Toppling Hedges, Tapping Synergy

How a Plan, a Chain Saw, and an Incredible City Made Drake Even Better

By Jill Brimeyer

S14-drakeSTORY6There have been many pivotal moments in the 133-year relationship between Drake University and Des Moines but perhaps none quite as telling as the day the shrubbery came down.

“When I arrived at Drake in 1999, there was a row of hedges separating the institution from the outside world,” says Drake University President David Maxwell of the manicured line of yews that stretched along the campus perimeter. “They were only about four feet tall, but, driving by in a car, you couldn’t see over them. The Drake campus was separated from the rest of the community.”

It took 10 years and a crew of strong-armed groundskeepers, but by 2009 the wall of manicured plantings gave way to rolling lawns, flowers, and tranquil groves of trees.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.


Des Moines and Drake have been inextricably linked since the University put down roots here in 1881. Most Des Moinesians have visited campus at one time or another—to hear a former world leader deliver a free Bucksbaum lecture; attend a local high school commencement; enjoy jazz at the Patty and Fred Turner Jazz Center;  watch basketball standouts steal and assist on The Knapp Center court, or cheer on locals and Olympians on Drake’s Blue Oval.

Upon Maxwell’s arrival, however, he began hearing rumblings from the Des Moines business community that the University was not sufficiently involved in the projects and progress of its home city.

“Des Moines was not seeing Drake engaged in the community at a level that people thought was appropriate,” says Maxwell.

At the turn of the millennium, Drake was emerging from a troubled era in which the institution’s attentions had been focused inward on operating deficits, declining enrollment, and deteriorating buildings. With the University’s strength on the upswing, Drake was poised to reinvigorate community involvement and relationships—for the betterment of Des Moines as well as the student experience.

First steps came with Drake’s 2001 Strategic Plan, which sought, among other goals, to build community relationships. By the time the yews came down, Drake had also created a program for students that combined academics with meaningful community service; forged new partnerships in business, education, and the nonprofit sector; and spurred neighborhood revitalization.

“Removing the hedges sent a message to the community: We are part of the Drake neighborhood. We are not isolated,” says Maxwell. “It catalyzed the conversation of what a strong Drake-community relationship could look like. That was powerful.”

Learning to Serve

Each of Drake’s colleges and schools has service-learning offerings in the Des Moines metropolitan area.

In fiscal 2013, students in the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences provided more than 1,500 immunizations and cared for patients in general practice offices, hospitals, and free clinics. More than two dozen faculty members served as preceptors, caring for patients in the community while mentoring Drake students.

Drake Law students spent 52,000 service hours in fiscal 2013 providing legal aid for community members in need in the areas of children’s rights, elder law, tax law, domestic violence, immigration, and more.

Students in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Master of Communication Leadership program conducted research, identified potential donors, and formulated a plan to grow a fledgling meal program
for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Iowa in 2013.

More than 100 partnerships make it possible for every School of Education student to put his or her skills into practice. Students also reach at-risk preschoolers through Drake’s Head Start program, or teach adults to read through the Drake University Adult Literacy Center.

Students in the College of Arts and Sciences worked with youth in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Iowa in 2013, growing food and learning about the environment through the Des Moines Urban Youth Learning Garden
on Drake’s campus.

College of Business and Public Administration students lent their skills to help United Way of Central Iowa in 2011 standardize its accounting process for funded programs. M.P.A. students partnered with the Des Moines Bicycle Collective last fall to launch the city’s inaugural Open Streets event.

Learning Experience

The student service-learning program that was formalized in 2011 has now become one of the cornerstones of the Drake experience. Before they graduate, some 80 percent of students in all fields learn by contributing professional services to nonprofits, schools, associations, or government in Des Moines and around the world.

“Students are gaining real-life experiences—creating professional materials they can then put in their portfolios, engaging with the community on issues of social justice and action, and having defining moments,” says Mandi McReynolds, director for community engagement and service. “Drake is really the perfect-size university for the perfect-size city. Our midsize, urban environment allows for enriching service-learning opportunities that may not exist in other communities.”

Denise Soltis, assistant professor of pharmacy practice and assistant dean of community and global engagement, says that Drake has built the ideal clinical practice for students by funding Pharm.D. positions to serve with local health systems. “We get access to clinical environments, and these sites get not only the clinical skills of our student pharmacists but also the higher-level skills and patient care from seasoned professionals.”

Drake’s College of Business and Public Administration also relies on community connections to bring the world to students, and vice versa. Tom Swartwood, assistant professor of practice in entrepreneurship, is collaborating with Drake Law on a new Transactional Law and Nonprofit Legal Clinic offering to provide services to area startups and nonprofits. The effort will bring together students in marketing, communication, graphic design,
and other disciplines to support clients in areas in which most startups struggle.

“Entrepreneurship doesn’t happen in the classroom. It happens out in the world,” says Swartwood. “Nothing we do here makes sense unless it’s connected to the outside world.”

Pursuing Partnerships

In the midst of Drake’s strategic plan development, members of the Drake University Board of Trustees suggested that Drake needed someone who woke up every morning and thought, “How am I going to better connect Drake to the community?”

Shannon Cofield asks herself that every day. Her role as senior counsel to the president for strategic partnerships was created in 2012 to foster relationships with businesses and organizations in Des Moines.

