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Presidential Material: Lower Merion Township's John Fry Looks Forward to Progress at Drexel University


Drexel University's 14th president, John Fry. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)It’s President’s Day, and John Fry’s JFK look is indisputable. The chiseled chin. The dark suit. The vibrancy—in this case, likely derived from 6 a.m. squash matches three times a week at Merion Cricket Club. The Drexel University president is polished, elegant and eloquent here in the president’s conference room. Anywhere, really. As one colleague suggests, Fry has a mix of qualities the rest of us have one of. It probably wouldn’t matter if he was a college president, a business mogul or a politician. He’d find success—or it would find him.

When Fry left the presidency at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster to become Drexel’s 14th president one year ago, he immediately viewed the appointment as a homecoming. Not only was he returning to Philadelphia, but to the West Philly neighborhood where he began reshaping as an executive at the University of Pennsylvania. When the day is finally done, he heads home to Lower Merion Township.

“I was smart enough to keep all my relationships here going,” he admits. “We never really left. We were here, on average, once every week to 10 days. Now that we’re back, we feel like we never left.”

For F&M, he left Penn and Haverford, only to return now to the old neighborhood and a historic home, a former gatehouse built by Frank Furness as part of the Alexander Cassatt estate in 1863. Until some renovations were complete, the Frys rented a home in Bryn Mawr.

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Fry’s 20-year-old daughter, Mia, just finished her sophomore year at Williams College in Massachusetts. Nathaniel, 16, and Phoebe, 10, attend the Shipley School, where their father is about to become a board member. Fry is in his last term on the Haverford School board. He’s also on the board of the Academy of the Fine Arts and a host of other institutions. He’s always considered public service part of his “professional development.”

However, Fry freely admits that he’s disappointed with Drexel’s outlying University City neighborhoods—like Powelton Village and Mantua—where there are few signs of the progress he left behind blocks away at Penn. Restoration of those gateway entrances remains a vision and a great challenge. “There’s so much opportunity,” he says.

In his grand plan for the campus and its extremities, others will be wooed and wowed by the breadth of the educational and healthcare corridor, the urban marriage of the so-called “Eds” and “Meds,” which he calls one of the best in the world. “Everyone has preconceived notions about West Philadelphia,” Fry says. “The only solution is to spend more time here.”

Fry’s interests were always geared toward playing a transformational role. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he was student government president by his junior year at Lafayette College, where he studied American civilization. He attended nearly all of the college’s committee meetings, including those of its board of trustees, and he helped make substantive decisions. He wasn’t a token invitee, but rather an active observer and participant.

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In 1986, he earned an accounting MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. By 1997, he was appointed to Lafayette’s board of trustees. “It’s amazing what experiences come back later in life,” he says.

Before joining Penn as executive vice president and chief operating officer, he worked closely with premier colleges and universities as a consultant. At Coopers & Lybrand’s National Higher Education Consulting Practice, he became a partner-in-charge, coming to Philadelphia for the first time.

In 1993, Penn hired his firm to review its administrative structure. By the end of the contract, new university president Judith Rodin wanted to extend Fry’s services. She was also looking for an executive vice president. Initially, Fry was to lead the search team, but she asked him to take the job himself. “I had to remind her that I was still her consultant, that I wasn’t right for the job, and that so many others were better,” he says.

His humble plea notwithstanding, she had her right-hand man. A force behind Penn’s “Agenda for Excellence” between 1996 and 2001, Fry built a coalition of nonprofit, business, neighborhood and governmental organizations to support a multi-pronged approach to addressing the challenges facing University City. In response, residential property values augmented, and the crime rate dropped. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in commercial infrastructure and economic development.

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Then, in 2002, Fry left for eight years to become F&M’s president. His administration saw a 63-point gain in average SATs. He dramatically improved residential life. The student-to-faculty ratio dropped to 10:1, and a commitment was made to hire 40 new faculty members. Curriculum was updated and expanded in life sciences, computer science, creative writing and modern languages. Fry forged new partnerships with Lancaster and its neighbors, improving the surrounding business district and neighborhoods. It was his work at Penn in microcosmic form.

