Convocation Address 2022

Describing anti-racism and academic freedom as core tenets that are indivisible and indispensable, President Fry calls on the University community to “re-imagine an anti-racist Drexel where mutual respect reigns and academic freedom rings.” 

I would like to begin by asking for a moment of silence and reflection on the life and work of our dear colleague and friend, Penny Hammrich, who passed away on August 11.

Chairman Greenawalt; trustees, students, faculty, professional staff, and friends all:

Good afternoon. It is wonderful to have all of us back together again as we welcome a new cohort of extraordinarily talented undergraduate and graduate students, as well as our new faculty colleagues.

I want to take a moment to thank all our professional staff and volunteers who made move-in go so smoothly for students and their families. Well done.

The ancient Hindu Scripture Bhagavad-Gita contains a pearl of timeless wisdom that speaks both to this celebration and our mission:

“In all actions, consider the common good.” 

“In all actions, consider the common good.” 

A special quality differentiates us as a community of learners, scholars, and practitioners: our relentless pursuit to keep getting better at doing better. 

We practically live outside our comfort zones. 

We lean into tough situations and challenges that call for persistence, patience, and courage.  

We look to achieve that tricky yet crucial balance between challenging one another to get and do better … while also remaining respectful, humble, and supportive. 

And we try to keep the common good in focus.

But given all the daily pressures and disruptions we experience … and the ever-mounting threats to our democracy and planetary health, keeping our focus on the common good grows harder by the day. 

That is why I believe we must rededicate ourselves to upholding two indivisible core tenets that are indispensable to our mission and future. 

These two tenets are also indispensable to one another. 

I refer to anti-racism and academic freedom. 

Let me begin with the essential core tenet of anti-racism. A little more than two years ago, our Drexel community rose to meet the moment of the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice by resolving to become an anti-racist institution.

What did that mean? In simple terms, that meant we would learn to recognize, confront, and root out racism … wherever it manifested itself. 

Outside of Drexel, that has meant continuing to focus more of our teaching, research, and institutional initiatives toward serving as better partners and neighbors in West Philadelphia … while also working to reduce racial inequities in health, education, environmental impacts and economic opportunity. 

Inside Drexel, that has meant creating a climate, a culture of equity, inclusion and belonging where everyone can feel welcome, respected and valued, where no one feels excluded, gaslighted, or threatened, and where discrimination, harassment or bias against any group or individual is never tolerated. 

For those of us who are White, that has involved learning through deep listening what racism looks and feels like to those who experience it: our Black and Brown students, faculty and professional staff. 

Everyone who has joined these conversations — and read the latest Annual Report and climate survey that the newly named Office of Institutional Equity and Inclusive Culture just sent out — has learned a lot. 

We have learned that instances where people behave with clear racial bias or malice are infrequent at Drexel. 

We also have learned about the ways in which well-intentioned members of our community can project harmful racial bias toward colleagues, students, and neighbors of color without realizing it. 

And we have made progress.

Our undergraduate, graduate and professional schools have grown steadily more diverse.

We have made significant strides toward creating a much more welcoming climate and culture of equity for all students and colleagues of color. The progress we have made is a credit to the intentional work of the Anti-Racism Task Force, our Strategic Planning implementation team, and most of our schools and administrative units.

In terms of Drexel becoming an exemplar and force for anti-racism, the glass is more than half-full. But we should not be satisfied until the glass is all but full.  

I also hope we all recognize that our commitment to becoming an anti-racist institution does not signal indifference to forms of discrimination, oppression, marginalization or injustice against other groups or members of our community. 

To the contrary, every step we take to dismantle the structures and systems of racism moves us one step closer toward eradicating injustice in all its forms.  

Becoming an anti-racist and inclusive University also affords us the opportunity to renew our commitment to Drexel’s other core tenet of academic freedom. 

The start of a new academic year is a good time to reflect on what academic freedom means to Drexel … both on its own terms and in the context of our anti-racism work. 

I believe that academic freedom is just as vital as anti-racism to our teaching, research, and civic mission.

To borrow from the American Association of University Professor’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom, Drexel exists “for the common good … (and) The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

At the same time, I reject the suggestion that our commitment to becoming an anti-racist university endangers academic freedom. 

We would never try to stifle robust debate, derail free inquiry or demand conformity of thought.

Nor are we looking to mete out shame, humiliation, or retribution for the expression of dissenting views, including criticism of University policies. 

Rather, we are working to create a climate of mutual respect and belonging where we learn through listening to one another, where we find ways to disagree agreeably, where free inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge are safeguarded … and no member of our community has reason to feel demeaned or trapped in a hostile environment.

I agree with historian Henry Reichman that “the claim that we must choose between academic freedom and diversity is false.” 

“Without academic freedom,” he writes, “diverse voices may be stifled. “Yet, at the same time, an institution that fails to recognize and address the needs and demands of previously underrepresented groups and individuals may maintain the forms but not the content of academic freedom.”  

Aligning academic freedom and anti-racism in practice is no easy task. 

Right now, you cannot open your devices or newspapers without reading about political pressures – from the left and the right – being brought to bear on academic freedom. 

Nor is there any respite from harrowing and often heartbreaking reminders that the battle against racism will be long and hard-fought. 

I am proud that Drexel is standing on the right side of the battle against racism and all forms of injustice. 

I also cherish academic freedom and robust debate as the lifeblood of our vibrant, innovative university.

I believe that the care and good will we show toward one another — and our ethos of considering the common good in all our actions — can guide us to reimagine an anti-racist Drexel where mutual respect reigns and academic freedom rings. 

By working to advance anti-racism and academic freedom as interrelated and indispensable tenets, Drexel can become a more powerful force for promoting the common good … and an even better version of the University we proudly celebrate today. 

Let’s work to make that happen! 

Thank you.

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