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Campus & Community

Professors Seeking Help to Bring Drexel’s 125-Year History to Life

July 6, 2015

Another picture of the Great Court around the time that Drexel was founded, featuring etched ceilings. From the University Archives.
Another picture of the Great Court around the time that Drexel was founded, featuring etched ceilings. From the University Archives.

When a place has been around for 125 years, it touches many lives. It begs the cliché: “If these walls could talk…”

But since we don’t exist in Harry Potter’s world of speaking portraits and cinematic diaries, a pair of Drexel professors are leading the effort to bring Drexel’s collective memories to life through an official history book and an online oral history set to be unveiled during the University’s 125th anniversary celebrations next year.

“It’s a big institution and a complicated story,” said Richardson Dilworth, PhD, associate professor of history and politics. “It’s gone through so many different reorganizations and so many people have flowed in and out.”

“The history of this place is not just annual reports,” said Scott Knowles, PhD, associate professor of history and politics. “The history is in the people.”

In light of that, they are seeking the help of everyone connected to the University — faculty, staff, students, alumni, neighbors — to tell their stories and provide suggestions for what should be covered in Drexel’s history.

“My expectation is most people have a story to tell, maybe they just haven’t been asked,” Knowles said. “So we’re asking.”

Drexel crew posing in 1915. From the University Archives.
Drexel crew posing in 1915. From the University Archives.

Dilworth and Knowles are providing leadership for the effort to create a comprehensive history of the University that looks not just at Drexel as an institution of higher learning but also provides context for Philadelphia’s growth over the last 125 years.

“Drexel has only been treated as a bit player in the drama of the history of this city, but we have 125 years here,” Knowles said. “The whole modern history of Philadelphia is wrapped up with Drexel. We’ve heard a lot about our peer institutions: It’s time to hear about what Drexel has contributed.”

The book is scheduled to come out in fall 2016. As such, the pair plans to begin interviewing people soon.

They want anyone who may even have a sliver of a story to bring their stories to them.

“A lot of the time, people will feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t have anything to contribute.’ And then they sit down and you get an hour out of them,” Knowles said. “People shouldn’t underestimate the depth of their memory.”

An area Knowles said he’s interested in — one that both the students of today and the most senior alumni can help out with  — is how the student experience has changed at Drexel.

Four students wearing "dink" hats and name buttons, a common practice for freshmen from the 1940s through the 1960s. From the University Archives.
Four students wearing "dink" hats and name buttons, a common practice for freshmen from the 1940s through the 1960s. From the University Archives.

“This place didn’t start as a degree-granting institution,” Knowles said. “And both men and women were here, which was unique for the time it was founded. I’d like to find some of the continuities and irregularities in the way students thought about Drexel.”

It’s the choices that guided Drexel to where it is today that intrigue Dilworth.

“When Drexel was founded, it looked a lot like the Franklin Institute or the Wagner Institute in that it didn’t grant degrees,” he said. “Drexel could have gone the same way as them. It made a choice. And whether it would have otherwise survived is a very open question.”

To help Dilworth and Knowles look into those themes and others, they’ll be assisted by two co-op students and a research assistant. They’ll also have the benefit of the University Archives.

The University Archives had done a good job of documenting Drexel’s past, and this effort will seek to create more of an active, ongoing link between the University’s academic units and the archives.

As a part of that effort, the oral history will be an ongoing project to continuously add to the archives.

“This is not only an opportunity to take stock of a history but to establish what I would call a ‘historical mindset,’” Knowles said. “The history of Drexel is important and worth taking good care of and not something we need to wait 125 years to do. We’re making a commitment.”

If you’re interested in contributing, email Dilworth at Dilworth@drexel.edu and/or Knowles at sgk23@drexel.edu