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Drexel Deans Look Back at 2020 — Part One

December 16, 2020

Drexel Deans Look Back at 2020

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series showing how Drexel deans reflected on 2020. Part two is available here.

In any another year, like years past, DrexelNow would be publishing its annual “Top Drexel Stories” year-in-review article to share the biggest stories, news and social media posts from Drexel University.

But with the year that we’ve all been living through, that didn’t seem right. The Venn diagram of 2020 — a global pandemic, national calls for racial reckoning and social justice, and a significant presidential election occurring in a divisive political environment — calls for a different way to remember something we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives. And one way to encapsulate everything that happened at the University this year doesn’t include analytics or awards, but thoughtfulness and honesty from the leaders who guided huge populations of the University through months and months of changes and uncertainty.

For this reason, DrexelNow asked the deans of the University’s colleges and schools to reflect on the challenges they tackled this year, what they're most proud of, and what they learned from 2020.

Here’s what seven Drexel deans thought about 2020:

College of Arts and Sciences (CoAS) Professor and Dean Norma Bouchard, PhD:

I am very proud of how quickly and well the College of Arts and Sciences responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our faculty transitioned to remote learning with grace and good humor, with several of them assisting their faculty colleagues at Drexel and elsewhere with the transition to online teaching. For example, Scott Warnock [PhD, director of the University Writing Program and professor] of English used his expertise in online education to help international colleagues make the switch, and Meshagae Hunte-Brown [PhD, teaching professor] of Biology presented at the Labster program “Science Online: Inspired,” a virtual conference to empower science educators looking to improve STEM learning in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.

Our students also showed remarkable resilience and determination. Their success in the virtual classroom under such challenging circumstances is a tribute to the faculty-student connection that is a hallmark of a CoAS education.

It wasn’t just teaching and learning that continued to thrive. Our departments created numerous co-op positions to fill the gap left by external organizations that had to cut back. Research and scholarship throughout the college — by our faculty, our grad students and our undergraduates — went on at an impressive rate, as evidenced by the outstanding work on display at this year’s CoAS Research Day. We published in some of the world’s most prestigious journals, including Science

When issues of diversity, equity and inclusion came to the fore in Philadelphia and throughout the country, the College appointed a new associate dean for DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] and held our first CoAS-wide town hall on diversity. The Department of Sociology developed a syllabus of resources addressing the history of racism in the city. Several faculty members published commentaries suggesting innovative solutions to inequity and injustice. One of our students, communication major Jane-janette Ansah, spotlighted the Black Lives Matter movement via her WKDU radio show and podcast series “Good Morning, Neighbors.”

In CoAS we like to say that the world won’t wait, and neither will we. 2020 certainly bore that out. 

College of Computing & Informatics Dean and Isaac L. Auerbach Professor Yi Deng, PhD:

This past year has been a very challenging one to all of us. Challenging times, however, often bring out our core strengths. The thing that I am the proudest of is the way our faculty, professional staff, students and the college leadership team responded to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our people responded to the challenges with vigor and humanity, set aside whatever differences we may have and worked as a team to not only sustain our academic operations and programs, but also continue to drive our innovation and growth. Our people have not only done their individual parts, but also supported each other in face of the massive disruptions to our organization and personal life. I cannot emphasize enough about the importance and power of this team spirit; and results spoke for themselves:

We effectively moved academic and research programs into the virtual mode with few glitches. Our faculty, professional staff and students quickly built new ways of engaging and supporting each other. Our college sustained its robust growth in the midst of COVID-19, adding well over 100 new students and a score of new programs and partnerships, e.g., a new set of graduate programs in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Community-based Librarianship and a pioneering industry-customized MS in Software Engineering program. We have launched a comprehensive redesign of CCI’s graduate programs and developed new inter-college and interdisciplinary academic programs. These efforts and teamwork not only enabled us to successfully address many pressing short-term challenges, but also continued to move our college forward for our long-term impact, growth and competitiveness.

School of Education (SoE) Dean and Distinguished University Professor Penny Hammrich, PhD:

I am most proud of the School of Education’s faculty and staff’s resilience and courage to face the pandemic while always keeping our students’ needs front and center. We have a family feel in the School of Education but during this pandemic it has really grown more evident. We all care for one another and look for ways to help support each other and our students.

