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A Nearly Final Word from Dean Sabinson

Allen Sabinson

May 19, 2020

It is with mixed emotions that I am stepping down at the end of this August as the Dean of the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design after nearly fifteen years. I could never have imagined the uncertain and frightening state of today’s world or that I would be writing this message confined to my home as is much of the world. Like our seniors approaching graduation, it’s hard to fathom that I won’t be able to personally congratulate our new graduates at Commencement or attend our many senior shows, which are always a highlight. That being said, I’ve never been prouder of the College’s faculty, staff and students and, trust me, I have always been very proud of this College. As a community, on a dime and with no complaints, we re-invented our curriculum in creative and engaging ways and are now delivering it remotely. What we’re doing is not all perfect, but we’re working most conscientiously to successfully deliver the education and experiences our students deserve and we’re beginning to plan to be back on campus with students, hopefully, this September.

The Westphal College was renamed after beloved alumna Antoinette Westphal shortly after I was appointed in 2005, and now in 2020, we’re a very different College. In the past 15 years, we’ve added eight new undergraduate programs, four new Master’s programs, and launched the College’s first doctoral program. Enrollment has grown by nearly 25% to almost 2,400 students. Our faculty has increased from 89 to 127, and funding and support has more than doubled. Fifteen of the College’s programs enjoy national rankings, and the College itself is ranked among the nation’s best Applied Arts and Design schools. The 145,000 square feet of the URBN Center and Annex, opened in 2013, and the new Music Industry studios, opened in 2018, provide us many unparalleled studios, specialized facilities and classrooms. Our students compete in and win many national competitions and achieve impressive employment outcomes. Their talent and hard work is humbling. Our faculty conduct important funded research, and produce nationally recognized creative work and scholarship while being passionately devoted to their teaching and students. Clearly, there’s a lot to be proud of, but I am most proud of the community that I will soon be leaving. It is a community of truly outstanding faculty and professional staff; I wish I could single all of them out by name and accomplishments, but that would make this newsletter even longer than it is.

There are many serious challenges that will need to be faced in the coming months and years, but it gives me comfort to know that this community will come together to meet these challenges. It will take time to return to all that we could do prior to COVID-19, but Drexel will get there, and I will follow with great interest future Westphal accomplishments. I believe we will be well-served by our core values of respect, compassion, creativity, hard work and a passion for our fields, which are of our times. To our current and former students, faculty, staff and friends, thank you for the honor and privilege of leading the College these past 15 years.

Dept of Design 

Even in our earlier iterations as the College of Design Arts, design has always been a strength of the College. Now, we can boast of nationally ranked programs in Fashion Design, Design & Merchandising, Graphic DesignProduct Design and Photography. The Design Department has benefited greatly from the open studios and new technologies that abound in the URBN Center: from the Hybrid Lab that brings together students from many of our programs to use our array of digital fabrication technologies; to the High Tech Knitting Lab; and to the Fox Historic Costume Collection with its outstanding gallery, conservation and climate controlled storage space for 20,000 garments, accessories and fashion ephemera. We teach students design and critical thinking, how to harness their creativity and work collaboratively, professional practice, and the history of design. The faculty have research and scholarly interest in furthering sustainability, especially in the fashion industry, the future of high-tech fabrics, disruption of the retailing sector, and digital archiving. A large number of Design students avail themselves of the College’s study abroad programs in the United Kingdom, Italy and Korea. The annual fashion show, featuring the creations of Fashion Design students and produced by Design & Merchandising students, is always one of the University’s premiere events. Year in and year out, the Department’s lifestyle magazine, D&M, wins awards for its design excellence and editorial content. The Department is ably headed by Ann Gerondelis, who is finishing her second year at Drexel. Ann replaced the long-serving Roberta Gruber, who will retire at the end of this academic year. Roberta led the Department for ten years, during which the Product Design major was created, our programs received new highs in national and international rankings, and with a generous gift from its namesake benefactors, the Robert & Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection came into its own with our first full-time curator and staff, housed in its terrific new home.

