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2013 Convocation with Freeman Hrabowski

Remarks by President John A. Fry, October 22, 2013

Good morning. President Hrabowski, Provost Greenberg, Chairman Greenawalt and trustees of the University, officers and deans, distinguished members of the faculty, professional staff, honored guests and our outstanding students, welcome.

Thank you for coming together to continue Drexel’s longstanding tradition of Convocation. I know the fall term has been underway for a while. And at Drexel, even marking September as the beginning of the year feels somewhat arbitrary, given that our academic activity continues at a smart pace all year round.

But still, it’s a good practice to gather as a community—as colleagues, partners and friends—to celebrate the great promise of the new academic year. More important, this is the time to commit to making the most of the year to come—to move our own work, and that of this great institution, forward. So I’m proud to share this day with you.

Of course, there’s one very good reason to celebrate the start of fall term at Drexel. This is when our new students arrive on our campus. They provide an incredible burst of new energy and ideas, and remind us of our primary role as a university.

To all of our first-year students, and our new graduate students, professional students and transfer students, welcome to Drexel. You are an incredibly talented and academically accomplished group. You’ll soon find yourselves fitting in well at Drexel.

But just as important, you’ll see Drexel begin to fit itself to you. This is a place that rewards innovation and entrepreneurship. In fact, those ideals animate two of this year’s most exciting new developments.

This fall marks the launch of the Charles Close School of Entrepreneurship. The Close School was created to help each Drexel student develop his or her full capacity to transform innovation into productive activity. This means new business ventures, yes, but also bringing change to established companies and organizations, and even to your own education and life.

The Close School will fulfill its mission by creating curriculum available to every student across every discipline, by bringing students interested in new venture formation together through initiatives like the Entrepreneurship Living-Learning Community and by providing real-world guidance to students who are ready to take the next step and become entrepreneurs.

The second major initiative around innovation is Drexel Ventures, a new entity providing developmental and financial support to the effort to market technologies, services and products developed at Drexel, by our faculty and students. Drexel Ventures is building the framework for Drexel people to start more companies themselves, and partner with more outside entrepreneurs, to create real economic and societal value from the University’s outstanding translational research.

So as you can see, you’ve arrived at a university that values your ideas, and wants to teach you how to nurture those ideas and use them to create positive change. But I imagine that many of you know that, and it’s why you chose Drexel.

That character comes from the essential DNA of Drexel, which was founded 122 years ago by Anthony J. Drexel to help students succeed and lead in a new economy. But it’s also the result of the kind of concerted effort that resulted in us identifying innovation and entrepreneurship as a value shared by the entire Drexel community in our strategic plan.

So I invite all new students, faculty and professional staff members to join your colleagues in pursuing the creation and expression of new ideas. Let that be a major theme this year.

I want to turn now to the theme of this day, one that will be carried forward in the years ahead. We’re focusing on another shared value in our strategic plan—the value of diversity.

We’re fortunate to have a guest who has fought for that value, taught that value and made it an essential part of his life’s work, Freeman Hrabowski. In two decades as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Dr. Hrabowski has become an icon for believing that universities are stronger and serve society better when they are more diverse; for believing that the solution to our shortfall in science, engineering and math graduates is to make sure that EVERY potential student is able to imagine themselves taking that path if they want; and for his belief that the commitment to a diverse student body, faculty and professional staff has only begun when we recruit people to campus.

His accomplishments are too many to have one signature. But one shining example is the Meyerhoff Scholars Program.

Twenty-five years ago when Dr. Hrabowski was provost at UMBC, he helped create a program to increase diversity among future science and engineering leaders, by providing financial assistance, mentoring, advising and research experience to minority students committed to future graduate study. Today, there are 800 alumni of the program across the nation, with 300 more students currently enrolled in graduate and professional programs.

When it came to the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, diversity was not just an idea, or a hope.  It became a commitment backed with resources and deep expertise.

And that’s a valuable lesson that those of us charged with enhancing diversity at Drexel can take from the UMBC experience. Because diversity doesn’t happen when we say we want to be more diverse. It happens when we come up with concrete ideas to better engage potential minority students, faculty and professional staff; when we put real effort into executing those ideas; and when we make sure that if you’re one of the people we recruit, you feel supported and engaged once you are here.

These are challenges faced by nearly every university. And while I believe that Drexel’s commitment has always been sincere, and that we’ve had some success, we are far from where we want to be in terms of minority representation on our faculty, in our student body and throughout our administration.

That’s why, last year, I charged a Diversity & Inclusive Excellence Committee with examining and accelerating the process of cultural change at Drexel. The members of that committee, who are on this stage today, created a Diversity Action Plan with goals and clear metrics to unify our efforts across our campuses.

I believe the plan will increase our ability to respond to opportunities and challenges in creating a diverse and inclusive environment. Let me describe briefly the framework the committee has developed, which will drive our efforts in this area.

The first step is to define concrete goals, as a community, and to compile and analyze real data to find out how far we are from our targets.

Next, we need to increase student access and success for all potential students, but with a special focus on race and gender.

Third, we must increase faculty and professional staff diversity. For example, we have five-year plan to hire 100 new faculty members. That represents 100 opportunities to diversify, and 100 opportunities lost if we are not prepared to recruit minority candidates successfully.

Next, as a great research university, we have to use our intellectual capital in the service of inclusiveness. We need to foster education and scholarly work on diversity and cultural competency.

Finally, we must develop a transparent system of accountability and communication about our work.

Taken together, it’s a broad menu of challenges. And though having a strong plan is an important first step, it’s meaningless in the big picture until we prove we can follow through.

