Address by President John A. Fry
April 14, 2011
T.S. Eliot captured the sense of homecoming and adventure that I feel today when he wrote, “The end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”
I became acquainted with Drexel for the first time in the early 1990s when I met my dear friend and former Chairman of Drexel University’s Board of Trustees, George Ross, and his successor as chair and my predecessor and mentor as president, Chuck Pennoni.
Through our work together during good times and tough moments alike, I developed a deep kinship with George and Chuck that recently extended to Rich Greenawalt. Through their eyes I gained a deep respect and admiration for Drexel—long before I ever dreamed that I would play a role in charting its future.
George, Chuck, and Rich: Thank you for bringing me home.
While Drexel feels like home in many ways, I also have had the exhilarating experience over the past eight months of exploring our university with fresh eyes. I have worked closely with our Trustees and with so many terrific colleagues from the administration, faculty and professional staff. I have seen our amazing students and alumni in action. I have studied our history and explored our campus from stem to stern.
This experience has only deepened my admiration for Drexel and the Drexel way. We are the natural home for inventors and innovators who jump right in to tackle society’s toughest problems.
We relish our historic role as an engine for economic growth and opportunity in Philadelphia. We infuse our students with a dynamic combination of knowledge and work experience that has given Drexel graduates a leg up in any economy.
We are creative, diverse, entrepreneurial, impatient, unpretentious and a little fearless. In short, my kind of University! For me there is no greater thrill, opportunity or honor than the trust you have placed in me to serve as Drexel’s 14th president.
It is also an honor to succeed a leader with the energy and stature of Constantine Papadakis. His vision and sheer force of will helped Drexel to evolve into a comprehensive national university with an array of strengths and assets and great confidence.
I am mindful of Taki’s enduring legacy. He left indelible footprints on our university.
But today I stand before you comfortable in my own shoes—and excited to offer my vision for Drexel becoming a top-flight, global university.
My vision for Drexel has two parts. First, we must parlay our existing mission and unique set of strengths into a deeper and better version of today’s Drexel that will enhance our competitive advantage moving forward.
Second, from this stronger foundation, Drexel can play an even larger and more beneficial role on the local, regional and national stage while also becoming a powerful force for shaping the future in this complex, complicated and often confounding world.
We face an unprecedented range of challenges and threats that cross regional and national boundaries: the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and ensuing nuclear crisis; and closer to home, here in Pennsylvania, the presence of radioactive pollutants and other contaminants in our drinking water due to the rapid increase in shale gas production.
More than ever before, we have come to realize that damage to the environment anywhere threatens economic and human health everywhere.
Likewise, the persistence of poverty and inequality in our midst and the growing prevalence of afflictions such as autism have inflicted terrible emotional tolls on families—and mounting financial costs on society.
At the same time, job growth in the new yet volatile global economy will be driven more and more by creativity, digital dexterity, adaptability and cultural intelligence.
Put simply, Drexel and the world have reached a moment made for one another. The question before us is, are we prepared to seize this moment and transform Drexel into our kind of global university?
Where do we start?
All great universities are built on sturdy foundations.
Anthony J. Drexel’s poignant and powerful vision to serve society’s immediate needs by creating pathways to rewarding careers for the sons and daughters of working-class families—that vision furnishes us with a very firm moral foundation.
All of us should embrace our institutional roots in cooperative and experiential learning planted by Mr. Drexel. They have nourished our growth over the past 120 years into a burgeoning academic powerhouse with significant, inherent competitive strengths in cooperative education, translational research, clinical care and the creative use of technology.
I call on the entire Drexel community to draw on those same roots as we look forward and move forward.
While our moral foundation is firm, our physical foundation—and academic infrastructure—are not yet sound and secure. Who among us could walk around our campus, take full stock of all our spaces, resources and supports for faculty and students, and then say, “This is a campus befitting a world-class university”?
Make no mistake: Drexel will become a world-class university. But as we prepare to make transformative leaps, we must first create a campus that reflects and supports academic excellence. So I have a message for all of our faculty, students, and professional staff—regardless of your school or program: I cannot deliver the moon. But I will do all I can to equip you with the resources that you require to flourish and excel.
From this strengthened platform we can pursue three major objectives that enlist the collective and collaborative energies of our Drexel community.