With the budget cuts that came with the pandemic, I asked the faculty and staff to make sacrifices for the good of the school so that I did not have to let anyone go; sacrifices like teaching an extra course for no pay and giving up half or all of their professional development money. They were more than willing and said anything we can do to keep us all together as a school and a family, they were willing to do so. It was simply remarkable. I realized more than ever that we have special and amazing faculty and staff in the School of Education — that there is nowhere else I would rather be then right with them in the School of Education. Honestly, they amaze me every day. I am proud of all of them and happy to call all of them my colleagues.

On challenges faced:

There were two big challenges I faced this year. The first was how are we going to keep our student numbers up and retain them? I am so proud of how the faculty and staff stepped up and worked collaboratively to personally reach out to every interested student and all current student to help them in their educational journey even during the pandemic. They truly are an amazing group of individuals! 

The second challenge: When I reflect on 2020 and the multitude of crises that we faced as a nation (e.g., COVID-19, economic adversity), the racial injustices our Black community endured — this year and for centuries before it — profoundly impacted me. As dean of the School of Education and an educator myself, I knew I could not ignore the history-making protests against racial injustice that were occurring around the nation and the world. These painful but inspiring moments provoked me to ask myself a question: how do I, as a white woman, create a safe space within the School of Education for honest dialogue about race and racism and provide mechanisms for the SoE to engage in the transformational work required to disrupt our own systems of inequity? In consultation with faculty and staff, and with leadership from the Critical Conversations in Urban Education (CCUE) committee that has been fostering these critical dialogues for the school since 2012, we formed the “Dean’s Equity Leadership Team” (DELT) and contracted with CEO and President Glenn Singleton of Pacific Educational Group (PEG) to provide proven frameworks and tools. We began this month with PEG’s award-winning “Courageous Conversations About Race” protocol designed to help us engage in productive interracial conversations. We will continue in the months and years to come to build our capacity as individuals and as a school to analyze our systems and to transform them toward equity and racial justice.  

To deal with increasing revenue opportunities and broadening our offering of competencies we rolled out The Education Passport. The Education Passport is a new initiative focused on revenue-generating, non-credit opportunities for both SoE and collaborators (including SoE full-time faculty and staff, current doctoral students, alumni, and outside individuals and entities). The proposed ventures will lead to SoE “customers” earning a credential that becomes part of their personal Education Passport. Current approved initiatives that have been reviewed/offered (or envisioned) include: workshops, micro-credentials, badges, stackable certificates, courses, conferences, professional development, consulting, app development, educational products and webinars. Programming may be delivered online, face-to-face or in a hybrid format. All non-credit programming is focused on revenue generation that is split between the School of Education and the proposer.

Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship Founding Dean and Silverman Family Professor of Entrepreneurial Leadership Donna De Carolis, PhD:

The Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship was ranked No. 12 of the top 50 entrepreneurship programs for 2021 by the Princeton Review. This is a remarkable achievement given that the school is only seven years old and competing universities have programs that are older. The Charles D. Close School also achieved AACSB accreditation, making it the first independent (outside of a business school) school of entrepreneurship to be accredited.

I am also extremely proud of our students who adapted to a very different reality. And extremely proud of my faculty and staff who never skipped a beat in service to our students and each other. 

All of us really experienced the power of the essence of being entrepreneurial in your life and career: resilience. We had no choice but to adapt personally; and many of our student entrepreneurs pivoted their businesses in light of the circumstances.

Dean of the Graduate College at Drexel, Senior Vice President for Graduate and Online Education and Founding Dean of the College of Medicine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies Elisabeth Van Bockstaele, PhD:

I am most proud of our faculty, staff and students’ resilience and creativity. I was very concerned about the pivot to remote dissertation (PhD) defenses and whether there would be decreased attendance in the remote setting at the dissertation (PhD) seminars. These events usually bring the community together on campus especially in departments and training programs where many faculty and students convene in seminar rooms to listen to a PhD students’ final presentation before their private defense. There is always an air of excitement in the room as a student who has worked so hard on a thesis topic is able to share their work. It turns out the remote setting fostered even greater attendance at these PhD seminars and family members of the presenting PhD student could attend and watch the public presentation. I was particularly moved by a PhD student who concluded her formal scientific presentation with a robust acknowledgement of her support system and recognized her mother, who attended the student’s Zoom presentation. The mother had been having chronic health issues and was so thrilled to listen to her daughter’s presentation as she had supported her daughter, a first-generation college student, who was the first person in their extended family to achieve a PhD. The mother passed away a few weeks after the daughter’s successful PhD presentation. I know the student will cherish the memory of having has her mother on the Zoom watching her amazing oral presentation.

