After Detailing Drexel’s ‘Rapid Change’ at Town Hall, President Fry Looks Ahead

Drexel President John Fry speaking at the town hall Nov. 16.
Drexel President John Fry speaking at the town hall Nov. 16.

“I know that the world is going to change, and therefore, the University must change with it.” — Anthony J. Drexel

Drexel University’s founder offered that unofficial decree upon the opening of the Drexel Institute of Art Science and Industry in 1891, and the institution has followed it to the letter during its 126-year journey. So much so, in fact, that when Drexel President John Fry held a town hall for faculty and staff on Nov. 16, he started his presentation with a slide highlighting the quote.

Drexel’s latest period of change, which was offset by a new enrollment and retention strategy implemented in 2015, was the topic of discussion at the event. The University is in a state of fluctuation after changing its admissions policy to attract a smaller class with more students prepared to graduate, thus improving Drexel’s graduation and retention rates. In a time of rising tuition and room and board costs, of which Drexel was once at the forefront, the University has committed to holding the line on its tuition price, raising it by less than 2 percent per year.

“We put this huge amount of pressure on ourselves,” said Fry. “The easiest way for an institution to deal with shortfalls is to just raise prices, and I think it’s admirable that collectively we’ve been able to deliver on so many good things while at the same time really constraining the growth of the cost of the Drexel education.”

As a result, significant restructuring and financial cuts have been made across the administration and academic sides of the tuition-dependent University in the past several years.

The University switched to a Responsibility Center Management (RCM) model so that colleges and schools are now responsible for managing their revenue and expenses. The Office of Enrollment Management and Student Success was created along with Drexel Central and the Graduate College to improve student support services for Dragons, and the University switched from annual to term billing and change admissions cycles (new Early Decision was enacted this year and winter Early Action was dropped). 

In academics, the University hired 100 new tenure-track faculty members and went through major restructuring in the Goodwin College, the former Center for Hospitality & Sport Management, the College of Engineering, the College of Computing & Informatics, the Close School of Entrepreneurship and the dual-partnership Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science in the College of Arts and Sciences that is affiliated with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. 

“I think we’ve made tremendous foundational changes to this University over a really short period of time, hence the collective stress that we all feel,” said Fry. “We’re weathering what is clearly a different and more competitive environment in higher education.”

However, by making these self-imposed changes and changing its course, the University is setting itself up for success in the future as a stronger private research university. A record-high number of freshmen were admitted to Drexel this past year, and retention rates have improved, most notably from 84.5 percent in 2014 to 89.1 percent in 2015 — “that’s unheard of, to go up five points in one year,” Fry noted. Last year, Drexel’s retention rate was 89.6 percent, and the University is on track to meet its 90 percent retention rate and 80 percent six-year graduation goals.

“We’re seeing results from the strategy, as painful as it’s been,” said Fry, later adding, “I feel personally reassured that the demand for what we do at this institution has been validated this year. I feel like this is a signal from the market that we’re starting to get it right in terms of explaining the really powerful value proposition of this university.”

Already, Drexel’s changes are making big strides for the University on campus and in the higher-education landscape. The University has gained in rankings that place value on retention and graduation, such as the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings, in which Drexel moved up two spots this year, and rankings that measure student outcomes, like the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education list, in which Drexel moved up nine spots.

“I suspect in the next couple of years, we’re going to be looking even better going forward,” he said.

This month, Drexel embarked on a $750 million fundraising campaign set to conclude in 2021, which is also around the time in which Drexel’s admissions strategy is set to have brought in an entirely new campus of right-fit students. Since Drexel’s last campaign ended in 2013, more than 31,000 donors have committed over $410 million, most notably naming gifts for the Dana and David Dornsife School of Public Health and the Thomas R. Kline School of Law; $12 million from the Wellcome Trust to fund a Dornsife School-led study on the impact of urban living on health; $5 million from Trustee Nina Henderson ’72 to establish the Nina Henderson Provost at Drexel University; and $5 million from the Lenfest Foundation to name the Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships.

The Schuylkill Yards project also broke ground this month, with total gross proceeds in Phase 1 (or FY18) projected at $80 million, which will increase the endowment by $17 million (an endowment that recently placed in the top 11 percent of endowments and foundations across the country). Over the 15- to 20-year lifetime of the project, the total gross proceeds are expected to reach $239 million, which will add $118 million to the endowment.

“We want to take every asset that we have at this university and put it to work for student success,” said Fry.

In the meantime, Fry is looking at a 2018 “refresh” of the 2012 strategic plan, as was done in 2015. Already, he and various task forces are summarizing what has been achieved and highlighting unresolved issues that need to be addressed.

“I feel very proud about how this campus is evolving,” said Fry. “It’s becoming a wonderful and better version of itself.”

That version is part of Fry’s “One University” vision, which strives to better incorporate into the University acquisitions from the past 15 or so years. The College of Medicine, which was founded in 2002, is no longer a separate 501(c) organization; Drexel University Online is no longer a separate for-profit extension of the University; and the Academy of Natural Sciences has been better integrated into the University, particularly with its partnership with the College of Arts and Sciences, formed in 2011.

All of this — the changes in Drexel’s structure and admissions and operations — is part of Fry’s plan to steer the University on the best course for the future of higher education, as past presidents at Drexel have done before him.

“They gave us the gift of the University that we will give forward,” Fry said, adding that he too wants to leave Drexel in a “stronger, more resilient and more competitive place than when we found it.”