We Are One Jefferson
Blazing New Trails in Education
In 2015, then provost, now president Mark L. Tykocinski, MD, and other university leaders took a ride to East Falls to tour Philadelphia University. While walking through the halls, Tykocinski thought: “This is an impressive place. Wouldn’t it be something if we could join together?”
By July 2017, Jefferson and Philadelphia University had merged, creating a preeminent university like none other—one that stretched imaginations and reached across disciplines, one that took all the “what ifs” and made them “we cans.”
“We brought two institutional stories together, and melded legacy with transformation,” Tykocinski says, noting the rich histories of both Thomas Jefferson University, a health sciences university with one of the oldest medical schools (founded in 1824), and Philadelphia University, a regional master's university and the nation’s first textile school founded in 1884.
Five years down the road, the combined institution now consists of 10 colleges and has grown in size and reputation. Demonstrated successes include increased enrollment, a considerable rise in rankings, enhanced value, more research funding, and an impressive 97% rate of students getting jobs or gaining acceptance to graduate school.
Today, Jefferson has garnered national and international recognition, and stands as a window into what education will look like in the future.
“There’s a growing number of mergers like these across the country, and we have emerged as a model for how it is done,” Tykocinski says, adding that the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, an institutional accreditor recognized by the United States Department of Education, refers people to Jefferson to learn how such unions are accomplished.
The success, says Tykocinski, hinged on two factors: taking novel approaches to learning and making connections that add value to the University.
The Nexus Learning approach adopted by the University focuses on transdisciplinary learning that is active, collaborative, real-world, and grounded in the liberal arts, with a distinctive approach to humanities education.
The model allows for inventive collaborations among branches of learning that seemingly have little in common, but spawn projects that culminate in novel concepts.
“We had this idea of enriching students through co-curriculum by cultivating different kinds of thinking—design thinking through medicine plus design, medicine plus humanities, medicine plus data science for computational thinking, medicine plus policy for relational thinking,” Tykocinski says.
One of the first programs was JeffSolves, which pairs second-year medical students and design students to apply novel principles for generating creative solutions to challenges in healthcare settings. Some of their projects have included restyled nursing carts that improve efficiency, IV poles that reduce the tripping hazard, and a fabric sleeve designed to prevent patients from pulling IV lines from their arms.
But the partnerships aren’t just between design and medicine programs. There is also a focus on other combined disciplines, such as architecture and urban planning, that tackles the global water and energy crises, alleviates “hot spots” in big cities, and eases the effects of climate change.
However, adds Matt Dane Baker, interim provost, all of the cross-collaboration takes nothing away from each individual college and major.
For example, students hoping to become the next Ralph Lauren or Stella McCartney enjoy an internationally recognized fashion design and marketing program. In fact, fashion design at Jefferson is consistently ranked as a top fashion school by Fashionista, Business of Fashion, and Fashion-Schools.org.
“The fear was that we would become one big health science place, but we are fully supporting the architecture, design, fashion, and business programs, and have added scholarship money to them,” Baker says. “We have also maintained the culture in areas where it’s critically important, using signature pedagogy [the style of teaching common to specific disciplines, areas of study, or professions] to ensure that each discipline’s ethos is carefully considered.”
Ranking, Enrollment, and Research Strides
Because of the merger, Jefferson has seen a steady rise in ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s National Universities category. It is now ranked number 127—up 49 places in just the past two years. In addition, it is ranked number 61 on the list’s Best Value colleges, and is nationally ranked in a number of other areas, including colleges for veterans, fashion, and occupational therapy.
For the fifth year in a row, in 2022, Jefferson saw an increase in the first-year undergraduate class, this year enrolling 760 students, an 11% increase from fall 2021. Additionally, Jefferson’s overall enrollment—including undergraduate, transfer, and graduate students—is increasing at a time when many universities are seeing a decline.
“All of this elevates Jefferson’s profile,” says Tykocinski, noting that Jefferson is now well-known outside of the region, and is attracting students from all over the country.
With growth in prestige and prominence comes an increase in research funding.
Jefferson’s extramural grant funding has more than tripled over the past decade to more than $200 million annually, sourcing from federal agencies, corporate partners, foundations, and individual philanthropists. It is now classified as an R2 Carnegie National Doctoral Research University.
Another important benefit of the merger, says Baker, is the financial stability that a larger institution allows.
“The merger put us in a better financial position—one that helped it survive recessions and the COVID-19 crisis,” he says, noting that universities of 10,000 students and more thrived during the pandemic, while many smaller ones were forced to close. He adds that the University has been able to invest in infrastructure, scholarship money, and marketing.
The success of the merger, says Tykocinski, lies in the connections Jefferson has made. Connections within its own organization, connections with other colleges, and connections across the globe.
Aside from cross-disciplinary work on its own campuses, Jefferson has partnered with other colleges and universities as a cost-effective way to offer expanded academic opportunities.
“When an undergraduate enrolls at Jefferson, they will essentially have a free academic pass to take courses or semesters at 10 other universities and colleges,” he says. “For example, we don’t offer all aspects of computer science, but our students can take courses at the .”
Another partnership with Princeton University allows Princeton undergraduates to garner early acceptance at Sidney Kimmel Medical College in exchange for enrolling in a joint program with Jefferson.
Jefferson’s partnerships don’t stop at its shores—it now spans the world with a number of global centers, including in Japan, India, Italy, Israel, Malawi, Ireland, United Kingdom, and Colombia.
These partnerships provide students with unique research and learning opportunities. For example, textile students will soon have the chance to earn a first-of-its-kind joint degree through a partnership with Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.
Another partner is Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and the Gemelli University Hospital in Rome, where a joint program allows for an exchange of medical students and health researchers. In addition, a Vickie and Jack Farber Institute for Neuroscience is currently being built at the Gemelli campus.
The Israel Global Center brings together academic opportunities, including architecture, design, engineering, textiles, fashion, and healthcare, as well as clinical and research initiatives.
While the multitude of connections have made the world just a little smaller for Jefferson, they have also expanded its universe. Earlier this year, three of Jefferson’s research projects focusing on the effects of low gravity and space travel on the human body were part of a space mission with institutional collaborators, including Israel’s Sheba Medical Center.
The Next Chapter
While the merger between the two universities has been an exciting ride, Geoffrey Cromarty, EdD, senior vice president of operations for the East Falls campus, says it is now time to stop talking about it.
“It’s been five years, and now we need to move on and stop looking back. We proved ourselves, and now it’s time to talk about us as one institution,” he says.
Cromarty was in the first meeting in April 2015 when the merger was first proposed.
“My initial thoughts were: this is really daring, somewhat risky, but potentially rewarding for students,” he says. At that point he had been at PhilaU for 13 years, so there were plenty of concerns. But he quickly decided to follow his mantra: It’s all about the students.
“For the students, it was the right decision. It has given them opportunities they wouldn’t have found anywhere else,” he says, adding that their degree is worth more now than 10 years ago.
“The faculty has also benefited,” he says, noting that the merger has allowed cross-discipline collaborations that have enhanced instruction and provided wide-ranging opportunities among professors and programs across campuses.
Looking ahead, he believes that Jefferson will continue to be more aspirational and better represent that it is a national research institution with a global presence.
“We are no longer a small commuter college in East Falls or a large health professions university in Center City,” says Cromarty. “We are one, we are bigger, and our goals are bigger. We can’t settle for initiatives that are just going to make us better, but those that will make us stand out.”
Cromarty says that the merger has succeeded beyond what was dreamed, and even more good work will be happening in the future. And as the University progresses, every decision will continue to be made with one thing in mind: “What will best benefit the students?”