Drexel University’s annual convocation ceremony was held Sept. 27 to celebrate the start of the 2011-12 academic year. President John A. Fry spoke at the event about the University’s future in many capacities and elaborated on the benefits of Drexel’s affiliation with the Academy of Natural Sciences.
The ceremony, held in the auditorium of the Main Building at 11 a.m., began with a procession of Drexel faculty, all outfitted in their personalized academic regalia, marching into the auditorium behind their respective college banners.
In his opening speech, Provost Mark Greenberg praised the teachers, whom he called “the foundation of Drexel’s reputation.” He acknowledged the students they teach and the “idea of the research university.” Greenberg spoke at lengths about Drexel’s “capacity to transform lives through teaching and learning, neighborhoods and cities as an engine of innovation … and the fundamental texture of human life through technological and scientific discoveries, artistic interventions and cultural interpretations.”
He continued, stating “The modern research university has one additional capacity that helps characterize it, and that is the capacity to transform itself through growth, partnerships and affiliations.”
Many of the convocation speakers, including Greenberg, Fry and Richard A. Greenawalt, chair of the board of trustees, mentioned the University’s affiliation with the Academy of Natural Sciences, which was announced this past spring.
“This is an exciting development for Drexel, the Academy and all of Philadelphia,” Greenawalt said.
In his second-ever Drexel convocation address, Fry spoke extensively about the University’s partnership with the Academy.
“Bringing these two world-class institutions together is the sort of bold move that enhances a city, a region and an entire scientific community,” Fry said, before praising ANS president and CEO George Gephart for his effort to create the partnership.
“The synergies between Drexel and the Academy are incredibly promising as we bring together two outstanding teams of scholars and researchers,” Fry said. “All of these researchers will have access both to the extraordinary scientific collections of the Academy and the advanced laboratories and technology of Drexel, especially those found at the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building.”
Another benefit of the merger is the creation of the new Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, which will begin enrolling students next fall pending the new department’s approval.
Additionally, Fry stated that members of the Goodwin School of Education will be partnered with Academy educators to develop new programs for students of all ages and to expand teacher training programs
The Westphal College of Media Arts and Design will also team up with the Academy to create new ways to share the Academy’s resources with visitors through media-rich exhibitions and cell phone applications.
In a move that further established the importance of the partnership with the Academy of Natural Sciences, the keynote speaker of this year’s convocation was Robert McCracken Peck, senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
Fry was last year’s convocation keynote speaker, having just recently beginning his tenure a few months before the ceremony.
Introducing Peck, Fry said, “He has served as natural history consultant to Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Library, Reader’s Digest, David Attenborough and the BBC. And, in 1989, a new species of South African frog, one of three new species he discovered during an exhibition to Ecuador, was named in his honor. That makes him unique, I think, among Drexel faculty.”
Peck recently spent two months this summer living and traveling with a tribe of nomadic Mongolian families, documenting the effects of climate change on the lives of the people in central Asia as part of a five-year study funded by the National Science Foundation. Having spent more than 35 years working with the Academy, he is currently working on a history of the Academy for its bicentennial in March of 2012.
The Academy was founded in 1812, during America’s war for independence from Great Britain. During this time, American natural scientists were fighting for recognition for their discoveries, which included species of plants, animals and other natural specimens. Most of these were sent to European natural scientists, who often took great liberties with the sent specimens.
“Numbered among the Academy’s 18 million specimens are the plants collected by Lewis and Clark on their historic journey across the country, the fossils that Thomas Jefferson kept at Monticello and at the White House while he was president,” he said.
Peck added that the Academy also holds collections of fish caught off the coast of Cuba by Ernest Hemingway, who he joked “liked to fish for the Academy.”
He stressed the advantages of the affiliation for the members of the University community, saying, “Just a short Dragon bus ride away from where we have gathered this morning lies one of the most comprehensive and historically significant repositories of biological information to be found anywhere in the world. The discoveries you can make there with it are limited only by the effort you are willing to exert and the challenging questions you are willing to ask,” he said.
“We are enormously strengthened by an institution that is known worldwide for its innovative thinking and its strong commitment to addressing environmental and social problems of universal concern,” Peck said. “Together, the Academy of Natural Sciences and Drexel University, the dinosaur and the dragon, create an extraordinary union that is sure to have an impact here in Philadelphia and around the world.”
A large part of Fry’s speech also dealt with Drexel’s impact in Philadelphia, but in terms of housing and community interaction.
“Last year when I addressed convocation, I had only been here two months. I look forward, by necessity, to taking the opportunity to lay out a comprehensive investment in the neighborhoods adjacent to our campus. This year, we certainly could look back, and with enormous pride. Our neighborhood initiatives, although they work on a long-term timeline, had some real successes and received some big votes of confidence,” he said.
He referenced the $1 million boost PECO gave Drexel to create the Drexel PECO Community Education Collaborative. The University also received $15 million from philanthropist Philip Lindy to establish the Lindy Neighbors program and name the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement. As discussed in his address last year, Fry mentioned the expansion of the Employee Home Purchase Assistance Program that grants eligible facility and staff loans to purchase a home in a nearby neighborhood; he reported that 10 families had already moved into new homes.
“This is a great start — but much, much more needs to be done,” he said.
Fry also announced that the new LeBow College of Business academic building will open in 2014 and that the University will begin construction this fall on the URBN Center at 3501 Market St. and 3401 Filbert St. for the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.
“The URBN Center is an approximately 155,000 square-foot complex consolidating the existing space of Westphal College from eight buildings to a unified location on the main street of University City, Market Street,” he said.
According to Fry, the studio-based programs will be housed at the 3501 Market St. building, which was designed by the famous local architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The building at 3401 Filbert St. will host an art gallery, a black box theater and a film screening room “to make important new spaces available supporting the fine and performing arts available to the Drexel community and all of our West Philadelphia neighbors.”
The board of trustees approved constructing both buildings after receiving successful construction bids, and the two facilities are expected to be open and ready for occupancy next fall.
Fry also honored the incoming freshman class, which is composed of over 3,000 students, the largest in the University’s history, hailing from 42 states and 54 countries. One-third of the students graduated in the top 10 percent of their class in high school, with 55 students being valedictorians or salutatorians and another two-thirds placed in the top 25 percent. Additionally, the incoming class of freshman contains 50 Liberty Scholars, or outstanding Philadelphia high school students who received a full scholarship to Drexel.
“The Drexel today is not the same Drexel I matriculated at, and that is a great thing,” Adam Trosko, president of the Undergraduate Student Government Association, said before urging his fellow students to challenge themselves so that in five years they can take pride in what will be a new and improved Drexel University.
Sophomore music industry major Brett Rodgers also voiced his opinion about the ceremony.
“I think what I like most about convocation is the promise for the coming year, in that the speakers each try to relay their hopes and goals for the University, and the progress is a nice concept at least.”