Drexel Convocation

Remarks by President John A. Fry

It is a rare honor that I have been given to stand before you today as the fourteenth president of this magnificent university and to address our students, faculty, trustees and professional staff at this important ritual of Convocation.

While the occasion calls for lofty rhetoric and a reaffirmation of important traditions, I would instead like to use this opportunity to frame several challenges facing our surrounding neighborhoods, and call the Drexel University community to action and commit ourselves to bettering our shared community.

If Anthony Drexel were to walk today from the Main Building where the Drexel Institute was founded almost 120 years ago, through our campus, and into these neighborhoods, would he be satisfied that we are fulfilling our mission as an urban university?

What are the moral and practical obligations of an urban university like Drexel to its community?

Is Drexel University a good neighbor to the surrounding communities of Powelton Village and Mantua?

These are questions that I am wrestling with now, early in my tenure as President of Drexel University. I feel a sense of urgency given the continued deterioration of the public environment and housing stock of these neighborhoods, which house well over 5,000 of Drexel’s undergraduate and graduate students.

These are also the same questions that I addressed at the University of Pennsylvania and at Franklin & Marshall College in the city of Lancaster, both of which faced relatively similar problems even though their context and scale were very different.

I know from hard-won experience and success that the worst thing to do is to ignore these problems or to study them to death. The best thing to do is to plunge in and address these challenges in a proactive and collaborative way, knowing that this will entail a long-term commitment for the institution.

I recently met and discussed these issues with the Executive Committee of the Powelton Village Civic Association. I am also committed to getting to know and having an on-going dialogue with our neighbors in Mantua, and to build on our relationship with the Mantua Community Investment Committee.

I think it is apparent for all to see that the public environment in the neighborhoods north of our campus is in need of significant improvement. By public environment I mean the cleanliness and safety of our streets; the physical condition of sidewalks, trees, front porches and lighting; and the condition of the “gateways” to our neighborhoods and university, especially along Spring Garden Street and Lancaster Avenue.

Plus, there are other issues that detract from neighborhood pride and safety such as graffiti, litter, piled up garbage on the sidewalks and unsafe traffic flows. If you walk through these neighborhoods you will see these conditions, and, as members of the University City community, these conditions should be unacceptable to all of us.

The compromised public environment is exacerbated by the transient nature of the area’s housing which has resulted in a neighborhood where fewer and fewer “neighbors” wish to live. By neighbors I mean single-family households, with and without children. Only 16 percent of the houses in Powelton Village are occupied by single-family homeowners. Of all the households in the Village, only seven percent have children.

In Powelton Village especially, what was once a stable, close-knit urban neighborhood is now being threatened in profound ways, and has indeed arrived at a tipping point, with a greatly diminished core of resident homeowners. This condition is in part because Drexel’s ability to provide housing to its students has not kept up with its growth in enrollment.

This situation is made worse by the actions of many landlords. They have purchased and carved up single-family homes and turned them into apartments, failing to maintain them adequately and hold their tenants accountable for their behavior. This cycle has continued unabated over the years, with fewer and fewer single-family homeowners wishing to live in these neighborhoods. More and more landlords see the situation as an opportunity for them to profit financially. Unfortunately, the results speak for themselves.

Even if families wish to stay in Powelton Village they must contend with other challenges, such as the capacity of the kindergarten through 4th grade Powel School to fully address the educational needs of their children not to mention the very limited retail and shopping amenities available to neighbors along the main commercial corridor, Lancaster Avenue.

Vibrant, high-quality public schools in particular are the cornerstone for a good quality of life in any neighborhood. You have to look no further than the Penn Alexander School on 42nd and Locust Streets to see the impact that a strong public school can have on a neighborhood.

Taken together, public environment and public safety, housing, schools and commercial corridors have a powerful impact on any neighborhood. The unevenness in these areas has had a negative impact on Powelton Village and Mantua as well.

So given all of this, why should institutions like Drexel partner with the local community? What are the responsibilities and obligations of Drexel University to its neighbors in Powelton Village and Mantua? In addition, what should we expect from our neighbors in return, as well as from our faculty, professional staff, and students?

