New Disruptions Accelerate Drexel University's Future
The four major 2020 disruptions selected as backdrop for this report are those that most affected the Libraries’ delivery of its continued obligations to the University. Addressing any individual disruption during a single year is challenging. Faced together—the turnover in Drexel’s academic leadership, the challenges of budget and fiscal management, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the global responses to systemic racism and civil injustices—is a formidable and overwhelming task.
In 2019, as part of the University’s challenge to close budget gaps resulting from shifts in enrollment, the closure of a hospital critical to its medical and health science programs, and suspension of a partnership with a health provider, the Libraries faced its own substantial budget cut. We absorbed these cuts with the reduction of salary from three vacant positions and through reductions in renewed licenses of nearly 2,000 e-journal titles.
By the end of the two years of 2019 and 2020, leadership turnover resulted in six new academic appointments, including the Provost and deans of colleges representing the arts and sciences, business, education, medicine, and media arts and design.
The new Provost’s administrative approach evolved three important strategic changes for the Drexel Libraries: questioning what is essential in what the Libraries provides academics; exploring the Responsibility Center Management (RCM) limitations for extending the Libraries’ funding; and anticipating the deans’ shared prioritization of the Libraries’ operations and services to fund. We worked to redefine how we would continue our obligations to ensure access to authoritative information resources, strengthen connections to research given this new approach, and build environments to inspire self-directed learners.
On March 16, 2020, Drexel University—at the direction of the City of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Governor—announced faculty would teach the entire spring term remotely using web, video, and teleconferencing tools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restricting access to on-campus facilities for essential research and operations personnel for the near future.
The Drexel Libraries quickly faced the disruptions caused by COVID-19, and innovative solutions emerged. With just a few days’ notice of pandemic precautions to shut down on-site operations, the Drexel Libraries closed its four physical locations, and staff shifted operations to provide virtual access to resources, services and activities to support the Drexel community.
Over the next year, we redesigned our facilities and services to offer safe places for informal learning, added contactless access to physical information resources, and extended previous uses of Zoom and online chat applications to provide remote information assistance, customized consultations and group instruction—all while pivoting twice between periods of open and closed campus activities.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic was not the only major headline of 2020. Healthcare delivery, civil unrest, and police brutality brought issues of racism and civic injustices to the forefront. In response, the Drexel Libraries, along with the University and institutions across the country, made it a priority to reexamine its programs and services, focusing on both new and established efforts to combat racism and create welcoming, inclusive learning environments.
We also continued to respond to the significant impact of these disruptions on the Libraries organization. Mid-year, we adjusted our budget allocations to meet a temporary suspension of expenditures in our operating budget, including salary reductions and dropping some professional memberships, travel and event funding, while retaining some staff development support.
Most challenging, we strategically adjusted our personnel capacity and expertise to meet new University requirements to obtain exceptions to recruit “essential” staff. Over the past two years, we lost subject expertise in business, media and design, health sciences, medicine, technology, and technical expertise in system design, information analytics, publishing and vendor relations. Nonetheless, through successful recruitment and internal staff development, we have maintained or strengthened the Libraries’ human capacity for curriculum support, in-depth guidance in medicine and health fields, research output management, data analysis, systems management, digital archiving, metadata, e-resource management, vendor negotiations, scholarly communications, and open access.
To maintain staff morale and connections, we replaced quarterly on campus All Staff meetings with more frequent Zoom sessions. We utilized informal surveys to gauge staff concerns, identify accommodations to work remotely, and uncover questions not addressed in other campus and Libraries communications and meetings. Greater engagement with Microsoft Teams also connected staff to each other, to information, and to individual contributions to the Drexel Libraries and the University.
There is no question that the disruptions have affected all staff, though in different ways, and that it takes extra proactive efforts among everyone to maintain trust in the organization to value and support employees both for their amazing performance and their well-being. Despite the many challenges and disruptions of the last 18 months, Libraries staff demonstrated their incredible resilience, deep service dedication, tireless hard work, and collaborative nature to provide uninterrupted support of teaching, learning and research at Drexel.