The road to global leadership begins with our first objective: We will become one of academe’s most powerful engines for neighborhood improvement and regional economic growth.
We can take great pride in a University that is developing so beautifully—with so much more to come in the next several years.
However, the state of neighboring Powelton Village and Mantua is another story. Not only does it place our academic enterprise at risk; it also offers a harsh rebuke to the core democratic and social values for which our University stands—values that we want to instill in our students.
Given our roots and mission, Drexel must do more than speak to all that is good in each of us; we need to engage our neighbors as partners in work that brings out the best in all of us.
Early in my presidency, I spent many hours in frank conversation with our neighbors—with families, community activists, shop owners, school administrators and elected officials.
They let me know how they felt about us. In many ways they admired Drexel University. They respected Drexel University. But they didn’t entirely trust Drexel University. They certainly didn’t view us as a model neighbor.
That is changing. I devoted my first public address last fall—Convocation—almost entirely to laying out the principles that will govern Drexel’s neighborhood initiatives and community partnerships, and our strategies for putting these principles into action.
I made a commitment to work with our neighbors to make Powelton Village and Mantua livelier and more livable communities that are great for raising families, enjoying the arts, starting businesses and dreaming big.
Now it is time to show our neighbors that we are serious, and to take action.
Earlier this week our dear friend Phil Lindy made a gift of $15 million to Drexel to help see these ideas turn into tangible results through the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement. Phil is as passionate as I am about this kind of work—and he’s as impatient as I am to get moving.
In naming our Center for Civic Engagement, Phil also inspired us to create a “Lindy Neighbors” program that will provide health and wellness education and access to healthy and fresh food to West Philadelphia residents.
Phil Lindy, on behalf of the entire Drexel community and our neighbors, thank you for this magnificent investment and vote of confidence in our collective future.
As we work alongside our neighbors to create a more livable and vibrant community, we must also ramp up Drexel’s capacity to be a powerful engine for regional economic growth.
Harnessing and capitalizing on the collective research might of Drexel and our sister universities is not a new idea. Nearly 50 years ago, the nation’s first urban research park—the University City Science Center— was conceived to foster this collaboration.
The Science Center and other related ventures have achieved some success in incubating great ideas and spawning new companies. Our region is blessed with a network of excellent, well-led universities and hospitals and great businesses and non-profit organizations.
Somehow, though, we haven’t found the spark to make our regional network as powerful as our counterparts at the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Silicon Valley.
We at Drexel are ideally positioned to provide that spark. We have accomplished faculty doing phenomenal work with our students in design, engineering, gaming, digital humanities, information technology, the natural sciences and the health sciences. We are an important player in critical fields such as women’s health, nanotechnology and clinical psychology.
We have growing strength and national stature in translational research, recently validated by a $10 million competitive grant from the Wallace Coulter Foundation, which puts us in the company of the most prominent research universities in America.
We are creating a more robust technology transfer operation that will allow us to capitalize on our creativity by monetizing our ideas and inventions.
And we have a wealth of business acumen and experience both in-house and among our alumni.
I call on the Drexel community to join me in revving up our translational research engine so that we become the region’s most powerful force for economic growth. Let’s end a half-century of unfulfilled potential and make our region a national leader in innovation in the new economy.
Like knowledge itself, no great enterprise—including the creation of new jobs and industries—should ever exist solely for its own sake. A great University will be remembered not just for the quality of our graduates and intellectual goods we turn out, but also for the good they did in service to humankind.
This brings me to my second objective for Drexel. We must mobilize our entrepreneurial and creative energies to confront major threats to human health, economic prosperity and the environment.
When you start to tally the terrible consequences of recent industrial disasters—and then ponder the cumulative health and ecological effects of routine industrial pollution—it is clear that problems are far outnumbering and outpacing the solutions.
We must become more effective stewards of the environment. Whether we’re talking about smarter designs, sturdier construction, better operations, faster emergency responses or more far-sighted policies, it is clear that many of the solutions we seek will come from great minds in engineering, the health sciences, business, law, humanities and other disciplines all working together.
What a perfect leadership opportunity for Drexel. A university like Drexel is great in part because of its scale—it is large enough to contain and encourage multitudes of interests and pursuits. But scale needs to be harnessed and driven by shared goals that inspire us to do our best work.
I see Drexel bringing tremendous interdisciplinary energy and expertise to bear on the great issues and problems facing humankind.
