President John Fry on the Future of Drexel, Philadelphia and Higher Education

The Drexel Academic Tower site — a key part of the planned UCity Square — photographed earlier this month. Photo courtesy Wexford and Turner Construction.
The Drexel Academic Tower site — a key part of the planned UCity Square — photographed earlier this month. Photo courtesy Wexford and Turner Construction.

On Aug. 18, Drexel University President John Fry sat down with the Philadelphia Business Journal to discuss everything from how the University is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic to how Drexel is looking within itself and its neighborhood to prepare for a bright future.

If you wish, read the resulting Philadelphia Business Journal article (which is behind a paywall, but faculty, professional staff and students can access it through Drexel while logged into VPN) or watch the recording of the interview.

Some of Fry’s thoughts and responses have been excerpted in a lightly edited transcript below.

The Future of Higher Education

I think you’re going to see fewer institutions.”

I think higher ed did an incredible job of responding so quickly to this unprecedented set of circumstances with COVID. I think most people’s model of higher ed is that it’s slow to change, slow to move, too caught up in its history. But if you look at what’s happened since February, March…this whole industry had shifted very quickly. That shows flexibility. It shows resilience.

Those adaptions are incredibly valuable assets and institutions should hold on to that and not just go back to the way it was…. I think taking what has been learned in this period and figuring out how to leverage that and make it part of your value proposition is the single most important thing.

The second thing is flexibility. Between the financial impact of COVID, the demographic changes, the situation in terms of bringing international students here, and with so many constraints on the system…institutions are really going to have to step back and begin to rethink their model, because the sector is not going to be spared continued disruption going forward.

Which leads to my third point. More than ever, partnerships — or joint ventures, or mergers, or whatever you want to call them — are the way to go. 

I think the sector is going to see an almost health care-system-like response to what’s going on. Health care started on its own consolidation and rethinking its model decades ago and it’s obviously still in the middle of it. I think it’s time for higher ed to go through the same types of dynamic changes.

I think you’re going to see fewer institutions. I think you’re going to see more networks of institutions. I think you’ll see more hybrid, more online. Hopefully we keep face to face, but that’s just part of what we do. This notion that online is in this box and in person is in this box and we have a little bit of a hybrid in the middle…students don’t want that environment. Students want to be able to go from place to place depending on what they’re trying to learn and who they’re trying to learn from….I think what students want is the ability to move seamlessly between learning modes and also seamlessly between and among disciplines.

All of that mixed together means the next decade plus is going to be a time of tremendous and unprecedented change for the sector. I think that the places that approach this with a sense of opportunity, like Drexel, have really, really exciting times ahead. But the idea that you can kind of hunker down and will your way through it with the same model, I just think that’s not going to be the path to success.

Drexel’s Place in the Fight for Racial Justice

“Our goal is to create an anti-racist community at our University.”

If there was ever an institution that has to care about this and has to be impactful, it’s our University. It’s missional, based on the way we were founded from the very beginning, who came to us for an education, where we’re located, and what our relationship is with our neighborhoods.

Right now we’re in the period of deep discernment about our own role in this whole thing. If we want to have an anti-racist society, we also have to have anti-racist institutions. Our commitment, and it’s our number one commitment, is to begin to wrestle with that, however difficult that is going to be, and painful, personally and for our community. Our goal is to create an anti-racist community at our University.

In listening to our students and our faculty and our staff, what we’ve heard is we want dialogue, but we want action….We just don’t want to talk about this. We want to do things that are meaningful. To guide this entire effort, we put together an Anti-Racism Task Force. I have 11 subcommittees that are working on various aspects of this at Drexel, led by some incredibly talented people, including my chief diversity officer, Kim Gholston. They’re taking a broad look at everything we do — academics, procurement, how we build buildings, how we support our students, our relationships in the neighborhood. Probably in the early part of the fall, they’ll come back with a bunch of recommendations and we’ll take those recommendations and we’ll start moving on them. That’s number one.

Number two, we’ve had a dialogue with our students on this campus about the absence of a center for Black culture. And so we decided, you know what, no more dialogue. We’re taking the Rush Building, across from the Armory at 33rd and Market, and we’re putting a new Center for Black Culture there as we speak. It’s under construction and will open sometime in the fall. We just hired an interim director. We have an advisory group. We’re going to get that done right away.

