Penny Hammrich, PhD, has held many titles over her career in education: school teacher, researcher, professor, administrator, businesswoman… she’s even been a dean before. But now, having been named dean of Drexel University’s School of Education in May after holding the interim dean position since the previous August, Hammrich is ready to combine her many hats and experiences in a way that will help the School prepare for the future and further set itself apart from the competition.
In this Q&A, Hammrich goes in-depth about her background, her accomplishments and how her future plans for the School were created through collective vision.
Q: Tell me about your background and what made you passionate about teaching and going into that career path.
A: I’m a K-12 certified teacher. I taught third, fourth, sixth and 10th grade before making my way to higher ed. I’m a biologist/geneticist. When I was going to school I didn’t really know if I wanted to go into the education world, or if I wanted to go into medicine and be a doctor because I liked biology, so I got a dual degree in education and biology. I got a masters in genetics, still thinking, “Maybe I’m going to go the medical route,” but then I got interested in neuropsychology. I started my first PhD down at Arizona State University in educational psychology, specializing in cognition and learning. I was 24, ready to just write my dissertation and be done, but I realized I hadn’t had a life yet. So I took a little break. Then, I transferred to the University of Minnesota, and I decided to switch my PhD focus into science education instead of in psych.
My first position was at Temple University. That’s what drew me to Philadelphia initially. While I was at Temple, I ran into two little girls from Dunbar Elementary who didn’t realize that science was in their own backyard. That changed the course of my whole career. I went back to my office and wrote the first program that is now the small company I run called Sisters in Science. We develop science programs for kids, and I spun that for over 25 years. It’s been funded for over 30 million dollars. Right now, my sports science program is being run in two separate programs funded by the Promise Neighborhood grant this summer in West Philadelphia.
Q: Also, do you still teach at all here?
A: I do! It’s not part of a dean’s contract but I feel that if I’m leading a school, I should be practicing what I’m leading. I do like to teach, so I teach one course a year. I taught one course a year as interim dean and I’ll teach one course year as dean and I did that before when I was dean in New York.
Q: What brought you to Drexel then and how were you able to expand all of your many passions here, as well as climb the ranks?
A: I came to Drexel in 2010. Before that, I was the dean of Queens College, City University of New York, when my mom got terminally ill. I decided to step down out of my deanship at Queens, go on sabbatical and fly home to South Dakota, where I’m from, and be with her.
While I was on sabbatical, two faculty members who I hired when I was the dean at Queen’s got recruited away to Drexel’s School of Education. They found out I was on sabbatical and they went to the dean and recruited me to come to Drexel.
I never thought when I left Temple and left Philadelphia that I would come back, but it just seemed like too good of an opportunity. I also didn’t think I would go back into administration. I was going to get back into my research, but I just kind of kept falling into it.
It’s interesting because my first deanship was when I was in my 30s, and now I’m in my 50s, so it’s a whole different perspective for me now because I have so many more years of experience and I’ve played almost every single administrative role in a school of education. It’s something that I guess my skillset lent itself to and here I am.
Q: Are there certain skills that you think you have that make you a really good administrator?
A: I think I’m a natural leader and I’m very much not a top-down leader but a consensus builder. I’m very visionary, so I can see things out 10 years and then I set in motion steps to achieve that. The other thing is I’m very good at mentoring people. I think mentoring is a big role of being in a leadership position, and I love it. If I could get a job where they paid you just for mentoring, I would take it. I love to work with people and help them achieve their goals and watch them be successful. And so that’s pretty much how I set up my staff in their roles so that they have opportunities to be successful and to be part of a team.
Q: What do you feel you were able to accomplish when you were in the interim position and how will that evolve now that you’re in the dean role?
A: When I was offered the interim dean role, I was very humbled and honored to have Executive Vice President and Nina Henderson Provost M. Brian Blake, PhD, ask me if I would serve in that role because I very much see any leadership role as a service role — you serve the school. And I wanted to serve the School of Education because I believe in the school. I needed to find a way to bring us together around a united mission and vision. So I created what was called a living vision, and it’s called a living vision because it’s living. It’s not static.
