President Fry Receives Honorary Degree, Addresses Graduates at Gratz College Commencement

Drexel University President John Fry speaking at the 2019 Gratz College commencement ceremony.

Drexel University President John Fry received an honorary doctorate and delivered the commencement address at Gratz College’s 2019 graduation ceremony, which was held on May 19.

Gratz College, a private Jewish college located in Melrose Park, a suburb of Philadelphia, was founded to serve and educate Philadelphia’s Jewish community in 1895 and is the nation’s oldest independent Jewish college. Both Gratz College and its neighbor, Drexel University, are “instructive for what they say about higher education, community and progress in Philadelphia,” said Fry, who also remarked that he felt a kinship between the two institutions.

Gratz College was created just four years after the University was founded as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry in 1891. Both institutions, he said, were the only two in the region to open their doors to both men and women from the very beginning. Fry also discussed the similarities between the founding mission of the schools to build talent for a changing industrial world, and highlighted how Drexel and Gratz have evolved and adapted while continuing to train the next generation of citizens to better today’s society. To do so, he appealed to the graduates to create a better world, saying, "In the Judaic tradition, this is known as 'Tikkun Olam' — the belief that we need to repair the world."

Gratz College President Paul Finkelman, PhD, shakes hands with Drexel University President John Fry as Gratz College Board of Governors member Leon L. Levy looks on.

“As the only college offering an online doctorate in Holocaust and genocide studies, Gratz has a solid claim to the idea that we can all become better versions of ourselves,” said Fry. “And at Drexel, for nearly a decade, we have been striving to improve our surrounding community by working to become our country’s most civically engaged university.”

Fry also honored a man he called his “cherished mentor,” D. Walter Cohen, a Gratz alumnus who served on its Board of Governors. Cohen was also a former trustee and chancellor emeritus of the Drexel University College of Medicine, and had advocated and supported Drexel’s Judaic Studies Program and Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life. Cohen, who died in on June 29, 2018, had encouraged Fry to accept the Gratz College honorary degree.

“When I first came to Drexel in 2010, Walter immediately embraced me, and during his last eight years he bestowed upon me a series of gifts which I will forever hold dear: The gift of his presence and the gifts of his empathy, compassion and appreciation,” said Fry. “He was someone who had walked in my shoes. Still, he found the time to give me the strength and encouragement to find my way as the new leader of Drexel. I miss his advice on more days than I can say.”

Drexel University President John Fry addresses graduates at the 2019 Gratz College commencement ceremony.

He entreated Gratz graduates to appreciate the gifts in life — such as cherished friendships and meaningful opportunities like a college education — and to pay it forward.

“Throughout this commencement season, graduates just like you will hear all manner of advice from speakers like me given this honor. Many of them will advise you to look after yourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I have every confidence that this group of graduates already has taken such standard advice to heart,” Fry said when addressing the graduating class. “I’m sure you will strive to live life to the fullest, let your reach exceed your grasp, follow your dreams, ‘know thyself,’ never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and on and on. But, to the extent that you can focus outside of yourself and subscribe to the goal of actually ‘repairing the world,’ then, I know that you cannot go wrong.”