The third thing is, given the controversy and the concern around policing, I talked to my police department and said, look, we need to make sure everything is being scrutinized, including Drexel Police. We hired former Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who has a firm called 21CP Solutions, to lead a review. They’re going to a top-to-bottom look at policy and practice and process for the Drexel Police. I think the Drexel Police have done an incredible job of supporting our community, both on campus and in our neighborhoods; but at the same time, given everything that is going on, that kind of scrutiny is very important.

The last thing is, what are we going to do further in West Philadelphia to support our neighborhoods? We’re so deep into the work in the Promise Zone. We’re building a new K-8 school building that will house students from Samuel Powel Elementary and the Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

One of the greatest gifts that you can give anyone is the gift of access to a high-quality education, whether you’re a little kid in kindergarten or you’re a big person going to get your PhD. We have the resources to give the gift of, in this case of Drexel and education, to even more people. We’ve given it to a lot, but we have to do more. And I think that work doesn’t start when you go to college or graduate school. I think it starts when you’re in a neighborhood and you look around and you ask about what kind of access to high-quality education the little kids get, which is why we’re building a school right now, which is why we’re involved in the Promise Zone. Our view of that has to not have boundaries in terms of a university education, but it has to be a university in a society with a larger set of responsibilities and commitments to other people, even if they never come to our institution. They’re still our people in the sense that we have some sort of a shared responsibility. Universities are amazing platforms for access and for opportunity and for equity and for diversity and inclusion.

This is consuming and comprehensive work. It will never be done. We’ll always be in this sort of dialogue about this. This is not a project that you can put a fence around. This has to be part of our culture.

How Drexel is Building Innovation Districts

“We’re serious about creating the next great economy for the city of Philadelphia.”

Schuylkill Yards is really off to a wonderful start. Drexel Square opened last year. Spark Therapeutics is now moving into the big old Bulletin Building….It’s thrilling to me and that’s the word I feel every morning when I drive in and I get to go past the Bulletin Building and know that one of the world’s most exciting companies has set up shop on campus. We have two towers going up on JFK Boulevard, the East Tower and the West Tower. The East Tower will be 750,000 square feet and the West Tower will be 500,000 square feet with a mix of commercial, residential and retail. [These buildings are being constructed by developers at their own expense who will lease the land from Drexel.] We’ll break ground when we’re allowed to, sometime in the reasonable future.    

And then, very exciting for us, is the prospect of a life sciences building at the corner of 32nd and Market, which our development partner Brandywine Realty Trust is now working on the design concept for.

Just as exciting is UCity Square, where work is being completed on the new K-8 school. Powell/SLAMS is a university-assisted public school that will open in spring 2021 for 800 students. It’ll be part of a group of eight local public schools that Drexel helps to oversee as part of the federal Promise Zone. Literally right next to it, on the adjacent site, our development partner just broke ground for the 450,000-square-foot Drexel Academic Tower. We’re going to move our College of Nursing and Health Professions from Center City to University City and a good chunk of our College of Medicine as well; they’ll be in the same tower.

Despite the tremendous amount of disruption and dislocation and uncertainty, it’s so nice to see not one, but two innovation districts to the east and to the west of our University taking shape. What’s great about these innovation districts, it’ll be filled by companies, but it’ll also be other institutions — like Penn, for example, like Drexel, like CHOP — who will take part of this as well. Putting all of those intellectual and academic assets together between educational institutions, medical institutions, for-profit institutions — we’re serious about creating the next great economy for the city of Philadelphia.

That ties back to the civic part. We have to be stewards of our economy. These two innovation districts to the east and the west of Drexel are really going to be formative in terms of the success of that. If we’re really good at what we do long term, you’ll see development over the 30th Street Station rail yards immediately north of JFK Boulevard, through our joint master plan with Amtrak and SEPTA and Brandywine Realty Trust.

The promise there is enormous. Now, I’m not going to see that. But when you think about the next 25 to 50 years of opportunity in the city, there is a vast opportunity to take the air rights over that 75 acres or so of rail yards and really do something special with that. Right now, we’re in the stage where we’re putting a big down payment, between Schuylkill Yards and UCity Square, on what will be a much larger set of development opportunities in University City.

How Drexel Collaborates with the Business Community

“I want everyone here at this University to be somehow engaged in meaningful work with the city of Philadelphia.”

The most basic way, of course, is through co-op. Ninety-two percent of our students who apply for co-ops in a non-COVID year — I’ll talk about the COVID year in a second — get co-ops and many do at least one of their three co-ops in Philadelphia. Drexel students are ubiquitous throughout the greater Philadelphia area in terms of the businesses that they work in. I could give you a very long list of employers that we enjoy long-term relationships with — places like PECO. We’ve had over 50 years of partnership with PECO, just that one company, and thousands and thousands of students who have gone through that.

