Remembering Drexel’s Presidents

Drexel presidents are pictured left to right, top to bottom, in chronological order. Photos courtesy University Archives.
Drexel presidents are pictured left to right, top to bottom, in chronological order. Photos courtesy University Archives.

This article is part of the DrexelNow "Faces of Drexel" series honoring Drexel's history as part of the Universitywide celebration of the 125th anniversary of Drexel's founding in 1891.

You already know that President John A. Fry is the current president of Drexel University, but who was the first Drexel president? Who served the longest amount of time as president — and the shortest? Read on to find out as DrexelNow honors the Drexel presidents who have shaped the University in 125 years.

James A. MacAlister served as the inaugural president of the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry. The Scotland native, who previously served as the first superintendent of Philadelphia’s public school district, was chosen because of his strong advocation of practical training. During his presidency, Drexel expanded from a graduating class of 70 students in 1892 to 500 graduates in 1913, the year in which MacAlister resigned in ill health and died six months later. He served for 22 years — the longest tenure ever for a Drexel president. MacAlister Hall was named after him in 1973.

Though not considered an official president, Horace Churchman, a member of Drexel’s board of trustees, served as president in the interim.  

Hollis Godfrey became the next president in 1913. He consolidated the institute’s original independent departments into four schools. His legacy includes Drexel’s contributions to the World War I effort, the creation of the co-op program in 1919 and making Drexel a degree-granting institution. Godfrey resigned in 1921 to become chairman of the Council of Management Education and president of the Engineering-Economics Foundation, later falling ill and dying in 1936.

Kenneth G. Matheson became Drexel’s president in 1921. His legacy includes reorganizing the administrative and faculty structure of the institute; increasing student organizations and outreach; expanding the co-op program; wiping out Drexel’s deficit; increasing the institute’s endowment to $1 million and expanding the size and quality of campus. Matheson was granted a leave of absence in May 1931 for his ill health, but he postponed the leave and died of a heart attack six months later. Matheson Hall, which was on campus from 1965 until 2011, was named after him.

Drexel’s Board of Trustees then created an interim committee of deans, chaired by Academic Dean Robert Disque, to lead until the next president was hired.

Parke R. Kolbe started in 1932 after serving as president of the University of Akron and the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. Kolbe decentralized Drexel's administration and developed educational programs to support national defense as the threat of World War II loomed. Under his tenure, the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry became the Drexel Institute of Technology in 1936. Kolbe died suddenly from heart disease in 1942 at age 60.

Disque, then the dean of faculty, headed another interim executive committee after President Kolbe died.

George Peters Rea became the next president in 1942 after serving as the first paid president of the American Stock Exchange. He was hired for his business acumen, since the institute was suffering from financial and enrollment hardships as a result of World War II. However, Rea was criticized for his laid-back style and habit of making decisions without the approval of the faculty senate or Drexel community, such as the controversial selling of Drexel’s art and manuscript collection in 1944. He resigned that year (and thus completed the shortest presidency) to return to private business, later serving as the governor of the State Bank of Ethiopia and dying in 1978 at age 84.

Disque served as acting president in the interim. Disque Hall was named in his honor in 1967 and he died in 1968.

James Creese became president in 1945 after serving as vice president of the Stevens Institute of Technology. Creese’s two-decades-long reign at Drexel was marked by the hardships of World War II, the post-war increase that doubled the student population and the expansion of Drexel’s campus and curriculum. He resigned in 1963 and died three years later of a heart attack at age 70. The Creese Student Center, opened in 1963, is named for him.

William W. Hagerty started in 1963 after serving as dean of the University of Texas’ College of Engineering. He established several new schools and colleges, plus a graduate program; expanded the campus from 10 to nearly 40 acres; grew the budget tenfold to $80 million; increased the proportion of faculty with PhDs from 24 to 94 percent and doubled student enrollment to 14,000. Hagerty’s forward thinking transformed Drexel into a university in 1970 and made it the first university to require personal computers for students in 1983. He resigned the next year, later dying of cancer at age 70 in 1986. The W. W. Hagerty Library, opened in 1984, is named for him.

University of Delaware dean William S. Gaither became the next president of Drexel in 1984. He created 11 new majors, increased alumni giving and worked on programs to enhance minority student enrollment. After a Drexel employee filed a sexual harassment claim and other allegations followed, Gaither resigned in 1987. In later years, he became the owner/consultant of Gaither & Associates and died in 2009 at age 77.

Alumnus, senior vice president and trustee Harold M. Myers ’38 came out of retirement to serve as interim president from 1987–88. Myers Hall was named for him in 1977. He died of multiple organ failure at age 89 in 2004.

Richard Breslin, a former Catholic priest and president of the University of Charleston in West Virginia, was named Drexel’s president in 1988. At Drexel, he increased alumni giving and strengthened the basketball program. After low undergraduate enrollment and budget cuts, Breslin resigned in 1994. He became the executive vice president and provost at St. Louis University and is now the senior major gift officer and director of development at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Drexel alumnus and trustee C.R. “Chuck” Pennoni ('63, '66, Hon. '92) served as interim president.

In 1995, Constantine Papadakis became president at the ailing Drexel, which had low enrollment and cash flow. Papadakis, the second international Drexel president and the only Greek college president in America during his tenure, doubled the full-time undergraduate enrollment and faculty size, tripled freshman applications and quintupled the University's endowment and research funding. He died of complications from lung cancer in 2009 at age 63. The Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building was named after him in 2011.

Pennoni filled in as interim president again.

Current president John A. Fry became president in 2010 after previously serving as president of Franklin & Marshall College and executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania. His vision for Drexel includes transforming the University into what he calls "the modern urban university of the future" by using its strengths and resources to serve its community, its neighborhood, its city and the nation. During Fry's presidency, Drexel has created major partnerships in Philadelphia, such as the affiliation with the Academy of Natural Sciences and major neighborhood initiatives, as well as global connections in China, Turkey, Israel, Brazil and Chile.