Drexel President John Fry reflects on development and why the school is educating more r&d engineers

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Built as a factory and financial center, Philadelphia’s economy now relies more on its universities. It’s no surprise, then, that the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce recently chose John Fry, president of Drexel University and architect of the development around its main campus in University City, for its annual highest honor, the William Penn Awards.

Fry, once a senior officer at the University of Pennsylvania and then president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, set big goals for Drexel upon his arrival and recently signed on for five more years to lead the second-largest university in the city. He spoke to The Inquirer about how his focus has evolved and Drexel’s role in the region’s future. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

When I got here, all people wanted to talk about was the future of Drexel in Sacramento. They wanted to build Drexel West! We had a small secondary campus there. I looked at the cost. It would have been absolutely prohibitive.

We wound it up and I wanted to focus on University City and Philadelphia.

I saw that our retention rate was not where it should be. I decided to focus on retaining more students, instead of recruiting more and losing a lot, and doubling down on experiential learning, our co-ops [six-month paid business internships]. We are a very specific type of university, and I wanted to tell our story to the students who we think would be the best fit and who would be able to graduate.

The average graduate has at least one job offer with an average salary well over $50,000. It’s a great model. We’ve focused on all of that, and our retention rate has gone up.

I was very influenced by the work we were doing at Penn. We founded the University City Special Services District in 1997. This gave us a district approach to improvements in the public realm, maintaining a clean and safe environment, and city marketing and branding. university as a desirable place not only to go to school but to do business. I raised funds for that, and I was the founding president.

When I came back to Philadelphia, I started looking more at the area around the [Amtrak] station at 30th street.

Before I came here, Drexel had bought the old Evening Bulletin building at 31st and Market. We went on and bought the Five Star parking lot between 30th and 32nd streets, and the old Firestone site at 32nd and the market. And the old Abbott’s Dairy at 31st and Chestnut.

What We Didn’t Do, Gerry Sweeney [CEO of Brandywine Real Estate Investment Trust and his team] were doing nearby: the Cira tower, the FMC tower, the post office renovations. It was clear to me that if we teamed up and started bringing it all together in one package, we would have something powerful enough to offer. [corporate tenants] dedicated to innovation, development, economic opportunity and economic growth.

We became involved with Amtrak and SEPTA in commissioning the 30th Street District plan and the 85 acres of rail yards north to Spring Garden Street – the Schuylkill Yards.

We were fortunate to recruit Spark Therapeutics [the gene therapy company started by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia scientists] as main tenant [at the Evening Bulletin building]. Roche bought Spark and expanded beyond its headquarters in the Bulletin building to also add Abbott’s Dairy site as a gene manufacturing center.

This makes Spark the most prominent example of a company whose technology was created here in West Philadelphia. Between Gerry Sweeney and Wexford and Drexel, we gave them a place to grow.

Then the school district closed University City High School at 31st and Filbert. John Grady and Joe Reagan of Wexford Science and Technology created an innovation district, uCity Square, from Powelton to Filbert. There was already [biotech tenants in University City]but Wexford recruited the Cambridge Innovation Center to operate on site, and we moved our fastest growing school, the College of Computing and Informatics, over two floors.

And we brought in the American university communities, they added 3,000 [student housing] beds. We couldn’t have done it ourselves, we didn’t have the capital, so we went to the market and held a competition.

Applications to medical schools have increased [to 16,000 this year, from 14,000 in 2019]. Our first-year enrollment is on the rise [to 303 in 2021, from 254 in 2019, including the new campus at Tower Health in Wyomissing, Berks County].

Board of directors [has committed to financing] another hospital we have worked closely with, St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children [until at least 2026, as it seeks a buyer]. Like the Academy of Natural Sciences and recently the former Atwater Kent Museum, Drexel has appropriated these institutions vital to the future of our city but which have suffered from underinvestment. What if Saint Chris wasn’t there?

We want to be in the A league in terms of gene therapy. What I learned from [2017-2018] effort to bring Amazon here – I was president of the chamber that year – we made a joint venture bid with PIDC and a major corporate commitment, in a big competition with the best cities in the country. It turned out that their team recommended three cities: Philadelphia, Chicago, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Basically, we have done very well: walking, public transport, good leisure, good restaurants and hospitals, a city with intellectual assets but also a real place full of neighborhoods.

Of course, they canceled their own committee and went to New York and Virginia. They hammered us mostly on tech talent. Our schools do not train enough engineers. Our students weren’t doing enough computer science.

So we did something about that at Drexel. Since then, we have tripled the size of our College of Computing and Computing. We have considerably developed the health sciences. And we double engineering, [all] to attract future tech talent.

A biomanufacturing plant that will employ 500 or 600 people, they don’t all need to be graduates. We lack the infrastructure to prepare many people for these well-paying jobs.

We have an intense conversation with Spark about this. The Community College of Philadelphia is doing its best, but it’s overwhelmed. I spoke to the president of Thaddeus Stevens [vocational-technical college, in Lancaster] about starting a branch here. We could support this company by filling the talent pipeline, so they end up working in places like Spark.

In 2011, we concluded our agreement with the Academy of Natural Sciences which gave us access to researchers and the construction of our biodiversity portfolio. And this month we accepted the Philadelphia City Historical Collection [from its shuttered Atwater Kent Museum]. The mayor came up to us and said they were going out and they didn’t know what to do with it.

Well, the story of Philadelphia is the story of this country – manufacturing, neighborhood building, racial tensions. I thought it was the right thing to do and a way for us at Drexel to go deeper into these areas, with these powerful stories about humanity.

We are ready to move this entire collection into the public domain through digitization. So little of the collection has been seen by the public over the decades. What a sin.

I was so lucky to do this job for so long at Penn, and now at Drexel. I believe in continuity, given the challenges that await us in the next decade. We have huge momentum.

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