Despite COVID this year, 79 percent of undergraduates this spring and summer were able to do virtual co-ops, which really says something about the way in which those co-op employers view our students. Despite everything that’s going on, they still want to employ them, even if it’s virtually. I mean, it’s not 99 percent, but it’s not half either. I’m very proud of that number because almost 80 percent are still being called into the workplace. So I’d say number one is the sort of incredible value that our students bring to businesses and the incredible opportunities that these businesses and nonprofits give to our students.

Beyond that, I meant what I said back in 2010 when I came to the University, that I want our university to be the most civically engaged university in the United States. And if you take a look at so many things across the city — boards where we have Drexel representatives, civic things that we’re doing — we’re completely engaged in this city…. We tried to insinuate our university into as many different places as possible where there are opportunities for us to serve, whether it’s through our Close School for Entrepreneurship and all the incubation work that we do with emerging businesses; our Center for Tech Transfer where we’re funding about half a dozen to a dozen companies a year; all the work that we do with the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. My mandate — not that I like to give out too many mandates — but I want everyone here at this University to be somehow engaged in meaningful work with the city of Philadelphia and use our time and our talent to support that. There’s a strong sense of mission and commitment around or work beyond co-op just in terms of volunteering and being part of the city that we love and that we need to support.

COVID-19 and the University’s Finances

“We’re positioned for a lot of uncertainty going forward.”

[Editor’s note: previously, Fry announced in May that the University was reducing its expenses by $90 million, which includes a 25 percent contingency factor, and in July he wrote a message about the financial markets’ confidence in Drexel.]

We’re balanced now for this fiscal year, so we’ve taken those reductions…. We’ve learned a lot about what has worked well, what hasn’t worked as well, and we’re adjusting. But from a financial standpoint, the 25 percent contingency covers us for any sort of additional foregone revenue that we would have to deal with. Again, I’m pleased to say that we’re balanced and started working on this right away. There’s an enormous amount of sacrifice made by each and every member of our community to do so. And honestly, top of mind, too, is the impact on students and their families of what’s happening around the country.

What we’re trying to do at the same time is assess how we can just make it easier for our students to attend. We have a lot that we’re trying to balance financially. In the middle of all of this, I think it’s worth noting, we did a $250-million-dollar bond issue month [that was] oversubscribed by four times and maintains A ratings from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s…. We’re positioned for a lot of uncertainty going forward.

We’re trying to work with everyone to make sure that, look, you were admitted and we want you to come here and we will work with you to make sure that that’s possible. We’re spending more on financial aid than anything else except for salaries for faculty and staff. I mean, that is the number two largest line item and it has grown fast. Only part of our budget right now is financial aid; we can’t do enough as far as I’m concerned.

How the University is Using Its Fundraising

“Through all of this, our fundraising has been strong.”

I’m also happy to say that through all of this, our fundraising has been strong. We’re about $100 million dollars away from completing our $750 million-dollar campaign. Research has been strong and we continue to get good support from our governmental sources, particularly for St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, which we’re the co-owner of. We benefited from an allocation from the federal government. What we’re trying to do is to stay as flexible and as liquid as possible, while everything sort of swirls around us.

The $750 million-dollar campaign is almost exclusively focused on endowment gifts for scholarships, support, faculty. It’s not capital expenditures… Mostly of our new campus buildings are being built and paid for by third-party developers, and that’s helping us with the capital side so we can focus our philanthropy on people, basically access for students and excellence for faculty teaching and research. That has really helped a lot. That’s given us additional funds and additional flexibility that we need right now.

In our philanthropy and in our conversations with donors, we talk about making sure that students have an opportunity to come here, but also then allow themselves to be put into situations where they’re trying things out that are working, they’re volunteering, they’re civically engaged. We just celebrated the 100th anniversary of the co-op program, but our experiential model is about the most contemporary type of education that you can have.

I think it also resonates with people philanthropically that we started online, we started granting online degrees in 1999. So we’ve been at this for 20 years. Going online is not new to us. It wasn’t as much of a pivot for us. There was a lot of experience among our faculty in this kind of teaching. People also look at that as not only contemporary, but also accessible, because many of the people who attend Drexel are working full-time. That has always been our tradition, is that people work and they go to school and they go back and forth. Our goal, particularly during this time, is to make that as frictionless as possible.