At Drexel, Fry has combined his liberal arts and business backgrounds. Long ago, he discontinued his Ph.D. work, which focused on the integral play between universities and their communities. Never sure of what ends a terminal doctoral degree would afford him, he relied on his balanced experience. He knew full well he’d never be “the standard candidate” for a college presidency, but then the world changed. Civic engagement was no longer textbook rhetoric, but pragmatic. It began wagging dogma’s tail.

“With the [financial] situations colleges and universities are facing, there’s more of an interest in and demand for the skills I have,” he says.

Two aspects of the Drexel experience, Fry says, continue to make it a unique and worthwhile education. The five-year cooperative-education program allows for both an intense undergraduate experience and three internships that introduce students to “the world of work.”

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The university partners with 1,300 employers in business, government, education and the arts in 27 states and 12 foreign countries. Most of the jobs pay $15,000 for six months. Over three years, that’s as much as a $45,000 return. Secondly, Drexel invests in significant financial aid for close to 65 percent of its 23,637 students, “and it’s going to get more significant,” Fry pledges.

Two years before his death, financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel established his namesake university in 1891—then Drexel Institute—near 30th Street Station for commuter access, so he could facilitate a practical education. “You went to Drexel to get a job,” Fry explains. “These weren’t the fancy kids. They were blue-collar kids—and in many cases, the first generation in their families to go
to college.”

Fry says the average college president stays six years, a figure that’s trending downward. “This is a really hard job,” he says. “A lot is expected of you.”

Some stay longer, admits Fry. “Some stay too long. At F&M, I felt like I’d hit the sweet spot,” he says. “Usually, it takes about 10 years to accomplish anything, but you also don’t want to still be there when they say, ‘Here he is again. I wish he’d go away.’”

Rest assured, Drexel is glad to have Fry and his master plan. Priorities are to increase public safety, improve neighborhood housing, invest in local public schools, and introduce quality retail and commerce to create jobs and further economic growth.

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“It’s all tangible,” he says. “We did it at Penn. We did it in Lancaster, which had a lot of the same urban problems—particularly in the western part, where the college is. I went to F&M to learn how to become a president. Here, I already feel like I have sea legs.”

Fry is looking to stretch Drexel’s 74-acre campus to 30th Street Station and east to the Schuylkill River. The goal is also to fill it in and exert the university’s presence by using obsolete buildings or converting them. All these things were proven successes of the Penn blueprint.

It’s worth noting that Fry arrives at Drexel amid a windfall of accolades for the university—the end result of a decade of university-saving work spearheaded by his predecessor, the now-deceased Constantine “Taki” Papadakis. In 2009, for the first time, Drexel was listed among the top 100 in the category of Best National Universities in “America’s Best Colleges” by U.S. News & World Report. Drexel also ranks fourth among universities in the recently established U.S. News list of “Schools to Watch.”

Neighbors like developer Carl Dranoff, another Lower Merion resident, have taken notice, too. A Drexel alum, Dranoff was on its board of trustees from 1988 to 1998, and he remains on its real estate acquisition team. While he wasn’t on the selection committee that surfaced Fry, Dranoff often spoke on his behalf. “John is the right man for the job,” he continues to assert. “He has a pedigree second to none. He packs 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag every day.”

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In 1999, the two met in conjunction with what has become West Philadelphia’s Left Bank, a Dranoff loft-apartment conversion of a 1920s freight depot and warehouse. Penn had once purchased the property as a defensive measure against a rumored Kmart invasion.

Years later, Dranoff asked Fry why the committee selected him: “He said, ‘Carl, the others we interviewed all gave us rote answers. They told us what we wanted to hear. You had all the answers. It was obvious you had done your homework. You knew every square inch of the building.’ John was all about substance over style.”

“He can and will make decisions,” Dranoff adds. “He’ll vet the issues carefully, but in the end, he’ll have a strong backbone. He’s willing to be decisive. He doesn’t suffer fools or sycophants, and he won’t tolerate mediocrity. That’s why I like him so much.”

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