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Beginning the new academic year on a high note

September 28, 2023

Dear Drexel Students and Colleagues,

With the inspiring faculty and student presentations at this morning’s Convocation ceremony fresh in my mind, I am delighted to warmly welcome everyone back to Drexel for the start of the new academic year.

I also join with my colleagues in extending a warm welcome to the newest members of our University community.

Our entering undergraduate and graduate students come from all backgrounds and parts of the country and world. They are an exceptionally talented and diverse class — with boundless potential to parlay their Drexel experience into a life filled with purpose and high achievement.

The arrival of 84 new faculty, who are first-rate scholar-educators and practitioners, will bring great energy, fresh thinking, and a lot of expertise to all of Drexel’s Areas of Excellence and Opportunity, and especially Health Innovation; Health Equity and Wellness; Advanced Materials and Manufacturing; Computing, A-I and Cyber Security; Sustainability and Climate Resilience; and Urban Futures.

Accomplishments in 2023

A year of progress and solid accomplishments has kept Drexel on strong footing.

For starters, we also had another banner year in research.

While we won’t have final figures until next month, research expenditures approached $150 million, as faculty at Drexel and the Academy of Natural Sciences continued to produce a raft of groundbreaking and often interdisciplinary innovations, inventions, and discoveries in STEM, and across all the arts and sciences. Many of these accomplishments are featured in the current edition of EXEL, the University’s outstanding biennial research magazine, which I strongly urge you to peruse.

Drexel has also benefited from changes in national rankings, which now focus more heavily on student outcomes.

For example, the 2024 U.S. News and World Report rankings changed its methodology in favor of new criteria, such as first-generation student graduation rates and college graduate earnings, which more align with our commitment to broad access and student success. As a result, Drexel placed in the top 100, ranking 98th out of 435 universities and 50th among private universities.

We should also be pleased by Drexel’s strong showing in the Wall Street Journal/College Pulse rankings of best colleges and universities, which focuses more heavily on student outcomes and the learning environment of the 400 institutions that were ranked. Drexel placed 54th overall and 37th among comprehensive research universities with R1 and R2 designations.

Drexel will continue to climb in national rankings as we keep providing the things that matter most to our students — a welcoming and supportive learning environment, and a rewarding experience that prepares them for a lifetime of success and personal fulfillment.

But more important, by putting our students first, we will continue to attract and graduate large numbers of accomplished future scholars, professionals, and leaders from all backgrounds.

On that score, we are off to a promising start.

At a time when so many colleges and universities are struggling to stave off sharp declines in enrollment, we currently have enrolled 2,930 new undergraduate students, exceeding our goal by well over 100 students.

We also strengthened academic advising and counseling services through a reimagined Academic Resource Center that will help ensure that all our students, including first-generation and Pell Grant-eligible students, will succeed and thrive at Drexel.

This was in part our response to last year’s dip in the first-year retention rate, which reflected learning loss during the pandemic. I am happy to report that we now are on track to retain 90% of last year’s entering class. That is a testament to the diligence and resilience of our students. But it also is a testament to the hard work of everyone who is vested in our students’ success.

And, thanks to Trustee Patrick McGonigal, a $1 million gift will support the great work of Rebecca Weidensaul, who leads the Academic Resource Center, and her team.

There were more exciting developments over the summer.

We formalized a merger agreement with Salus University, whose portfolio of outstanding graduate degree programs in the high-demand fields optometry, audiology, blindness and low-vision studies, speech-language pathology, physician assistant, occupational therapy, orthotics, and prosthetics will complement our programs in the health professions and enable us to offer our students an even wider array of pathways in high-demand fields.

We also mounted “Seeing Philadelphia,” our first exhibition of the Atwater Kent Collection that Drexel is now privileged to steward, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Drexel recently received an $850,000 grant from Pew Charitable Trusts to continue broadening public access to the collection. And we just opened “Electrified: 50 Years of Electric Factory,” a thrilling, multi-media exhibition at the Paul Peck Alumni Center Gallery and the Bossone Research Enterprise Center that celebrates the legacy of Philadelphia’s legendary Electric Factory and Electric Factory Concerts.

And as we reported to the Board of Trustees yesterday, Drexel had a successful 2023 Fiscal Year. Our revenues exceeded budget by $40 million, grants and contracts activity was ahead by $4 million, and other income was ahead by $43.3 million, with $27.7 million of that portion coming from additional funding from the Commonwealth.  Factoring in all other revenue indicators, including an overall $11.7 million increase in operations and a $38.4 million increase in net assets, the University ended the fiscal year in a strong position.

Fundraising is a critical part of our work to grow our endowment and fund operations. This past year, we raised nearly $77 million in gifts, much of which will support student scholarships and programmatic innovation.

Major gifts included:

  • $10 million from the Wilbur C. and Betty Lea Henderson Foundation to establish the Henderson Real Estate Institute in the LeBow College of Business;
  • $2.5 million pledge from alumnus Barry Silk to establish endowed scholarship funds in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Computing and Informatics; and
  • $1.875 million from the Howley Family Foundation to support scholarships for West Catholic Prep students enrolling in Engineering at Drexel.

Challenges and opportunities ahead

Even as we reflect on our collective achievements and progress, we know our University faces significant challenges ahead. As we work to close a structural deficit, the national enrollment pool is shrinking, and the competition for students is intensifying.

In response, we have begun to rethink our academic structure and operational strategies.

Our 2030 Strategic Plan will continue to help drive current and future enrollment success, to identify new markets and revenue sources, and to help the University reach $250 million in research expenditures by the end of the decade.

We are also collaborating with faculty on an ambitious academic restructuring effort. We will institute strong core competency requirements and enhance collaboration across colleges, schools and disciplines to make it easier for students to double major and to study abroad. We also are examining whether a semester-based academic calendar will best support our students and enhance our excellent relationships with Co-op employers. And we are determined to end bureaucratic policies, processes, and business practices that thwart collaboration and hold our University back.

And finally, we are working on a five-year roadmap to financial stability and market distinction that will allow us to achieve our goals for generating revenues, eliminating unnecessary expenses, and aligning our entire enterprise around our Areas of Excellence and Opportunity.

All our work on the academic and operational fronts will allow us first, to focus on what Drexel is good at and good for, and second, to ensure that we continually get better at what we do.

We will share further updates on these initiatives throughout the fall. As we do so, we will continue seeking constructive input from our community.

I know changes on this scale can be challenging. But Drexel has an amazing capacity for innovation, collaboration, and partnership to solve problems and to reinvent itself into an even more powerful force for higher education and a greater public good.

Throughout our history and in recent years we have pulled together to solve other serious problems and crises. In every instance, we emerged stronger than before. Along the way we never stop innovating, problem-solving, and building our campus and University City ecosystem.

I am extremely confident that we will get through this challenging period and come out the stronger and better for it. In the meantime, let’s keep bringing the best out of one another.

With best wishes for a healthy and productive year,

John Fry