In preparing this report, we review how meeting our obligations, explicitly articulated throughout this past decade, continues to shape our current strategic focus to support the University in addressing three key higher education challenges, faced at Drexel:
- Contain the affordability of higher education
- Shape future scholarship
- Inspire a life-long quest for learning
However, the current disruptions may evolve a far different future than we anticipated when setting our strategic directions for the period 2017 to 2022. Client responses to our accommodations to the year of disruptions and our own adjusted activities may suggest a future with greater remote teaching, learning, and supportive library operations and service; more grassroots and self-directed problem solving; slow recovery from projected financial shortfalls; and changing purposes for higher education.
Some of our responses to the year’s disruptions might be irrelevant for whatever the next “new normal” may be. Assessment of 2020 initiatives acknowledges our capacity for change and innovation. As a modern library organization, the Drexel Libraries’ challenge will be to nurture and likely redirect that capacity to consider different and possibly yet unknown opportunities to contribute to meeting Drexel’s ambitions in coming years.
Shape Future Research
The Libraries applies its knowledge and expertise to strengthen the University’s contributions to scholarship by enabling access to and exposure of Drexel-generated research outputs to global researchers. The Libraries continued its work on three initiatives in this area:
Transform the Libraries’ systems to expand discovery, improve interoperability and enhance the exchange of information resources and data sets for researchers.
Create support programs that enhance faculty and student awareness and the appropriate use of information and data sources.
Evolve the Libraries’ online presence through responsive design and development strategies.
Inspire a Life-long Quest for Learning
The Libraries guides the Drexel community to utilize any information responsibly and builds learning environments that promote self-directed learning. The Libraries continued its work on three initiatives in this area:
Transform the Libraries into a Learning Exploratorium that inspires and enables active learning.
Guide students to discover, explore, and question ideas with support of scholarly evidence.
Insights from 2019/2020
Libraries staff have done a tremendous amount of work to continue ensuring access to ideas and authoritative information, to build informal learning environments in cyber and physical spaces, to deepen Drexel’s connections with scholarship, and to model a collaborative, client-focused, data-driven and entrepreneurial library that effectively leverages all its resources.
Reflecting on the impact of the major disruptions experienced during this report’s coverage period uncovers stresses between the Libraries’ role as a service provider and its potential to be a critical leader to shape the University’s future.
This report records recent Libraries achievements to serve the University in its established support primarily of teaching and learning, and secondarily of research, external partnerships, and civic engagement—service expectations that were set during times of more stable revenues, of organizational relations that reflect understanding of a library’s historic service contributions.
During the year of disruptions, we have continued core operations to meet previous client service expectations through such adjustments as shipping physical materials to off-campus addresses, managing availability of safe environments to focus on individual learning, and creating additional online research guides and webinars for use in remote classes and self-directed learning.
For the past decade at least, in response to a charge to redefine the Drexel Libraries as a library for a comprehensive research university, we have followed strategies of identifying challenges facing higher education (especially those classified as R1 institutions) and ways a modern academic library can contribute to addressing them. We have actively projected dynamic changes in pedagogies, research, scholarly communications, community membership, and higher education physical campuses. We propose ways to leverage library expertise, resources, and professional values, to help address the impact of such changes on the University’s dependencies on accessing, managing and disseminating scholarship, and on assisting learners and educators in developing skills and knowledge of how to find, evaluate and utilize information and data resources in the complex information landscape.
The importance the University will place in the next year on addressing its dependencies on efficiently and effectively managing its connections to recorded knowledge will be an accelerant for planning the Libraries’ future as a critical campus partner to shape the University as a competitive institution of higher education. We hope this report offers evidence and ideas to stimulate discussions at Drexel.