Created by the innovative 2017 merger of Thomas Jefferson University and Philadelphia University, today’s Thomas Jefferson University is both a model for professions-focused higher education and a national doctoral research university with growing global impact.
Mark L. Tykocinski, MD, now the President of Thomas Jefferson University, was a catalyst for the merger and — as Jefferson’s then Provost and Dean of the Sidney Kimmel Medical College — guided its successful implementation.
Here, Dr. Tykocinski shares his insights on the merger experience, his perspectives on what makes Jefferson unique and his thoughts on what the future holds.
1 The Chronicle has reported that 25 percent of college leaders say that their institution might consider a merger — and 12 percent believe their institution should merge. What’s your high-level advice for those considering a merger?
Start by asking yourself four questions—and answering them as objectively as possible.
First, do you have a shared vision? Although we came from very different professional backgrounds, the leaders of Philadelphia University (PhilaU) and Thomas Jefferson University shared a key foundational perspective — a future orientation, framed by a focus on society’s evolving needs and a recognition of the dynamic changes we’ll see throughout the 21st century. A shared vision of a university centered on the future of work was coupled with a common belief that professions-focused higher education benefits from core grounding in the liberal arts.
Second, is there a real opportunity to build a synergistic culture, weaving together fundamental elements of the institutions’ DNA? Jefferson and PhilaU both prized flexibility, had a thirst for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, and were committed to collaboration across disciplines and professions.
Those commonalities helped us bridge inherent cultural differences between institutions that had roots in, respectively, health sciences and design, engineering and textiles science.
Third, are your academic programs complementary? More than just avoiding substantial overlap, can you envision ways to connect programs in a manner that makes each stronger — or that makes them distinct among competitors? For example, our initiatives centered around building education and research collaborations among designers, architects, engineers, fashion designers and health care professionals reflect the myriad ways in which we’ve made our programs stronger and more distinct in the higher education marketplace.
Fourth, can the merged institution become greater than the sum of its parts? While critical mass and efficiencies of scale are important, creating a larger organization is not itself a sufficient reason for merging. At the end of the day, a bigger institution that hasn’t made itself more relevant or better able to deliver substantial value to its students is not really enhancing its long-term value proposition.
If the answers to these questions aren’t uniformly “yes,” do you really want to invest the tremendous effort necessary to pursue the merger?
2 What are the best and the most surprising results to have come from the merger that created today’s Jefferson?
We have had many good things come from the merger and a few surprising results. What comes immediately to mind is a place where they overlap: We knew that the merger would create opportunities for multidisciplinary, cross-professional engagement for both students and faculty, and we’ve been very gratified by the eagerness with which those opportunities have been pursued — as well as the novelty of the connections that have been created as a result.
We call this approach Nexus Learning. And the concrete impact of those transdisciplinary efforts — in terms of both learning experiences and societal benefits — has been extraordinary, yielding both good and surprising things. For example, medical and engineering students came together to invent an intravenous line connector that doesn’t touch contaminated bedding; physical therapy students collaborated with design students to develop a drinking straw for physically challenged patients; and architecture students partnered with textile students to create specialized furniture for neurodiverse people. The number of transdisciplinary faculty research and development projects undertaken has been growing by leaps and bounds.
“Nearly six years post-merger, the ‘new’ Thomas Jefferson University is thriving.”
3 What ideas do you most want students, parents and professionals to associate with Thomas Jefferson University?
Innovation, excellence, collaboration and global engagement — all serving a fundamental commitment: ensuring that our graduates have both the knowledge and the skills to thrive as professionals practicing throughout this dynamic century.
4 How is Jefferson’s way of preparing its graduates for the future of work unique?
We have created (and continue to refine) a collaborative, transdisciplinary and interprofessional approach to learning (Nexus Learning) that offers a vibrant intellectual atmosphere and prepares our students for success — both now and throughout careers laced with yet-to-be-imagined professional opportunities.
Our unique academic platform is designed to graduate professionals — from physicians and biomedical researchers to materials scientists and engineers to fashion designers, architects and business leaders — who possess three kinds of capacities:
● A combination of deep specialized knowledge and facility with basic computational and artificial intelligence systems that are becoming essential across professions.
● Human-centered skills of the kind that no machine can replace: fluid communication, creativity and contextual understanding, global perspective, collaboration, empathy and ethical reflection.
● An ability to curate their own life-long professional and personal development.
I believe that our ability to deliver this kind of education has made us the model for a professions-focused, national doctoral research university addressing the emerging future of work.
5 What’s next for Thomas Jefferson University?
As we approach our bicentennial in 2024, we are focusing on the strategic goals outlined in our Third Century Plan, which is a strategy of connection. With academic excellence, culture building and knowledge generation of utmost importance, we are, for example, actively developing “Pooled Partnerships” — relationships with other highly regarded universities that give students access to a wider range of courses and research opportunities across the partner institutions.
We’re also deepening and expanding relationships with academic and research partners across the globe, leveraging our five Global Centers, along with our hubs in Africa and Latin America. These partnerships — both institution-to-institution and researcher-to-researcher — broaden the range of impact our research programs have, and they increase opportunities for students to engage with communities and challenges across the globe. We aspire for our students to see themselves as global citizens.
“Where many university leaders see demographic, cultural and technological change as threats, we at Jefferson also see opportunities.”
6 What are you most excited about?
The future! Despite all of the very real challenges facing higher education, I believe that universities are the greatest hope for solving this century’s most significant problems. And, where many university leaders see demographic, cultural and technological change as threats, we at Jefferson also see opportunities.
Nearly six years post-merger, the “new” Thomas Jefferson University is thriving.
We’re moving forward and building on a solid foundation: enrollments are consistently growing; we’re launching new academic programs; our rankings are climbing significantly.
Our research enterprise is greater in both size and impact: we’re increasing research faculty; building new facilities; and expanding our centers of research excellence, leveraging long-standing strengths and pursuing new opportunities to create and apply knowledge across the sciences, social sciences and humanities.
I am excited about our sports teams – Go Rams!
And as we approach our bicentennial in 2024, I am excited about designing our third century together.