Meeting New Challenges, Innovating for the Academic Year: 2020-2021

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Dear Students and Colleagues,

Together, we are about to embark on an academic year unlike any in our history. We begin the fall quarter amid a global pandemic, a clarion call for racial justice and a divisive political season in our country. It is a moment that calls on all of us at Drexel to innovate, support one another, and strive to be the best version of ourselves as individuals and as a university community.

In times like these, we wish most of all that we could be together in community.  But our necessary pivot to remote learning, enactment of sweeping health and safety measures, the smooth resumption of research by faculty and graduate students, and the launch of lifesaving scientific inquiry around COVID-19 has been nothing short of remarkable, and we are determined to use all of our extraordinary creativity to ensure this is a year of intellectual and personal growth for everyone. Collectively, we are rising to meet the great civic challenge of our time — to create a true anti-racist culture at Drexel and the broader community. And our work continues on a new, 10-year strategic plan that will make racial and social justice a key measure of our success; strengthen our capacity as a research university; and secure Drexel's national leadership in experiential learning as a model for higher education at a time of profound change and disruption for all colleges and universities.

This is a moment that has only further exposed the inequality that exists in our society, and in our own community; as well as a moment that has required all of us to adapt in so many ways on a personal and professional level. But I look ahead with confidence because we have so much on which we can build, and such a deep reserve of goodwill that exists throughout Drexel.

Financial Strength, Generous Support

We begin by ensuring a firm financial footing for our missions of teaching, research and service. When the pandemic forced the campus closure, we took difficult steps to reduce spending — some of which meant sacrifice from faculty and professional staff to whom I am profoundly grateful.  The result: a balanced budget for the current fiscal year and a cautiously positive outlook going forward. In July, the financial markets also gave us a heartening vote of confidence in our $256.4 million bond sale to enhance the quality of academic and student life, secure our investment with Tower Health in St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, and benefit the University's endowment for the future. We can be equally proud of our stewardship of the $811 million endowment, which continues its steady 8.1 percent annual return in a turbulent financial period.

Looking to our own community, I'm enormously grateful for the support and engagement from more than 10,500 Drexel alumni who joined thousands of others in volunteering, attending events or making a generous gift. The Campaign for Drexel has grown to $645 million, just 15 percent shy of its $750 million goal, benefiting student success, teaching and learning, research and civic engagement. Another $250,000 in special funds has been raised to directly help Drexel students navigate the pandemic.  And for this academic year in total, the University has awarded more than $318 million in grant and scholarship aid to undergraduate students.

First-Year Class

From this position of strength, we welcome the newest members of the Drexel community —  an accomplished, creative and diverse group of 2,400 first-year students and 560 transfer students starting classes today. One in four of our first-years are first-generation college students and they hail from 40 states and 53 countries. We are proud that students of this caliber and commitment have chosen Drexel and we know this class is going to be an extraordinary addition to our community in the years ahead.

These new undergraduates join a vibrant and engaged student body involved in hundreds of student organizations supported virtually this year by Student Life. Preparing for the new term last week, our first-year students began to build bonds even before classes start by attending nearly 300 virtual programs — including more than 100 hosted by students. And as these new undergraduates begin class, they will benefit from the efforts of more than 200 Drexel graduate students who stepped up as remote course facilitators to support faculty in the pivot to remote learning.

A more diverse, inclusive Drexel

Each of these new students joining us, and the thousands already here, expect to be judged on their own merits. We prize our diversity as a community and are determined to enhance it. That's why I am deeply committed to creating an anti-racist community at Drexel where all students, faculty and professional staff know they are seen for their individual skills and talents, not judged through the lens of preconceived perceptions or even unconscious biases. Our work toward that goal will be a key focus this academic year and beyond — particularly how social justice will be woven through the fabric of the strategic plan being finalized this year. I'm humbled by the task ahead of us and inspired by how the Drexel community has embraced this mission — from the leadership shown by those participating on our Anti-Racism Task Force, to the work being done to create the new Center for Black Culture in the Rush Building at 33rd and Market streets, to the thorough review of campus policing underway.

Civic Engagement, Active Citizens

Drexel's commitment to civic engagement in Philadelphia defines our mission and values. Right now, we have put a strong emphasis on addressing the immediate needs arising from the pandemic in the communities surrounding the campus. Our Promise Neighborhood education initiative has led the way. Whether helping to get the word out about meal distribution sites, purchasing and handing out masks or posting health-tip posters created by the Dornsife School of Public Health, we remain deeply committed to improving the quality of life and learning in our West Philadelphia community. The front porch of one Drexel employee's long-time home in the neighborhood has even become a distribution center for civic leaders to pick up books, toys, masks, cleaning supplies, and other needed items.

The Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships is offering online dance and cooking classes and its monthly community dinner to-go, working with a local restaurant, while the Stephen and Sandra Sheller 11th Street Family Health Services provides access to critically needed COVID-19 testing, in addition to a full range of health care. And at the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement, Drexel students are being connected to opportunities to engage with and support the local community through remote service placements, intentional learning communities, and limited in-person engagement.

We expect to do this and more in the fall, especially supporting children learning remotely in the schools from our area. And we're making a major effort to register and get out the vote, both in person and by mail during an election year that has generated unprecedented interest and engagement. For anyone within the University who has not yet registered or made a plan to vote, I encourage you to join in this most essential responsibility of citizenship.