She’s currently building bridges to benefit both the community and the University’s bottom line—collaborating with faculty and staff to plan for certificate, continuing, and executive education. “We want to build unique relationships with area companies to help them develop talent,” she explains. “So instead of sending their people away to an executive development program, they can access a strong program locally at Drake.”

Cofield began by convening an executive committee on community engagement—a working group of 13 human resources executives at top Des Moines companies—to solicit their input on educational needs and help shape curriculum.

“Getting several HR executives together to discuss trends and issues was enlightening,” says Beth Nigut, vice president of human resources for EMC Insurance Companies. “In addition to being a great resource from which EMC will continue to recruit interns and employees, Drake may be able to provide additional resources on leadership and executive training.”

The Power of Place

Great universities aren’t born in a vacuum. A vibrant home city attracts the best and brightest students, faculty, and staff to Drake, and also enables students to have the kind of rich, practical experiences they need to excel after graduation.

“Drake has some wonderful partnerships with local businesses,” says James Wallace, BN’77, chairman, president, and CEO of GuideOne Insurance; outgoing chair of the Greater Des Moines Partnership; and Drake University trustee. Wallace hires many Drake interns each year, offering valuable work experience in marketing, actuarial science, information technology, human resources, and other areas. Nearly 80 percent of Drake students have one or more internships during their time at the University—conducting accounting audits for a multinational firm, teaching in a 32,000-student school district, helping produce a network broadcast of a presidential debate, producing national consumer magazines, and more.

“Drake encourages real-world experience,” says Wallace of the opportunities Des Moines holds. “And that’s a fabulous complement to students’ academic studies.”

In addition to professional prospects, easy access to Des Moines’ cultural and recreational opportunities is also part of what makes Drake, Drake.

“I have always liked the eclectic vibe of Des Moines,” says junior secondary education major Alana Linde, who came to Drake from Ottawa, Illinois. “Many say that this place is a hidden treasure, and I would agree.”

Linde was so impressed with the array of offerings in Des Moines that she created her own bucket list of things in the city that students could—make that must—experience during their time at Drake, including sledding at Waveland Golf Course, the 80/35 Music Festival, the Gray’s Lake “moon float,” and the Iowa State Fair.

While Linde is busy exploring the city, she’s also weighing her options after graduation. “It’s a great place to start a career,” she says.

The power of association has transformed the Drake ethos, as the University embraces its remarkable home city.

“Drake would be a different university if it wasn’t for Des Moines,” says Maxwell. “It’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship. We have a vibrant arts scene. It’s safe. It’s welcoming and friendly. So we’ve gone from being sort of apologetic to recognizing that Drake is Drake because of Des Moines.”

Shaping Its Surroundings

According to a 2008 Strategic Economics Group study, the University’s presence generates 3,200 jobs and contributes more than $260 million annually to the Greater Des Moines economy. The Drake Relays draw about 40,000 spectators and 8,000 athletes, generating about $5 million to the city each year.

S14-drakeSTORY5Drake’s role in shaping the workforce is also significant. “Drake brings a student body from across the nation to Des Moines,” says Gene Meyer, GR’81, president of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. “A lot of those people end up living and working here.”

The University begins guiding students at the k–12 level—Drake’s School of Education prepares thousands of educators, many teaching across the region. And Drake’s 2012 designation as a regional hub for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education expands this influence by providing science resources for classrooms and hosting exploration events.

“It’s really an economic development initiative,” says Sarah Derry, STEM regional advocate for Drake. “Iowa Workforce Development predicts that the need for STEM jobs statewide will grow 16 percent over the next 10 years.”

The University benefits Des Moines on a strategic level, as well. Faculty and staff serve on key boards, and many Drake alumni—Iowa governors (four of the last five), Iowa Supreme Court justices, CEOs, and leaders of the Greater Des Moines Partnership and other strategic bodies—are deeply involved in charting the course of the capital city.

“Any university of the quality of Drake raises the overall quality of life in the community,” says Meyer.

How are the people of Drake engaged?

One of the key pieces of Drake’s Strategic Plan is community engagement—how Drake is involved or aspires to be involved with the community on a local, regional, and global level. Toward this end, Drake faculty and staff were invited in October 2013 to take a survey to audit their level and areas of involvement. The following are a few high-level results.

800x600image2click to enlarge

Welcome Home

Today Drake is part of a different environment than even five years ago when the hedges toppled, and the city was welcomed into its
campus vista.

The University has forged new community partnerships with paid community service leave for faculty and staff; centers for public policy and global citizenship that serve as hubs for research and outreach; and new and renovated facilities that welcome the community for concerts, films, and lectures. The planned STEM@DRAKE complex is also poised to serve as a magnet for scientific exploration in the region.

Still, Maxwell is greeted with surprise when, during speeches at community events, he mentions that peer institutions rank Drake University as one of the top 10 master’s universities in the country. Here in Des Moines, it seems, Drake is like the familiar hometown fixture that’s sometimes overlooked.

The only way to change this, says Maxwell, is to do a better job of telling the Drake story.

“My mark for having succeeded on this issue will be this,” says Maxwell, “I want to get off an airplane in Des Moines, walk into the terminal, and see a big sign that says, ‘Welcome to Des Moines, home of Drake University,’ and to have that sign put there by Des Moines, not by us.”

“That’s where I want us to be, and we’re not there yet,” he says. “And that’s on us.”

Comments are closed.