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Parke R. Kolbe and the Fascination of Unattainable Goals

April 13, 2011

This essay is the third in a series about Drexel's presidents, marking the inauguration of John A. Fry.

Parke R. Kolbe and the Fascination of Unattainable Goals By Martha Cornog

'Anyone with knowledge of another language....,' suggested Parke Kolbe, 'may share the joy of creative genius vicariously by indulging in translation. He may not produce a literary masterpiece even at second-hand, but he will at least know and appreciate more adequately the work of the truly great.' Drexel's fourth President thought it was fun to translate foreign literature in his spare time. Originally a Professor of Modern Languages and trained as a linguist, Kolbe further broadened the collective background of the Drexel presidency. First president James MacAlister had been distinguished in Education, his successor Hollis Godfrey in Engineering, and Godfrey's successor Kenneth Matheson in English.

In a charming essay about translating poetry, Kolbe enthused, [T]he perfect reproduction of verse from another language into our own is, in effect, a sheer impossibility.... [Yet t]his effort to reach an unattainable goal is just what makes the undertaking so interesting.1 We might imagine that relishing unattainable goals would be an excellent qualification for the presidency of an academic center like the young but feisty Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry. Moreover, Kolbe's skills in multiple languages translated into accomplishments on multiple fronts. Able to grasp the centrality of technology to a United States recovering from one world war while another lurked ahead, Kolbe led Drexel in developing advanced curricula in physics, chemistry, and biology to supplement its already comprehensive emphasis on engineering. Indeed, its engineering reputation led the federal government to select Drexel as the Philadelphia region's school for instructing students in engineering defense in anticipation of World War II. By 1941, the year before Kolbe's death, sixteen engineering courses were being offered. Along the way, Kolbe became quite immersed in individual student success with the heavy technical emphasis. Several years into his tenure, he learned that about one third of his freshmen engineering students were failing algebra and became sufficiently alarmed to canvass five other area engineering-heavy schools for comparison. Drexel's students had the most failures until Kolbe adjusted the figures so that failure after two quarters of Drexel (the first quarter failures were allowed to repeat the course in the second quarter) were equated to one semester of the other schools.

The revised assessment led him to believe that Drexel was not very far out of line with her sister colleges. But the failure rates still rankled, and Kolbe sent the complete results to all the colleges as well as to the area secondary schools as a hint that high school seniors intent on engineering careers need to be better prepared for their own futures. 'It is very good for us,' he wrote dryly to George Baker, Principal of the Moorestown New Jersey public schools, 'to sit down occasionally with secondary school representatives and talk things over with them frankly. I hope you will give us the privilege of doing this from time to time.'2 And for a United States recovering from the Great Depression, Kolbe supported Drexel's School of Business in strengthening its courses in economics, sociology, political science, and history. If those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,3 Kolbe doubtless wanted to make sure that future business leaders never forgot lessons of the Great Depression. But lessons could not be expected to occupy the average undergraduate 24/7. Kolbe and his Trustees pushed to acquire what became known as the 'student building,' used for social and extracurricular activities. An athletic field was added as well.

Moreover, Kolbe urged a separate building be used for the library, which had outgrown its space in the Main Building. Eliminated under President Godfrey, the Library School had been revived by alumni appeal under President Matheson, and the library school students would have been regular and heavy users. Not neglecting administrative concerns, Kolbe centralized the Drexel admissions process and replaced the now-overly-large Faculty Council with a more manageable Council of Deans. Each dean oversaw his or her own faculty council, in effect decentralizing aspects of Drexel governance. Perhaps the most immediately successful of Kolbe's innovations was an annual Open House begun in 1938, allowing Philadelphia-area high school students and their parents to visit Drexel. The student body had shrunk during the Great Depression, but this new program drew so many interested people that student enrollment rebounded quickly from the slump. Certainly Kolbe's most obvious innovation was linguistic, in a sense: changing Drexel's name. 'In the course of my first year at Drexel,' Kolbe wrote to the faculty, 'I have been approached many times by faculty members, alumni, students and citizens with a suggestion that the name of the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry ought to be changed to conform more closely with present day college practice.'4 Retaining a lengthy yet ambiguous name since its founding 45 years ago, the institution suffered from identity confusion. After surveying faculty and alumni, Kolbe and the Trustees clarified Drexel's purpose by choosing the dignified and proto-geeky 'Drexel Institute of Technology.' The name would endure until 1970 when Drexel attained university status and took its present appellation.


1. Parke R. Kolbe, 'On the Translation of Verse,' The Modern Language Journal, 21(2):103-108, Nov. 1936.

2. Park R. Kolbe, Letter to George C. Baker, April 3, 1935. [UR1.4 box 9/08]

3. George Santayana, The Life of Reason. Vol. 1: Reason and Common Sense, Chapter 12: 'Flux and Constancy in Human Nature.' New York: Scribner's, 1905, 284.

4. Parke R. Kolbe, Letter to the faculty, January 3, 1934. [UR1.4 box 8/02]

Martha Cornog obtained her MLS from Drexel in 1971. She is currently the Graphic Novel Columnist for Library Journal. Together with her husband Timothy Perper, she co-edited Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Issues and Insights for Libraries (2009) as well as the forthcoming Mangatopia (2011).