New Growth, Opportunities

Our efforts to enliven our campus and community have reached beyond the classroom and lab. Visible progress this year will be seen in and around the University City campus, with the new home for the Powel Elementary / Science Leadership Academy Middle School at 36th and Warren Streets moving toward a spring opening. Our commitment to building this school is not only an investment in the families and schoolchildren of our community, but one of many steps we must take to ensure greater educational opportunity and diversity in the future. Also underway in uCity Square is the new academic tower that will house the College of Nursing and Health Professions, as well as some divisions of the College of Medicine. Meanwhile, our development partner at Schuylkill Yards, Brandywine Realty Trust, is making plans to break ground on two research and commercial buildings across from Drexel Square that will grow the innovation district providing research, co-op and employment opportunities for Drexel students, faculty, alumni, and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods in University City and beyond.

Pioneering Research

From the earliest days of the pandemic, Drexel researchers took on the complex biomedical and public health challenges of  COVID-19, launching a broad range of projects including inquiries into mental health and substance abuse during the pandemic, manufacturing of face masks and shields, and the search for therapeutics and vaccines. This work has led to more than $1.8 million in new research awards from sponsors like the Gates Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with others in the pipeline. Drexel so far has produced six inventions, one pending clinical trial, and more than 30,000 individual pieces of personal protective equipment delivered to more than two dozen community partners in Philadelphia.

In addition, we recently launched a rapid response fund for racial equity research. This work is focused on a range of fields across the University, including the relationship between race and public health, the impact of policing on health, and disparities in education. Other projects will explore the impact of racism, racial exclusion and racial inequity on Drexel students themselves. All of the projects will contribute to our understanding of the negative effects of structural racism in our society, and also will help to actively create anti-racist response.

New Leadership

Paul E. Jensen begins his first full academic year as Nina Henderson Provost, having served as interim provost since last fall, and we welcome a new dean amid other leadership appointments.

Jason S. Schupbach, takes over as dean of the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, joining us from The Design School at Arizona State University. There, he led the ambitious ReDesign.School initiative to position the ASU's design school to be a collaborative, relevant and equitable model for a 21st century institution.

Brian Ellis, PhD, of the LeBow College of Business, now leads the Goodwin College of Professional Studies as its new executive director, succeeding Tim Gilrain, who guided the development and growth of numerous Goodwin programs over the past five years. As LeBow's associate dean for program administration, Dr. Ellis created the award-winning LeBow BRIDGE, an academic enrichment program for underrepresented minority students.

At the Office of Equality and Diversity, Patience Ajoff-Foster has been named the new executive director of Diversity and Inclusive Culture and will serve an integral role in Drexel's strategy to improve diversity and inclusion results, develop the link between diversity and excellence with accountability measures, and grow and sustain inclusion efforts. At the new Center for Black Culture, Shardé Johnson moves from Student Life to serve as interim director.

College of Medicine

Early last month, the College of Medicine held its annual White Coat Ceremony to herald the start of nearly 300 students' journey to becoming physicians. Although the event was remote, it was a reminder of the hallowed traditions upheld at Drexel — and yet another sign of hope for the future. The College's bright outlook includes the approaching launch of its additional location in West Reading in collaboration with Tower Health, where a new building will house a four-year branch medical campus. Guiding our work there will be Karen Restifo, MD, JD, who last month was named the inaugural regional vice dean, joining Drexel from the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. Meanwhile, the University's joint ownership with Tower Health of St. Christopher's Hospital continues to mature, with the naming of CEO Donald Mueller, a health care executive who brings an impressive track record of fostering growth and excellence in pediatric clinical care.

Academy Visits Resume, Strategic Plan Advances

At the Academy of Natural Sciences, through which we both support the education of so many visitors beyond our campus while elevating our research and teaching in the sciences, we've implemented comprehensive protocols to ensure museum visitors and professional staff find a welcoming and safe environment. Museum hours have been adjusted from daily to Fridays and weekends, and early this month we opened a gallery with the fascinating "Wildlife Photographer of the Year" exhibit. The popular "Survival of the Slowest" sloth exhibit has been extended to late October. With these efforts to reconnect with visitors after the shutdown, the Academy is moving ahead on its new strategic plan that positions the nation's oldest natural science museum as a "force for nature" and strengthens its role at Drexel.


We can also take pride in the achievements of the women and men of Drexel Athletics, while sharing their disappointment in not being able to compete this spring and fall. Before the shutdown, the wrestling program repeated as the nation's top academic team, while Ebed Jarrell, Parker Kropman and Michael O'Malley received 2020 Division I Scholar All-American honors from the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Earlier, Amy Mallon took over for Denise Dillon as head women's basketball coach. The squash season finished strong, including victories over Penn for the seventh-ranked women and Columbia and Yale for the eighth-ranked men. While the pandemic has cleared the schedule for most intercollegiate sports, Drexel senior golfer Connor Schmidt last month repeated as the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association Amateur champion.

Looking Forward

That's a lot to take in. But as we begin this most unusual of academic years, I wanted to be sure that everyone was current on all that we've been doing to keep Drexel moving forward. I certainly share the deep sense of disappointment in not being able to bring undergraduates to campus right now. But throughout the spring and summer, Drexel faculty have worked tirelessly to create a fall quarter that I know will be robust and challenging. Through grit, determination and ingenuity, I have no doubt that our entire community will do incredible things this year — none more important than working to ensure Drexel is living up to the vision of inclusive learning and opportunity at the core of our founding and central to our mission today.

The months ahead will require resilience, creativity, flexibility, patience and commitment to the health and safety of each other. We have to push ourselves to stay ahead. For my part, I will do everything possible to bring us back together quickly and safely. I look forward to the day when our energy and Drexel spirit fully enliven this campus once more. For now, I wish you all a productive and rewarding academic year.


John Fry

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