Dept of Architectue, Design & Urbanism 

The Department was reorganized in 2007 when the Architecture program was merged with the undergraduate and graduate Interior Design programs under long-serving Architecture department head Paul Hirshorn. Architecture has been taught at Drexel since the University’s founding in 1891 and was offered in two distinct versions – a part-time program delivered in the evening housed in the Goodwin College and the innovative two plus four program, in which, after two years of full-time study, students continue their studies in the evening while finding full-time employment during the day. Our move to the URBN Center enabled us to consolidate the Architecture and Interior Design programs from studios in three different buildings, facilitating creation of a single dynamic community of architecture and interior design students and faculty. In recent years, we’ve added two of the most innovative and interdisciplinary Master’s programs in the University: giving students the ability to customize their studies drawing upon the many design strengths of the College in the Design Research program; and addressing the many issues presented in the urban environment in the interdisciplinary Urban Strategy program. The undergraduate Interior Design program and the graduate Interior Architecture & Design program have held their place in the important DesignIntelligence rankings for over a decade now, and virtually every architectural and interior design practice in the region is heavily populated with our alumni. Alan Greenberger—a principal of the MGA architecture firm, former Deputy Mayor of Economic Development for the City of Philadelphia, and a long-serving faculty member in the evening Architecture program—was appointed department head in 2016 and brings outstanding leadership to an outstanding department.

Dept of Performing Arts 

Other than accomplished department head Dr. Miriam Giguere, I have probably seen more dance, music and theatre performances than anyone at Drexel, and for good reason – the quality of our student performers, drawn from all Drexel colleges and schools, is impressively high. In 2011, we added the Black Box Theater, where the Theatre program mounts consistently exciting productions in addition to the shows presented on the stage of the 450-seat Mandell Theater. The Music program has 14 excellent ensembles, adding a full symphony orchestra in recent years, and offers four minors, deep course offerings, and private lessons. Dance offers a unique major, launched in 2007, that prepares students for careers in dance therapy, physical therapy, dance education, and performance and choreography. We’ve opened two dance studios, and the Dance program supports three student dance companies. Dance students teach and perform on a regular basis in Philadelphia public schools and offer multiple classes to our neighboring communities through Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. Our stages and studios have hosted hundreds of performances by major artists over the years. To name just a few: Robert Wilson, Pig Iron Theatre Company, Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company, Bread and Puppet Theater, Kun Yang-Lin Dance, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert master David Kim, Boris Charmatz, Israel Galvan, the Dancing Monks of Assam, Intercultural Journeys, Doug Wright, and Red Bastard.

Dept of Digital Media 

Under the impressive leadership of Dr. Michael Wagner, the Department of Digital Media has grown from a single undergraduate major into the College’s largest department, now offering undergraduate majors in Game Design & Production, Animation & Visual Effects, Interactive Digital Media, and Virtual Reality & Immersive Media, a robust Master’s program, and the College’s only PhD program. Digital Media faculty bring in substantial funding through their cutting-edge research in serious gaming, artificial intelligence, and the use of new technologies to address societal problems. Faculty have received National Science Foundation grants; run the Entrepreneurial Game Studio, which assists students in commercializing their video games; and creatively utilize two motion capture studios, a motion platform, and industry-standard digital hardware and software. Our students have twice won the Intel University Games Showcase as well as the E3 College Game Competition. In 2018 alone, alums worked on Ralph Breaks the Internet, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ready Player One, and Avengers: Infinity War, all Academy Awards nominees. The Princeton Review has consistently ranked our Game Design & Production program as one of the top gaming programs in the country ever since its creation.

Dept of Art & Art History 

This large department of talented artists and outstanding art historians offers our important foundational curricula in design and art history. The department’s sole degree program is Art History, launched in 2015, which can be taken as a dual major by students from across the University. The Art History faculty includes specialists in the history of design and material culture as well as Asian, African, Latin American, American and Modern Art. Faculty from other Westphal departments contribute expertise on the History of Fashion, Architecture and Photography. Art History majors have unique co-op opportunities at Philadelphia’s many important museums. Our Studio Art faculty are painters, printmakers and sculptors who exhibit creative work across the country and the world. They offer a deep curriculum in drawing, design, painting, sculpture, printmaking and furniture making. The 3,500 square-foot Leonard Pearlstein Gallery has presented exhibitions from the likes of Wangechi Mutu, Brendan Fernandes, Jesse Krimes and Chakaia Booker, as well as exhibitions on the history of Drexel, the fashion designs of James Galanos, the photography of Bob Gruen, and on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Dr. Elizabeth Milroy joined us as department head in 2015 from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she was the Zoë and Dean Pappas Curator of Public Programs. She is widely published and was previously the Dean of Arts & Humanities at Wesleyan University.

