. “We can partner in a more comprehensive way so that it’s not just about co-op; now it’s also about research, about innovation, and about talent development for their organizations.”

The Drexel Solutions Institute (DSI) is an example of how Drexel has already begun to harness industry relationships for the mutual benefit of students, faculty and partners, and it figures prominently in the strategic plan as a template for how Drexel can actualize its model of maximum real-world relevance.

The DSI was formed in 2018 to create a single gateway for industry clients to tap Drexel’s academic expertise for help solving business challenges or to provide custom workforce development using a fee-for-service revenue model.

DSI has already connected faculty, students and co-op hires with projects from companies such as Comcast Corp., FMC and SEI. Often these relationships include a course or lab component in which students and co-ops problem-solve a current business problem alongside corporate executives, threading theory and practice together in a hands-on project that accelerates students’ career readiness and enriches Drexel’s academic offerings. In return, client companies subsidize projects to the extent that they require project management assistance or additional faculty time.

To date, 12 co-ops and nearly 200 students have assisted corporate partners with neuroimaging studies, market analytics and human-to-machine studies. At Comcast, for instance, research with Drexel on how certain groups respond to e-sports programs will likely guide them as they further develop their e-sports business, an industry with a growing market and workforce.

These projects create résumé talking points for students and ensure that colleges have cutting-edge class content.    

“This connectivity gives us incredible opportunities to — more rapidly than our peers — reimagine curriculum because we’re working with our partners on applied research problems and feeding what we learn back into the curriculum,” said Jensen.

Set the Standard for Cutting-Edge, Adaptable Curricula

Goal: Rapidly develop and deliver agile curricula to partners and individuals of diverse backgrounds and ages that are responsive to market demands and the needs of a global society.

The pandemic fast-tracked trends in the economy — e.g. digital learning, cross-disciplinary thinking, life-long education — that require universities to rethink how degrees are designed and how education is delivered.

This will likely mean more remote and hybrid course options, new certifications and badges for life-long learners, and core courses in general computing and data in addition to a liberal arts foundation.

The trend toward more undergraduate online education is “crystal clear,” said Jensen. He expects that all colleges will see rising demand for more hybrid programs, perhaps even by on-campus students, as remote modes become the new normal.

This Venn diagram represents the goal of prioritizing programs that meet at the interdisciplinary nexus of Drexel's core academic competencies, and the way in which social impact overarches Drexel's mission.
This Venn diagram represents the goal of prioritizing programs that meet at the interdisciplinary nexus of Drexel's core academic competencies, and the way in which social impact overarches Drexel's mission.

But to truly prepare students for the new world of work, it will be incumbent on academic units to draw on industry relationships to future-proof curricula, and to rapidly deploy innovative offerings.

“We happen to be in a period of time where things are changing incredibly fast,” said Jensen. “Take ‘internet of things’ technologies…these have the potential to impact how most things are done. That means there’s going to be a need in society for people who can understand how these technologies apply to, say, health care or any industry. The same goes for the challenges we face with climate change. You need people who understand not only the environment, but also technology and business, and so on.

“So as a university, how do we move from traditional academic programs…to programs that address the more complex challenges we face in society?” he asked.

The route mapped out by this strategic plan calls for reducing the silos between academic units with joint programs and partnerships that span disciplines.

“There’s a natural tendency to think of your own academic unit as your family, and it’s much easier to work within your own department than it is to work with another department, but we need to broaden our definition of ‘family’ to include the Drexel community as a whole,” said Don McEachron, PhD, teaching professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems and member of the planning committee. “And I think the President feels that we even need to go beyond Drexel and think about the Philadelphia community as our family.”

The DARE initiative created by the Office of Research in 2015 is an example of a mechanism for building transdisciplinary collaborations on the research side, said McEachron. McEachron is himself a member of a virtual-reality education project that included academics from multiple disciplines, and he's also a participant in the Cell2Society Aging Research Network DARE initiative, which includes members from nine academic units as well as multiple external stakeholders.