Our students and faculty are resilient and despite the many challenges, are willing to step up and support one another.

  1. [Director of Instructional Technology] Michael Shelmet is a great example of someone who stepped up to help support faculty, staff and students through COVID, likely working many long hours to make BbLearn more accessible to all.
  2. The Online Learning Council (OLC) chaired by Deirdre McMahon [PhD, teaching professor of English] expanded their online training workshops to support faculty in acquiring expertise on how to teach online (not just remotely).
  3. The Graduate Student Association realized the student financial needs and decided to use their funds to help support graduate students by offsetting out-of-pocket medical costs and are launching that program in the winter term with small grants ($100–200).

On challenges faced:

  1. Some great news — a professional staff member in the Graduate College, Sandra Strang [director of communications and events], became a new mom in September. We hosted a baby shower through Zoom and the spirit of closeness we usually feel in the office translated well to the Zoom setting. While Sandra was out on maternity leave, the entire team stepped up to help ensure communication to our graduate population did not wane, this includes Reina Lopez [Drexel University Online (DUO) manager of events and conferences] and Michelle Layone [DUO events and conferences coordinator], and others from DUO, as well as Graduate College staff members David Kim [administrative coordinator] and Tsz Kwok [PhD, associate director]. 
  2. There have been many challenges across all higher education. At the Graduate College, the biggest challenges for our students have been visa issues for new and returning students, financial issues, losses of jobs and homes, managing childcare alongside studying and conducting research, conducting research and the list goes on, but every department and the people in those departments have come together without fail to support our students and keep everyone informed of changes. It really has been wonderful to see the Drexel professional staff and faculty come together and unite to ensure the success of our students.
  3. The biggest challenge we continue to face is around students feeling overwhelmed. These feelings stem from: worrying about completing their degrees, managing course work, research, and families, financial, and worrying about getting sick. There is little we can do to alleviate much of this, but we are being supportive. For example, we recently held a panel discussion entitled: “PhD Dissertation and MS Thesis Writing and Research in the Midst of COVID.” We brought together faculty from STEM, Humanities, and Education to talk about strategies for navigating the challenges COVID has created such as limited access to the lab, narrowing the scope of research, remaining productive, writing parts of the dissertation early, etc. 75 students registered for this event and 34 attended live — by far our most successful event!

On responding to the events of 2020:

The Remote Course Facilitator Program has been a huge success for both faculty and the students. It offered faculty assistance with managing Zoom, break out rooms, attendance, monitoring the chat, which allowed the faculty to do what they do best: teach! It also gave graduate students the opportunity to earn a stipend and get experience in assisting faculty, which might lead them to want to become a teaching assistant and give them some broad experience in working with BbLearn.

Pennoni Honors College Dean and Distinguished Professor of English Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD:

I’m proud of how well our faculty have handled their seminars online, often using innovative teaching techniques and drawing praise from students. Also, having such an impressive programming presence online with excellent attendance at our many events: Pennoni Panels, Wednesdays at the Kline, Lunch n Learns, Dean’s Teas, Shakespeare Read Alouds, Nerd Night, Fellowships workshops, and online advising.

Pennoni’s Undergraduate Research & Enrichment Programs awarded emergency funding grants to 30 students for a total of $99,000 distributed to faculty/departments to hire students as part-time research co-ops in spring/summer 2020.

On what was learned this year:

How adaptable we are — and how resilient our students, staff, and faculty are to difficult conditions. The “Happiness” course from Eric Zillmer [PsyD, director of athletics and Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology], for example, involved some distanced meetings in the city — and brought happiness to everyone involved.

In the same uplifting vein, here are a few more such courses we offered in fall term: Joshua Peskin’s “The Quest for Meaning: Designing a Purposeful Life”; Haley Dervinis’ “The Concept of Kindness”; Dmitri Papadopoulos’ “Seeking the Good Life in Troubled Times”; and Deirdre McMahon’s “Writing as Survival.”

