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2020 Convocation

September 30, 2020

Thank you, Provost Jensen and congratulations again on your appointment as the Nina Henderson Provost of Drexel University.


Good afternoon and welcome to everyone in the Drexel community — and especially our incoming class of 2020. And welcome to our Drexel trustees, faculty, and professional staff.


We’re starting this new academic year at a moment that’s historic on so many levels:


In the midst of a global pandemic …  


Responding to a long-overdue call for racial justice …


Engaged in a divisive political season… 


And witnessing climate disasters of epic proportions in the West Coast wildfires and Gulf Coast hurricanes.


Even so, I welcome the opportunity to pause for this special tradition of Convocation. It’s a chance to rededicate ourselves to Drexel’s essential mission of inspired teaching and experiential learning, to research that improves lives, and to the many ways of serving our community.


Last year at Convocation, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Drexel co-op.This year, our celebration is tempered by the awareness of new challenges — and the need to recognize and mourn the tragic losses from COVID-19.


We have a lot of work to do. That much is clear. And we have new questions about the traditional way of doing things in higher education. What should a university student’s experience look like in a post-pandemic world? How can we ensure that all individuals are seen for their skills and talents, not judged through the lens of preconceived notions or bias? And what does it mean to serve our community?


As we work together to answer those questions, I think we have good reason to look ahead with confidence.


At my very first Drexel Convocation nearly 10 years ago, I posed one question in particular. And I ask it again today: ‘If Anthony Drexel were to walk today … through our campus and into the surrounding  neighborhoods, would he be satisfied that we are fulfilling our mission as an urban university?’ I also asked then, ‘What are the moral and practical obligations of an urban university like Drexel to serve its community?’ And … ‘Is Drexel University a good neighbor?’


A decade later, those questions have taken on even greater urgency. We’ve seen the divide grow between the rich, who are richer, and the poor, who are poorer. We see that gulf widening in terms of educational opportunities, income disparities, and the number of jobs threatened by technology.  And now we’ve seen the pandemic hold up a mirror to that inequality in its disparate impact on Black and Brown communities.


I’m glad to say that we have a history of responding to challenges like these.


In his keynote remarks at Convocation last year, Professor Scott Knowles looked back to the founding of co-op. He noted that Drexel’s then-president Hollis Godfrey said the university needed to respond in a productive way to move the country forward after the devastating war in Europe and the deadly flu epidemic of 1918. Out of that came the Drexel co-op, but it also set a tone for this University — one of being willing and dedicated to work to improve society.


How do we respond today? I think we do that by focusing on renewing Drexel in three areas:  learning, inclusiveness, and service.


We can be proud of our pivot to remote learning since March …


Our 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.


But we can’t stop there.


The massive disruption caused by the pandemic underscores the need for research universities like Drexel, and especially those in major urban areas that have been disproportionally impacted, to embrace their role as anchor institutions that not only act in their own interests, but in the interest of their neighborhoods, cities and American society.


That’s why we’re reexamining everything we do — to position this University as a model of extension and innovation that reimagines higher education.


As confident as I am about our prospects, fulfilling that vision has to involve everyone. First, we have to fully embrace the mission our founder established for us — to create a university open to all and uniquely suited to the needs of a rapidly growing and changing society.


We prize our diversity as a community. That’s why I am deeply committed to creating a more just, welcoming and inclusive community at Drexel. More than 100 members of the Drexel community — students, faculty, professional staff and alumni — on the Anti-Racism Task Force are actively engaged in examining all aspects of this University. They’re working toward a set of recommendations for how we can reaffirm our core values of equality and opportunity for all.


Second, we need to ensure that civic engagement — an engagement that recognizes and values diverse voices — is woven through all that we do. That was my goal a decade ago when I became president and it has remained one of our highest priorities. Serving our community isn’t simply something we do for Philadelphia. It’s must be an essential part of how we teach and learn.


Looking ahead, the Lindy Center plans to expand the number of independent civic engagement projects designed and implemented by Drexel students, faculty and professional staff themselves. And during an election year that has generated unprecedented interest and engagement, we are making a major effort to register and get out the vote in and around our campus community — both in person and by mail.


Like Anthony Drexel, we can never be satisfied that we are fulfilling our mission if all boats don’t rise on the same tide.  So, as we craft a new, 10-year strategic plan with deep insight from members of the Executive Planning Committee, we will make racial and social justice a key measure of our success. We will also integrate academics, research and external partnerships to help solve society’s most pressing problems, with experiential learning continuing at the heart of what makes Drexel a special place.


And at the same time, we will work to ensure our eventual safe return to full campus life through the efforts of the Return Oversight Committee.


I view our COVID-19 response, the Anti-Racism Task Force and the Executive Planning Committee as powerful examples of how the Drexel community can come together during difficult times. And they show how our faculty and professional staff can coalesce and rise to any occasion. I’m deeply grateful for this spirit of cooperation and the enormous progress that it generates.


This is a truly moment that calls on all of us at Drexel to innovate, to support one another, and to strive to be the best version of ourselves as individuals and as a community.  We all wish we could be together on campus. But guided by science and expertise, that time will come. And when it does, we will celebrate.


For now, I wish you all the very best for this academic year.