“To create that infrastructure on a educational program level, on the other hand, that’s different,” he said. “How do you divide up the tuition income between two units? How do you recruit students? How do you share the teaching responsibilities?”

That infrastructure has yet to be built, he said, but the work needs to be done, because the old traditional model of higher education doesn’t work in an economy where new industries may emerge in the timespan it takes to complete a college degree.

“We have to create this multidisciplinary educational process so that our students can pivot in any direction and are so good at critical and creative thinking, so adaptable, so flexible, that no matter what the world throws at them, they can adjust,” said McEachron. “I think Drexel can do that better than any place I know of. We just have to put it together properly.”

Enhance and Expand High-Quality, Immersive Learning Experiences

Goal: Enable students to enhance and apply their education while developing professional skills and an appreciation for the diversity of human experience by providing engaging, immersive learning experiences.

Many universities claim to provide “experience,” but very few have the deep relationships with the real world that Drexel has spent generations cultivating. In a February survey, 70 percent of faculty and professional staff named the Drexel Co-op program as Drexel’s greatest strength.

Drexel students learn alongside people from all walks of life inside clinics, prisons and community centers, through community-based learning courses established in the College of Arts & Sciences. Through innovative programs such as the Drexel Food Lab and the Center for Functional Fabrics, students help to prototype new products and processes that promise to change manufacturing, improve health, or reduce waste. Drexel graduate students frequently share bylines and patent applications with faculty researchers and participate in ground-breaking discoveries that open up new avenues in science.

The long-term goal is to remove any financial and physical obstacles standing in the way of any student, regardless of program or degree type, whether online or in-person, from sharing in what makes a Drexel education so powerful.

When the pandemic impacted some co-ops, the Steinbright Career Development Center approved virtual and part-time paid co-ops for the first time in its history.

“We approved virtual co-ops with the understanding that the genie doesn’t go back in the lamp,” said Ian Sladen, vice president of cooperative education and career development at Steinbright. “Employers are going to want to continue to do it. Students will want to do it. And we’re all going to get better at it.

“Virtual co-ops may also provide us with an opportunity to expand our co-op footprint within organizations that we already have relationships with, and maybe with some that we don’t,” Sladen added. “You reduce issues like transportation costs and living expenses that act as deterrents for co-ops in another city.”

Drexel must also go “beyond co-op” to create new ways for students to interact with potential future employers. Through the DSI, Drexel is creating custom solutions to address the needs of current and prospective co-op employers, through arrangements that may take place on or off campus and that involve students in tasks that go beyond those typically assigned to co-op hires.

For example, at the onset of the pandemic, California nonprofit Options for All asked Drexel for help designing virtual life skills programs for adults with intellectual and cognitive challenges. DSI assembled co-op and graduate students to work on the project alongside a lead faculty member with insight from several University units. The nonprofit will use to the programming developed at Drexel to expand into new markets.  

“That kind of an experience you would not get in a firm,” said Anna Koulas, vice president of the Drexel Solutions Institute. “It’s a much more heightened experience because they’re not doing something transactional or siloed.”

These industry partnerships also open the door to richer, more immersive course material. For instance, DSI assembled a special topics course on blockchain that was co-taught by the head of blockchain strategy at mutual fund firm Vanguard with assistance from an interdisciplinary team of faculty who collectively covered the sociological, financial, engineering and legal facets of the technology. The students worked in teams on several aspects of blockchain technology that the firm will use to develop its future blockchain strategy. Enrollment in the class maxed out in one day.

“There was a demand for a class like this,” said Vice Dean for Research and Strategic Partnerships Rajneesh Suri, PhD, noting that Drexel has no single faculty member to teach blockchain. “When people come from industry, they don’t know how to teach, but they have a lot of content. We can facilitate their teaching and make their transmission into the classroom seamless and very immersive for the students.”