I believe there are three reasons why we should develop a significant, long-term partnership with our community. The first is a practical reason. The future of Drexel and our community are inextricably bound, in a mutual self interest that virtually dictates our support for one another. A stronger Drexel helps anchor the community. An attractive and appealing community environment gives Drexel a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining the best students, faculty and professional staff.

Second, when we contemplate Drexel’s three-pronged mission of teaching, research and service, a proactive and unwavering commitment to our surrounding community helps us animate the service dimension of our mission, giving it sharp definition and real importance. I also believe Drexel has a moral obligation to its community as part of fulfilling its mission as a research university, just as we have a moral commitment to make sure our students are safe, whether they live on or off campus.

Finally, our highest purpose as a University is to educate and prepare leaders who are capable of dealing with the great civic issues of our day, such as poverty, public education and the health of our cities. We do this in part by engaging them in meaningful civic activities, and letting them learn firsthand the joys and frustrations of public service at this most formative stage of their lives.

But beyond merely exhorting our students to become civically engaged, we as institutions must “walk the talk” and play an active role in the community. In doing so, we hopefully inspire these young women and men to do the same one day in their communities.

The partnership between university and community should be based on a number of principles.

First, the engagement should be comprehensive, built around dimensions of a healthy neighborhood, a clean and safe public environment, affordable housing, strong public schools, retail and cultural amenities and good jobs.

Second, the engagement should be long-term: not an initiative, not a five-year plan, but a generational partnership that transcends administrations and is upheld instead by the university’s faculty and trustees, its self-perpetuating bodies. In this realm, nothing truly worthwhile or lasting can happen without decades of committed hard work. Finally, this engagement must center around solving real problems and making a difference—a neighborhood is not a “laboratory” for “experiments.”
I understand that Drexel University has had a rich history of community engagement with its neighbors in Powelton Village, Mantua and throughout Philadelphia. This is evidenced by such inspiring initiatives as the Drexel “Smart House,” the tutoring and mentorship programs provided by the Lindy Scholars Program, the interdisciplinary “Engineering Cities” academic initiative, and the health care services we provide to the underserved at the College of Nursing’s and Health Professions’ 11th Street Family Health Services.

I recognize that there isn’t enough time to mention every single community program and initiative that all of you have implemented. But I do want to take a moment to thank you, the faculty, professional staff and especially our students for all that you have done to improve the quality of life in Philadelphia and the surrounding region.
Building on these traditions and investments, my aspiration for Drexel University is for it to be the most civically engaged university in the United States, across all three dimensions of engagement: academic, student and employee voluntarism, and institutionally supported neighborhood investment.

That is why I would like to take this opportunity today at Convocation to announce five such investments, which taken together begin to form the framework of a comprehensive engagement strategy between Drexel and its surrounding communities.

First, Drexel University is expanding the boundaries of its security patrol area by contracting with the University City District, of which we are a founding member. Specifically, the patrol area will move beyond Spring Garden Street to Wallace Street to the North, 31st Street to the East and North 42nd Street to the West, which encompasses a significant portion of Mantua and West Powelton.

Among other things, this initiative will provide a safer corridor through the neighborhoods between the Vidas Athletic Complex and North 40th Street along Powelton and Haverford Avenues. We will plan to expand this boundary further out to Mantua Avenue to encompass most of Mantua, once we have successfully integrated the new area into our patrol routine.

In addition, the University will continue to expand its investments in public safety infrastructure such as additional lighting, tree-trimming, landscaping, green spaces, vendor courts, traffic calming, “blue-light” emergency telephones and closed-circuit monitoring cameras, all in consultation with the City and our neighbors.

Second, Drexel will significantly expand its investment in the Employee Home Purchase Assistance Program. The expanded program will provide eligible employees with $15,000 forgivable loans for purchasing and occupying homes as a primary residence in a greatly expanded area.