We had to figure out a way to provide our 150 STAR Scholars, who would normally work with faculty on research or creative projects in person over the summer, with a way to continue to participate in the program. We gave them the option of completing a project remotely during the summer or deferring their participation until the academic year, with the hopes of participating in in-person part-time research over two terms. Overall, our students responded with resilience and gratitude for the options we gave them.

On responding to the events of 2020:

One of the innovations was our ability to bring in people to our events who would ordinarily not come or be connected to Drexel. This was true for some of our Pennoni Panels (though these tend to always draw large audiences), but also for our Shakespeare Read Alouds, which has become a close-knit community of Shakespeare enthusiasts: faculty, staff, alums, and friends, some located far away. To date, we have read five plays together (“As You Like It,” “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Taming of the Shrew”) and will continue to meet virtually, even after the University returns to face to face.

Production on the premiere season of The Civil Discourse (which I host) went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, where Zoom conferencing enabled additional interview recordings with notable names and timely topics including New York Times civil rights investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and NBC News correspondent and MSNBC show host Ali Velshi.

Thomas R. Kline School of Law and Professor of Law Daniel M. Filler:

On things to be proud of:

Frankly, most of our faculty had not taught online before. That’s no surprise because our accreditor, the American Bar Association (ABA), strictly limits distance education. Also, most faculty rely on a learning management system called TWEN, rather than Blackboard. So the faculty needed a lot of support and that was challenging. Thankfully, we were able to call on a number of staff members with technical skills — from our small online teaching team which we pulled away from our Master of Legal Studies, to librarians and administrative assistants. It was a real team effort. And the faculty also stretched themselves, not only investing tons of time to move to a new modality but also collaborating with each other like we’ve never seen before. I’ve been incredibly proud of that communal effort to deal with the technical and pedagogical challenges of teaching online. 

On lessons learned:

This is true not just for me, it’s true for everyone: when you take a job, you think you know the job description. Being a law school dean for three years was more or less the job I anticipated. Then COVID happens and suddenly you’re called upon to do a series of different things: revisit your management style, revisit priorities, figure out what your role is in ensuring the success of your school. I had to really take stock about what my role was to ensure that the students, staff and faculty could continue to progress and thrive educationally and professionally. It’s been a big learning curve. You’re doing the best you can when the best you can do isn’t as good as you want to do, and you just have to accept it. For all of us, in my view, that’s been the story of COVID.

On challenges faced:

There’s the challenge we faced of navigating the Blackboard software system, which I talked about.

We’re always worried about faculty and staff and student isolation, and maintaining community in the absence of physical presence. We try to do have meetings and programming and the like, but it’s been really hard to consistently keep people looped in together.

Another challenge — and it’s just agonizing because it’s so unevenly distributed and we don’t have an answer for it — is the weight that’s been put on parents. I have so much admiration for our faculty and professional staff who are being asked to do their regular jobs and take care of their children. And to be honest, this seems to have fallen way disproportionately on women. As I see these parents handling both their home job and their office job, I’m watching superhuman behavior with our staff going beyond what would seem possible.

This May, we organized a huge national conference called “Leaning into Uncertainty: Ensuring Quality Legal Education During Coronavirus.” Over about a month, we prepared this complicated event for 1,000 registrants. It was hard to put on both in terms of the time, energy, coordination and technical aspects, but it was amazing to play a central part in advancing the entire U.S. legal education enterprise by having brought together a lot of people tackling tough teaching challenges. And to my knowledge, this was the first conference ever hosted by a single law school that drew participants from every single ABA-accredited law school.

We also have a very active diversity and inclusion committee, which goes by the name of “DiveIN,” and it’s led by Danielle Boardley, who is our director of diversity, inclusion and student belonging. One of our key activities this summer and fall has been creating a non-credit, voluntary anti-racism course modeled on an ABA 21-day reading group for all members of the community. About 75 to 100 faculty, professional staff and students have been getting together about every couple of weeks as an important community building activity. We do a pre-read or pre-watch and we come together to discuss and really try to stare down the kinds of racism issues that live in our midst every day, everywhere. It’s been really important to give shared visibility to the kind of racism and racist experiences that only a smaller portion of our community might normally be aware of.