“Each time we talk to an organization, we’re trying to determine what would benefit the student and the curriculum: What might we gain from them and what can we offer to them to ensure that there is a benefit that will create a meaningful and worthwhile value proposition,” said Koulas. “At the end of the day, we want our students to be in demand. We want companies to seek them out and this helps us position them for long-term success.”

Foster and Strengthen an Inclusive and Equity-Driven Culture

Goal: Ensure there is no racism or bias in University policies, practices and culture and achieve equitable outcomes for all students, faculty, and staff.

After the killing of George Floyd, President Fry pledged that the University would assess its internal culture through the lens of equity. The University convened an Anti-Racism Task Force to develop recommendations for incorporating an equity-mindset into Drexel’s culture and policies.

These goals include recruiting and retaining more faculty, staff and students of color; demonstrating commitment to equity through University investments; and embedding antiracism in pedagogy and evaluations. 

Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Kim Gholston said the task force is confronting long-standing dissatisfactions — expressed in letters, stories and social media posts by faculty, students and professional staff both historically and throughout the summer’s civil unrest — that have impacted Drexel’s ability to retain personnel and student satisfaction.

“This didn’t happen overnight and we’re not going to be able to correct it overnight,” she said. “It’s going to take time.”

She noted, for instance, that less than 7 percent of Drexel’s faculty members are Black, compared with 73 percent who are white. On the staff side, 19 percent of professional staff members are Black and an average of 11 percent of executive/managerial positions are held by Black employees, while 59 percent of service/maintenance staff are Black.  

“If we’re successful transforming our culture, the Drexel of 2030 will be an antiracist organization,” she said. “I believe success means Drexel becomes a magnet for those looking for a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. It means that we have faculty, staff and students here who feel that Drexel is their home.”

That in turn will change the complexion of Drexel leadership, inspire more involvement by alumni, engage Drexel’s neighbors, and ensure class curricula includes the contributions of people of color, she said.

“It’s walking the walk and talking the talk of an inclusive environment that welcomes, engages and appreciates individuals,” she said. “I think when we start to do that, a lot of these other things that are challenges for us, like recruitment, retention of people of color, the additional need for trauma and mental health support...Some of those things will go away over time because of the type of culture that we support.”

Empower Students to Be Purpose-Driven, Global Citizens

Goal: Graduate adaptable, culturally competent, empathic alumni capable of seizing opportunities for the betterment of themselves and their communities.

Drexel has spent a decade deepening its community ties to lay pathways for future Dragons to play meaningful roles in the world, and has built many participatory models to inspire Dragons as they shape a positive future.

These include the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement, the Autism Institute, the Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services, and public school assistance programs run by the School of Education, among others.

The Drexel of 2030 will leverage these institutions as well as its ties to other regions to grow partnerships that will yield increased enrollment, co-ops, clinical placements, curriculum sharing, and research consortia.

In the meantime, Philadelphia will need to be nursed back to recovery, said President Fry.  

“How do we get Philadelphia back where it needs to be, but a much better version of itself?” President Fry asked. “We’re going to have to double down in many ways to help lead the revitalization of Philadelphia and at the same time not aspire just to return to where we were, but to go far beyond that and make it a more equitable city.”

Some members of the administration have floated ideas for creating a Drexel service corps made up of teams of students mobilized to assist city organizations and urban nonprofits. Efforts began in the summer to seek out public and private grants for funding. The concept could be another avenue for students in the arts and culture sectors, in particular, to gain project-based co-op experience while tangibly impacting Philadelphia’s progress. In a typical year, nearly 86 percent of Drexel students do their co-op work in the Philadelphia area.

“We need to stick to the things that that we’ve been working on — public education, access to food and adequate health care, job training, and working with minority and women-owned businesses in West Philadelphia,” said President Fry. “This is so fundamental to our mission as one of Philadelphia’s most consequential and impactful anchor institutions, and to our aspiration to become the most civically engaged University in the United States.”