For Philadelphia to move forward in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century, it will require anchor institutions like Drexel University to work together with a long view focused on solving the community’s most pressing problems, President John Fry said April 20 at a panel discussion hosted by the Barnes Foundation. During the event, titled, “Citizen Speaks: The University and the City,” Fry and four other college and university presidents spoke about Philadelphia’s future and the grand ideas needed to steer it in the right direction.
Philadelphia is known for being “long on assets and short on collaboration and communication,” Fry said, but the city and its institutions have still managed to pull off major projects, such as the revitalization of University City and the development of the Navy Yard.
“What we now have to do is connect all these big things so there’s a regional strategy instead of pockets of local success,” said Fry, speaking to a few hundred interested citizens. “The only way that’s going to happen is getting together and thinking about the big questions.”
Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, said she was tired of hearing “the old Philadelphia lecture” offered by moderator Jeremy Nowak, chairman of The Philadelphia Citizen, who suggested that the city lags behind others because of a reluctance to build a cohesive vision.
“It’s time to stop saying that and talk about what we can do,” said Gutmann. “Let’s collaborate. We’ve made progress as a city. … Let’s build up that progress and collaborate more.”
Fry and Gutmann were joined on stage by Community College of Philadelphia President Donald Generals, Temple University President Richard Englert and Thomas Jefferson University President Stephen Klasko. During the discussion, the group swung at grand questions related to preparing for the future, globalization and institutional reach into surrounding communities.
Fry noted Drexel’s unique position of developing Schuylkill Yards, a $3.5 billion project, while also being in the middle of a federal Promise Zone, a balance he said was both challenging and enriching for the University. The key to doing what’s best both for Drexel and its neighbors is to get to know those neighbors and their struggles, he said. The University has been sure to do that, showing up to community meetings to hear what people are upset about, and moving forward with that knowledge in hand.
“The progress we’ve seen in the Promise Zone is because we’re on the ground with real people building relationships,” said Fry.
As the University moves toward the future in the Promise Zone and Schuylkill Yards and beyond, it must avoid getting frozen in place, Fry said. He predicted “a tidal wave of change” in the academic world.
“I think in the next 10 to 20 years, there’s going to be a major shake-up in American higher education,” said Fry, “and the places that will do the best are the ones that have leadership that’s going to take a chance.”
In that spirit, Klasko said Jefferson has “decided not to be incremental and to be as disruptive as can be.”
Gutmann suggested that major institutions will need to diversify their interests in coming years, as state and federal funding declines.
For Generals, Philadelphia’s 26 percent poverty rate is the most urgent challenge facing the city and its pillars in the coming years.
“We have to find ways to deal with these intractable problems with less funding from the government, while at the same time putting less burden on our students,” said Generals.
As Nowak noted, those students are changing over time. Universities are now both “immediately local and dramatically global,” seeking to expand beyond borders to attract the brightest minds from around the world and benefit from the diversity of thought they bring. But, he said, it’s happening at a time when globalization is an increasingly polarizing concept in America.
The fear of globalization is founded by an insecurity built on “looking inward rather than outward,” Gutmann said. There are people who have watched the world change and feel like they’re being left out, she said.
“If everybody felt like they were part of the American dream, we wouldn’t be seeing what we’re seeing,” said Gutmann. “The single greatest antidote to that is education.”
Fry, remarking on the Dornsife School of Public Health’s shift toward looking globally in an effort to solve problems that also affect local populations, said the University is “a local and global laboratory” that has been enriched by the expansion. Conveying those benefits to communities struggling to see them is the responsibility of institutions like Drexel.
“We have to live at that nexus between local and global,” said Fry. “We have to keep pushing that, and even if the headwinds are pushing the other way, it’s our role to set the standard of understanding between people.”