Dept of Cinema & Television 

This department houses the undergraduate Film & Television and Screenwriting & Playwriting programs, and the graduate program in Television & Media Management. Since 2005, we have added excellent new faculty with expertise in editing, cinematography, sound and music, and television, as well as talented independent filmmakers. We’ve invested heavily in industry-standard equipment, such as the Red One, the ARRI Alexa and Amira along with Steadicams, dollies, and top-notch sound and lighting equipment. Film & Television students create a minimum of six films during their Drexel careers but, in reality, they work on dozens more by crewing on their classmates’ projects. Through the Drexel in Los Angeles program launched in 2011, roughly 40 students spend the summer after sophomore year studying and interning in LA; many stay on for six-month co-ops in this film and television capital. Each year, students produce a new episode of Off Campus, a sitcom about life after college, which features professional actors and is now in its 11th season. Off Campus has won four National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Awards, airs on Drexel’s television station DUTV (carried in Metropolitan Philadelphia by Comcast and Fios), and episodes have aired three times on CBS’ CW Philly 57. For the past several years, the Department has offered a winter break study abroad program on documentary filmmaking in Cuba. Karin Kelly, an active filmmaker and the author of Film School Confidential, is the department head.

Dept of Arts & Enterprise Enterprise 

This department houses the undergraduate programs in Entertainment & Arts Management and Music Industry, and the Master’s program in Arts Administration & Museum Leadership, and will be very well led by recently-appointed department head Julie Goodman. The Music Industry program has grown into our largest undergraduate major and is recognized by Billboard Magazine as one of the nation’s best. Year in and year out, the program is probably the most selective in the University. As the program grew from modest beginnings, we created one studio after another with increasing capability and sophistication, culminating in our ‘Studio One,’ recognized as Philadelphia’s premiere recording studio, designed by the noted acousticians Walters-Storyk. The program’s student-run record label MAD Dragon Records has released over 40 albums since 2005, and its acts have appeared on the likes of The Tonight Show and The David Letterman Show. The Drexel Audio Archives was founded when we received the 7,000 masters of the Sigma Sound Recording Studio, the city’s legendary recording studio, where the likes of David Bowie, Patty LaBelle, Solomon Burke, the O’Jays and Teddy Prendergast recorded many of their classics. Last year’s release of The Nat Turner Rebellion’s 50 year-old unreleased album received major press coverage.

The Arts Administration & Museum Leadership program is one of the oldest and finest of its kind in the nation, offering a Master’s degree both in-person and online. The program’s faculty publish and present their extensive research on management, operational and ethics issues in the non-profit arts field, and they consult for leading arts organizations. When the Academy of Natural Sciences merged with Drexel in 2011, we launched the Museum Leadership program to take advantage of the opportunities offered to work with this amazing institution. The Arts Administration & Museum Leadership program has deep connections to arts organizations in the region and beyond through its loyal alumni who are leaders of these institutions. The next several years will be difficult ones for artists and arts organizations, but the Arts Administration & Museum Leadership program will have an important role to play in the preservation and resurgence of the arts and culture in America.

The Entertainment & Arts Management program (EAM), launched in 2006, is unique in offering an undergraduate business and management degree focused on the entertainment industry and the visual and performing arts. Its students have had a wide range of co-ops and gone on to employment in major media companies, renowned theaters and venues, management and production companies, and museums. EAM leads a terrific summer program that brings students each year to the world’s largest Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, where they take classes and work on festival productions. Special thanks to Larry Epstein, the inaugural program director for Entertainment & Arts Management and a long-serving Department Head extraordinaire who will retire at the end of the spring term.

That's Almost All, Folks

I will be very busy through the end of August as I work to assist our students, faculty and staff in putting together a June virtual Commencement to celebrate our new graduates, and as we advance plans for a safe September opening. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank three individuals who were my partners in leading the College. For ten years, Sandy Stewart served as the Academic Associate Dean, and was integrally involved in everything we did. She was succeeded by Debra Ruben this January 1st. Deb’s first months have been a trial by fire, and she has more than demonstrated that she will be a caring and effective steward of our students, faculty, staff and curriculum. Peter Bartscherer is the long-serving Associate Dean for Finance & Administration. There hasn’t been a single construction or facilities project, equipment purchase, hiring decision or budget matter that wasn’t impacted by his thoughtful input and huge institutional memory.

And finally, my wish for everyone is to stay in good health and to keep your spirits up as this too shall pass one day.

Allen Sabinson
Dean, Westphal College of Media Arts & Design