This area includes Chestnut Street to the South, Mantua Avenue to the North, 31st Street to the East and 42nd Street to the West. Multi-family dwellings may only be purchased with the intent to renovate them into single-family dwellings, with additional assistance provided by the University depending on the nature and location of the property. In addition, a $5,000 forgivable loan will be provided to employees who already reside full-time in this area to encourage them to make new improvements to their properties.

The Human Resources Department will assign one of its staff members to manage this program, and provide advice and counseling to employees regarding mortgages, moving programs and other logistics, issues which can be especially daunting for first-time home buyers.

The Drexel Employee Home Purchase Assistance Program will be one of the most generous and extensive programs of its kind in the United States.

Third, Drexel University is actively pursuing external financial support to create a partnership with the Powel School located on Powelton Avenue at 36th Street. We hope to engage the School District of Philadelphia and the Powel School Home and School Association in this effort, along with one or more corporations and foundations, and to forge a team which will both invest in Powel as well as discern its long-term future and associated needs.

In this spirit, we will also be receptive to expanding our relationship with public schools such as the Drew School, Morton McMichael and University City High School.

Fourth, we have approached the University City District with an initiative to transform the Lancaster Avenue corridor from 34th to 40th Streets into a vibrant retail and commercial corridor, modeled after the success in other commercial corridors along Baltimore Avenue and on 40th Street, both in University City.

We envision an intensive planning effort involving all of the key constituencies in this area, followed by a series of infrastructure improvements which will establish the framework for a vibrant, mixed-use development driven by a private and public partnership. A special emphasis will be given to arts-related entities, as well as to enable indigenous, West Philadelphia based businesses to take part in this effort.

It goes without saying that these four investments will be undertaken in partnership with Mayor Michael Nutter and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and her colleagues from City Council; our federal and Commonwealth representatives; the police, fire, streets, parks, licensing and inspection and commerce departments as well as other city agencies; the Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation; the Powelton Village Civic Association and volunteer leadership from Mantua; and the University City District and its member organizations, most notably the University of Pennsylvania and the University City Science Center.

Acting together and in support of Drexel University, this represents a committed and formidable team that will accomplish great things for the benefit of these neighborhoods.

Fifth, and finally, the University has decided to sell its President’s residence, The Orchards, and plans to purchase a house in Powelton Village that can be used by Cara and me to host events and entertain students, faculty, professional staff, alumni and neighbors. We hope this move will be—in the words of George Poulin, the President of the Powelton Village Civic Association—“both practical and symbolic, not to mention a welcome addition to our neighborhood.”
Taken together, these five investments to strengthen the quality of life in Powelton Village and Mantua represent an appropriate first step towards building a broad-based, flexible, long-term and sustainable partnership with our University City community.

In return, we ask for a collegial relationship with our neighbors and public officials built on

  • mutual trust;
  • goodwill and an openness to understanding and hopefully supporting Drexel’s long-term plans for future academic and residential growth and development, which will seek out new space on our existing campus and in other properties to the east of campus and Powelton Village;
  • a willingness on the part of our faculty and professional staff to explore the possibility of utilizing the Employee Home Purchase Assistance Program;
  • and a firm commitment on the part of our undergraduate and graduate students to be better neighbors and to recognize that living in a residential community is a great privilege which comes with it the responsibility to be considerate and helpful neighbors.

This is what you will want for yourselves and your families in the future.

A truly great University believes in both the power of ideas and actions that are consistent with the ideals of its mission. Anthony Drexel founded his University as an urban institution, one devoted to its great City of Philadelphia and the neighborhoods of West Philadelphia. Implied in the service dimension of Drexel’s mission is the responsibility to act not only in its self-interest, but in the interests of its surrounding area.

Drexel University had done this in many ways in the past.

That is something we should all be proud of. But we must do more.

Let us mark today as the beginning of a new phase of a high impact university-community partnership that will lift Drexel University and its surrounding neighborhoods to new heights.

That is fulfilling our mission as a truly great urban university.

I am incredibly excited for this academic year. I am profoundly grateful to have the opportunity to follow two extraordinary leaders, Taki and Chuck. I want to welcome all our students, faculty and professional staff who—like me—are new to Drexel, and welcome back everyone else. I offer you all best wishes for success.

Thank you.

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