Like many great ideas, the merger between Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University started as an out-of-the-box notion. But once leaders at the two Philadelphia-based universities had the idea on the table, it quickly moved from “what if?” to a well-thought-out plan.
In July 2017, the two universities officially merged to form the new Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University). Jeffrey Cepull, vice president of information resources and CIO for the East Falls Campus—a title that speaks to the university’s active transition process—is excited to tell people why. “This was an opportunity for two strong institutions to form an even stronger, comprehensive university,” he says.
Jefferson’s East Falls Campus focuses on undergraduate and graduate programs in architecture, design, textiles, engineering, business, and health science. Jefferson’s Center City Campus has thriving health sciences programs, including the highly respected Sydney Kimmel Medical College. Together, the new Jefferson provides even more opportunities for academic programming; transdisciplinary, collaborative projects; and a focus on professional education that prepares students to succeed both in today’s workplace and the fast-evolving global workplace of the future.
Examples of synchronous collaboration between the two campuses have already emerged. For one, the university invested in a new LabArchive software tool that can be used by faculty in research labs while also enabling undergraduate students to become more research-ready. Students in disciplines such as textiles, architecture, and business have already found natural and beneficial collaborations with medical and health-science students and faculty members. This year, for instance, four senior engineering students are working with a Jefferson doctor who is an expert on injury research and prevention to design a better youth football helmet.
Although changes in funding, programming, and technology are markers of achievement, Cepull knows other signals are necessary. “One measure of success of the merger will be how well the culture evolves as the combined university strives to provide an optimal educational experience for students and work environment for faculty and staff,” he explains.
Cepull’s own culture plan led to success for his tech team even before the official merger: “Build trust. Establish relationships. Meet the deans. Understand desired outcomes,” he explains. Stakeholders have already accepted Cepull’s invitations to meet. And from both technical and interpersonal standpoints, he is getting a handle on what it means to work in a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that combines health systems with academia.
For the past ten years, Cepull has managed a twenty-person team responsible for all technology at Philadelphia University, including physical infrastructure, back-end administration systems, and online education platforms. Beyond managing these systems, his team innovated and integrated new technologies. The team works with faculty, staff, and students to identify problems, design solutions, and implement new ideas. “We don’t just want to be seen as tech; we want to be seen as a partner,” Cepull says. “It’s important that the team and I keep in mind that we’re in the higher education business, not the technology business.”
That’s especially important considering the unique culture of the Jefferson East Falls Campus. Cepull describes the campus as a “maker community,” which means the team gets requests outside the norm for a traditional university. Students may need help getting a Raspberry Pi, Arduino board, or gaming device on the network. While some of these requests may be outside the box, Cepull is excited that these innovations are helping students learn and create.
“We work to leverage tools that make us larger than we are,” Cepull says. Years ago, when the university needed more storage and backup, Cepull was able to solve both problems at once. The university became a very early adopter of cloud-based computing for academia. Bringing to the table an astute understanding of the bottom line, Cepull bought into systems with consortium-based rates and contracts.
Retention is important for all universities and the tech team recently identified a software solution called Starfish that helps support retention goals. In two months, the cross-campus team of technical staff, advisors, and faculty had the system operating and training complete. In fact, 94 percent of faculty used the tool the first semester. In four academic cycles, freshman retention increased by 7 percent, and the investment paid for itself in the first academic year.
“We see a rational and intellectual integration between technology and faculty engagement. Professors come to us asking how the technology can help students to be more engaged and facilitate working in groups,” Cepull says. The team takes these pedagogic collaborations very seriously, even considering the ways students can benefit from a variety of learning spaces, such as the university’s interactive learning hubs that provide advanced technology and flexible spaces.
Cepull wants to respond to these real problems, and he wants to do it quickly. His enthusiasm for the new Jefferson is infectious and has helped in recruiting top talent to the tech team—a team that is prepared to meet the needs of the Jefferson academic community.
Photos: Cass Davis
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