I presented it to the faculty and staff as a canvas, or a landscape, of what we could be. It was to position the School to be known as the intellectual center of pedagogical innovation with five signatures: equity and access, civic engagement, growth and revenue, creativity and innovation and quality and improvement.
I presented this landscape to them and then I put it on a website and I said, “Everybody has access to the website, go into the website add your voice over the course of the year.” In June, I presented our collective living vision — so it’s a living vision that’s been shaped over the year by everybody. Everybody’s had a voice. It’s not just my voice. This not only brought us together as a community, but it set us up to start strategic planning in the fall. It was a really great bonding for us. And it just so happened, since I became the dean, I can carry that on.
Q: What are some things you’re trying to change about the school, using the living vision as guidance?
A: Civic engagement is one of the signatures of positioning the school to be known as the intellectual center of pedagogical innovation. I really think that the School of Education should become the civic engagement arm of the University, and so we’ve started initiatives to do that.
I think that the School of Education has a responsibility to the University to really shape civic engagement, especially with our community partners: schools and community centers and so forth. We should really be leaders in that.
The School of Education is part of the Promise Neighborhood grant. Right now, we have eight summer programs going on for the Promise Neighborhood schools and we should be doing more of that. We should be doing professional development for teachers. Why can’t teachers in the schools or principals help shape our courses in higher education? We just need to break down those barriers and see how we can work together.
Q: Do you feel you’ll reach out to other schools to make any points from your living vision come to fruition as well?
A: Oh, absolutely. I’m very much for collaboration and I’m happy to share what we’re doing in the School of Education with other schools, as I mentioned when I did my interview for the deanship with the deans and other entities. There’s power in numbers, right?
Q: What sets Drexel’s School of Education apart from other universities with similar offerings, and what do you hope to do in the future to make it even more exceptional?
A: The School of Education here offers degree programs, much like the other colleges and schools at the University, and like other colleges and schools in the United States and globally.
But I do believe degrees, in the future, are going to go down in significance because employers are looking for competency. So while universities and colleges and schools within them will keep offering degrees, they’re not going to be as high demand. So we have to find a way in order to capture different markets and other revenue streams.
And so, I’m declaring a new way to brand the School of Education’s degree offerings. It’s called the educational passport for the future. You could imagine a physical passport, but it’s an educational passport and it’s filled with all these different competencies that you can share to different employers. So, you come to the School of Education at Drexel University for your educational passport. That means you can get a degree and you can get competencies which could be a micro-credential like a badge or a stackable certificate.
I believe that if schools and colleges don’t start to think more entrepreneurially, the doors are going to close.
Q: What do you think sets Drexel apart as a whole?
A: I really think what sets Drexel apart — the fundamental underlying thing that’s different about Drexel — is it’s not a purely academic institution. Yes, we’re an R1 research institution, and that’s wonderful. But what makes us different is we have an entrepreneurial culture. Other institutions that I’ve worked with are just pure academic. That’s one of the reasons, one of the fundamental things, that really drove me to want to come to Drexel: the opportunity to be in a business-minded academy as opposed to just an academy.
Q: Let’s talk about the big move. Everyone in the School will be moved over to 3401 Market Street by August, so for the fall term students will find you there. Are you excited for that?
A: We’re so excited. We’ve never all been in one location before, so this will be the first time that all the faculty and staff will be together in one location. Everybody’s over there now except for the senior administration. We’ll all be moved in and settled by the beginning of the fall term.
What will be nice about that is, in the past, we didn’t have lab space. We’re going to have six labs, research labs, where students will be part of the research. We’re going to have three additional classrooms and new conference rooms. Everybody in the School of Education, whether they’re faculty or staff, has their own office, where before they were in cubicles or shared offices. That was my one promise to them, so I think that’s a great accomplishment.
And the energy over there, everybody is so happy to be together. We wanted it for so long and we’re just so grateful and I think the location is a really good location. We’re right on top of the third floor of the building near Drexel’s ExCITe Center. It’s really the science hub there, and it’s closer to our partnership schools. So I think it just lends itself for us to have more collaborative opportunities with partner centers or schools or colleges or the community. We just can’t wait to all be together.
This story was published in the summer 2019 issue of Drexel Quarterly.