But fortunately, even if we’re just starting to intensify our efforts as a university, there’s been no shortage of dedicated and creative people working on these issues here for a long time. And there are several areas where I’m happy to report some real progress. I’d like to talk about those areas briefly, in the hope that those accomplishments inspire us to keep moving forward.

Drexel’s efforts to expand student diversity span the institution. We continue to focus on recruiting the best underrepresented minority undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. This year’s freshman class saw small increases in the percentages of African American and Latino students over last year, as well as a more significant increase in international students. And we saw increased diversity in the fourth cohort of our Liberty Scholars program, which offers 50 full scholarships each year to graduates of Philadelphia high schools whose families are unable to contribute to the cost of a Drexel education.

Progress is happening – we now need to accelerate it.

I’m also proud that our Office of Student Life recognizes it’s equally important to help those students succeed by promoting a welcoming, inclusive, respectful and engaging community. For example, they’ve established a strong track record in diverse recruiting for leadership positions including Resident Assistants, Intercultural Advocates, tutors at the Center for Academic Success and Fraternity and Sorority Life Internships.

Our colleges and schools have also taken up the challenge with a range of events and activities.

An important but often overlooked dimension to building a diverse and inclusive urban university is making real connections with our neighbors. Drexel shares West Philadelphia with some very vibrant, richly cultured, but often distressed neighborhoods. We’ve made neighborhood partnerships a key pillar of our vision for Drexel.

Our outreach includes relationships with local schools, including a commitment to strengthen Morton McMichael Elementary School in Mantua, making investments through our School of Education and the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. We’re making other impacts on the quality of life through avenues like our partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Mantua community to create the Mantua Urban Peace Garden, a city farm where neighbors plant and tend their own vegetable plots with design and technical support from Drexel students.

And we’re also developing ways to make sure that Drexel’s economic impact has a positive effect in our surrounding neighborhoods. If we achieve our goal of becoming an even stronger economic engine for the region, but we do not open up economic opportunities to our neighbors, we will have failed.

We’ve begun to build new pathways to jobs at the University. These include training programs leading to stable, family-supporting jobs in our College of Medicine.

We’re also negotiating agreements with the building trades to open more jobs in construction for local residents on and near our campus. And we’ve analyzed our procurement programs to find ways to utilize more West Philadelphia-based and minority and women-owned businesses, because we know that local businesses are more likely to hire local residents.

Some of our initiatives have paid real dividends, others are in the formative stages. But what have we learned so far?

We’ve come to understand fully the importance of partnership and collaboration. A commitment to diversity is a commitment to building relationships, to transparent and inclusive planning, to engaging new voices.  It means being open to relearning what we thought we already knew. 

Within our organization, cultural change requires shared governance and broad participation.  We need to engage the deepest expertise and best ideas from the entire Drexel community.

Despite considerable advances and good-faith efforts, we’ve learned that changing the culture is a long and at times painful process that requires persistence, continuous evaluation and tough choices. 

We’ve learned that we’re wasting human potential each time a student leaves Drexel before completing his or her course of studies.  We all know that retaining our students is a challenge at Drexel, especially for our students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom are underrepresented minorities.
 
Our commitment is to make sure that all our students have the support they need to succeed.  We’ve learned that professional staff plays key role in developing a supportive and inclusive campus environment. They’re often the first and last people to engage our students on behalf of Drexel. They have a critical impact on student engagement, retention and success.   They must be included in diversity initiatives, involved in our decisions and initiatives and fully engaged in the hard work of expanding inclusiveness.

Finally, we’ve learned that a diverse faculty can create an inclusive community of scholars. But faculty must own the entire range of decisions that make diversity and inclusive excellence a reality. These include decisions about who we train as post-docs, who we hire as faculty, and who we promote and tenure.

Our main accomplishment so far is to understand how long a path is ahead of us. You’ll be hearing much more about these challenges throughout this year and beyond. But it would be hubris to think we’re inventing this wheel all by ourselves.

We’re making a point to learn about successful practices from those institutions that are in the vanguard. I’ve led a Drexel delegation to Syracuse University to learn firsthand about some of their groundbreaking initiatives. And I led a similar delegation to UMBC last November, where what we saw was both inspirational and eye-opening.

When you want to move ahead, you learn from the best. And that brings me back to my friend and mentor, Freeman Hrabowski.

At the age of 12, he was in a Birmingham jail, arrested personally by Bull Connor at Martin Luther King’s Children’s March. Seven years later, by the age of 19, he had already graduated from college. By 24 he had earned his Ph.D., and embarked on the journey to becoming one of the most influential university presidents in America.

Among many accolades, he has been named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME magazine, and one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report. He has received the Carnegie Corporation’s Academic Leadership Award, and the Heinz Award for Contributions to Improving the Human Condition. And he was named by President Obama to chair the new President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

President Hrabowski is known for taking students and visitors up to the rooftop of the administration building at UMBC for some perspective.  I’ve had the privilege to go up there with him twice, and it’s an inspiring experience.  One national publication asked him about it, and here’s what he said he sees from that roof:

“A place that changes lives. A place where students from all types of backgrounds come. A place that allows people to come in and strive to be their best. When I’m up here I see the possibilities: changing lives, producing leaders, changing the region, helping poor children learn to read, getting people excited about science. 

“Transformation is what I see.”

Dr. Hrabowski’s true gift may be getting others to see all those things too when they stand with him.

It is an honor and privilege to welcome to this stage, and to Drexel University, a singular leader in American higher education, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski.