Drexel-Salus 101: A Q&A With Salus University’s President
Six months ago, Drexel University and Salus University officially formalized a merger agreement between the two institutions committed to health sciences education. Since then, members of the Drexel and Salus communities have been working together, mostly through the Integration Council composed of faculty and professional staff from both universities, to chart a course for how and when Salus’s academic programs and operational units will become an integrated part of the Drexel family.
Salus University President Michael H. Mittelman, OD, has been heavily involved with this work. He’s co-chairing the Integration Council with Drexel University President John Fry and has been keeping the Salus community informed about upcoming changes during the process.
In this Q&A, he shared the progression of the Drexel-Salus partnership, what he wants people at Drexel to know about Salus and upcoming next steps.
Q: What do you want people at Drexel to know about Salus?
A: We are a premier, graduate-only health sciences university with a broad and unique range of specialties in the country. Nobody has the same mix of specialties we do, and we’re experts in every one of them. Our Pennsylvania College of Optometry is the first legislature-approved, innovative four-year Doctor of Optometry program in the country, and our audiology program was founded as the first and only standalone college of audiology in the country. The Blindness and Low Vision Studies Program is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the country. Our programs are extremely successful in terms of outcomes; almost every program has 100 percent national certification board exam pass rate.
Our clinical outreach extends well beyond our campus in Elkins Park. We have The Eye Institute, which was established in 1978, and we see over 36,000 patients from across Philadelphia. We’ve been screening and caring for underserved children in Philadelphia public schools for over 20 years. Today, we’re also in Montgomery County, Bucks County, Delaware County and Chester County taking care of kids. Our Looking Out for Kids charity provides free eye exams and two free pairs of glasses for kids in need, and we’ve expanded that to audiology services as well. Our Speech and Language Institute provides free care for clients of all ages, and our Pennsylvania Ear Institute provides a broad range of services to include hearing aids, vestibular function and other related testing.
Salus is a pretty robust place. We’re small but mighty, and we are thrilled to become part of the Drexel Dragon team. Between the two of us, we will become force multipliers for higher education and health care, as well as other areas that we’ll be able to innovate in together.
Q: How would you describe the students and faculty involved in all those Salus programs?
A: Our faculty are world-class leaders in their professions, both locally and nationally. They will bring that gravitas with them to Drexel, and certainly they bring it to this campus. Our students are excited about this as well. Every time I’ve talked to students, they’re not just asking me about Drexel basketball, but they’re also asking me about the ability to get a second degree at Drexel and using Drexel facilities and doing research with Drexel researchers.
Q: Do you see a lot of opportunities for collaborations between programs, graduate students, faculty and research?
A: As we integrate with Drexel’s College of Medicine and College of Nursing and Health Professions, the possibilities are endless. And unfortunately, the need is endless as well. Consequently, as we work together, one plus one becomes seven.
Everyone recognizes Drexel as the R1 university that it is. For our faculty and students who are interested in research, this becomes a golden key for them. For example, our newest program, the Orthotics and Prosthetics program, can potentially partner with Drexel’s biomedical engineering experts to develop the next generation of prosthesis. Our occupational therapists are already thinking about how to work with Drexel engineering folks to develop appliances that are safer for people who might have disabilities. There’s so much potential here that I know our faculty and students are thinking about — and hopefully folks at Drexel are as well, right?
Q: What was it like starting this Drexel partnership?
A: These types of academic relationships start with personal relationships, and it was talking to President Fry just about collaboration as both of us look at the landscape of higher education. In our case, we did scenario planning and strategic planning, and every one of our strategic plans of late talked about the importance of partnering with an institution that can offer us a greater student experience, both clinically and educationally. President Fry looks at it much the same way with health sciences. When we chatted about this initially, we both saw that the opportunity would be there for us to partner in a significant way.
Q: What has happened in the six months after the official merger agreement was signed?
A: It’s been progressing nicely. We have been working to make sure that everybody at Salus is informed, and we’re answering their questions as best we can. We’ve established an Integration Council made up of Drexel and Salus experts to look at different areas, like academics and faculty; human resources; space, real estate and facilities; enrollment and marketing and student success; and finance, accounting and institutional advancement. These groups have been working to ensure that our accreditors know what’s going on and our people know what’s going on. This has been moving on as scheduled, and as we move forward, we’re involving more people all the time. We’re getting more faculty involved now, because we have to determine how our academic programs fit together.
Q: What’s coming up for the next six months?
A: There’s what I would call “detail work” that has to be done, for the accreditation and other approval pieces that have to happen. Then we have to figure out how the different systems, such as payroll and benefits, can be meshed together. We’re working to ensure that our folks are aware and comfortable moving forward.
The integration has to be done in two stages, according to the U.S. Department of Education. For the first stage, all of Salus faculty and professional staff will become Drexel employees on June 30, 2024. Now, the merger will still be incomplete. We’ll still be Salus University and you’re still Drexel University. The Department of Education has to approve the merger, which we call closure, and that’s the second step. That will happen sometime between July of 2024 and December of 2024.
Q: How has it been for you to meet people from Drexel and learn more about Drexel?
A: I love it. I’ve been working a lot with the folks at the College of Nursing and Health Professions and Elisabeth Van Bockstaele, PhD [Editor’s note: Van Bockstaele is the executive committee chair of the Integration Council who serves as Drexel’s chief strategy officer, Graduate College dean, senior vice president for graduate and online education, founding dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies, and professor of pharmacology and physiology in the College of Medicine]. Drexel leadership is as committed to this process as we are, and they’re as excited about us coming over as we are about us going over. The depth of knowledge and commitment at Drexel has impressed us greatly.
One of the things that was extremely important to us moving forward, because we did not have to merge at this stage, was that if we had a partner, we would want to ensure that they have similar cultures and are as excited about our professions and growing our professions as we are. We have found that to be more than true with Drexel. The cultures and missions are so very similar.
I love working with President Fry. I’ve learned a great deal from him during the time we have worked together, and it’s been a true honor and pleasure to be considered part of the team.
Q: What has it been like hosting people from Drexel at Salus, and what has it been like coming to Drexel?
A: I’ve enjoyed both. Obviously, we like it when people come our way. One of the things we have found is that when people come to our campus, they’re impressed and surprised, because most people don’t know what we have. They’re not familiar with our professions. We’re going to be hosting a good number of Drexel faculty here in February for a show-and-tell for our programs, like explaining what speech-language pathologists do and what blindness and low vision specialists do. We’re going to teach people as much as we can about our professions, because, frankly, we want Drexel to market our programs to its current undergraduate students.
When we went over to Drexel, we started out in the new Health Sciences Building, and we are extremely impressed and excited about the possibilities of our students benefitting from the space and the technology, but also the professional expertise that you have there, the faculty development opportunities and all of the wonderful things that can be provided for our students. It works both ways.
Q: Do you have any other big wants or hopes that we haven’t talked about yet?
A: I want our students to be proud of their Drexel diplomas — actually, they’re already asking me about that. And it’s really important for the faculty to be included in the Drexel family and to be thought of as Drexel faculty. That’s where this initial work of getting them together early on will pay off.
Q: You’re leading Salus during this historic period, but you also were there for its centennial anniversary, and you’ve just celebrated your 10-year anniversary leading the institution. How has it been leading Salus right now?
A: This is the next logical step in the evolution of our programs. The Pennsylvania College of Optometry, our legacy school, which celebrated 100 years in 2019, will be one of the colleges at Drexel: the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Drexel University. It has a nice ring to it, I think. Salus has a wonderful legacy, and Drexel has a wonderful legacy. I’m thrilled about that.
Honestly, I don’t give my ten-year anniversary much thought. It’s just part of what I do. I’m happy I get to stick around! But it’s been a thrill. It really has gone by so quickly.
Q: And you’re also a Salus alumnus! How has it been seeing how much it’s changed since you were a student?
A: Yes, I’m a 1980 graduate of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, after which I went directly into the Navy. I’d like to think I’m part of the change that has helped Salus grow. It’s been fun helping it along in its evolution.