In terms of public health, for example, autism is a neurodevelopmental disability that exacts a heavy personal toll while straining resources in education, health-care and social services. Autism is also ubiquitous in the United States—1 in 110 newborn children in the United States is afflicted with this often devastating disability, and we believe that autism impacts more than four million adults in this country.
Promising work in autism research is well underway throughout the country, and Drexel is among the leaders. Our School of Public Health is one of only a handful of university-based research groups to earn the NIH Autism Center of Excellence Award.
But we are a long way from making the kind of impact that needs to be made in understanding and treating autistic children and adults.
We need to more fully understand the environmental and epidemiological factors connected to autism. We need to develop more effective treatments and approaches that empower people with autism to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives. We need to develop more successful strategies and methods that help youngsters with autism integrate into the mainstream of society.
We need to help the general public become not just more knowledgeable and accepting of people with autism, but also more appreciative of their gifts. I know this is not just in my head, but in my heart—my nephew Jack, a beautiful little boy who means the world to me, is autistic.
In short, we need a comprehensive public health institute focused on autism, the first of its kind, that would bring population-based strategies to the research landscape with one clear objective: to discover and implement approaches for preventing the morbidity and disability associated with autism.
Let’s not wait around for this to happen. Let’s dream it—and do it. Today, I am proud to announce the establishment the nation’s first comprehensive autism public health research institute right here at Drexel University. The institute will be led by our dynamic dean of the School of Public Health, Marla Gold, and the gifted researcher and humanist who has made Drexel a national player in this field, Craig Newshaffer. Marla, Craig? Thank you for making this happen —the Drexel way!
Maximizing Drexel’s global reputation and impact is my third major objective. Becoming a greater force for good and growth in our neighborhoods and throughout our region—and a leading force for progress on the environmental and public health fronts—will generate the momentum for Drexel to become a new kind of global university.
We already are among the most technologically infused universities in the world. Thanks to the empowering experience of the Drexel Co-op, our students graduate with more experience, more skills and more maturity than most of their peers. And we are a comprehensive university, with many areas of strength.
Now it’s time to ratchet up our academic enterprise by several notches across the board. We must become more nimble in bringing our expertise and academic riches to the world through the “disruptive innovation” of Drexel e-Learning and the scale of our growing Drexel Network.
While we will continue to offer each student the opportunity to pursue a professional path by mastering single disciplines, we need to offer all our students a stronger global education and experience. Every Drexel student should graduate with the interdisciplinary skills, exposure to other cultures and communication skills needed to work with others toward solving any problem, anywhere, under any circumstance.
To provide that kind of global education will not be easy. Despite many centers of excellence, some of our schools are not as mature, and in some cases, not as well supported as they ought to be. Nor have we fully forged the kind of strong partnerships with leading universities overseas that would nourish our inventive spirit and bring the best minds of the world closer to Drexel.
That all changes today. I pledge to build on our strengths—and particularly, to invest my time and energies toward making every enterprise bearing the Drexel name a valuable asset in our drive toward becoming a powerful global university.
That goes for the College of Arts and Sciences as well as the College of Engineering.
That goes for the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design as well as the Bennett S. LeBow College of Business.
That goes for the Earle Mack School of Law and the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science & Health Systems. That goes for the School of Public Health as well as the College of Nursing and Health Professions.
That goes for the Goodwin School of Professional Studies as well as the Pennoni Honors College.
And that goes for the College of Information Science and Technology as well as the Drexel University College of Medicine.
I also will energetically reach out to Drexel alumni all over the world as colleagues in forging partnerships that generate great learning and work experiences for our gifted students—as well as powerful teaching and research opportunities for our distinguished faculty.
I will waste no time getting these partnerships off the ground and running.
Next month, I will be traveling to China. I will meet with a distinguished Drexel alumnus, Dr. Jiang Mian Heng, and discuss joint research opportunities with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he is vice president.
I will also meet with the leadership of Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Tsinghua University in Beijing to discuss faculty and student exchange programs and joint research ventures that will boost our capacity for tackling critical global challenges more effectively.
And early next year, I will travel to Israel to fortify our ties with Hebrew University by establishing a joint translational research hub with a strategic focus on drug development and health care. The Drexel University-Hebrew University joint research teams are already at work on a number of important prospects, which we hope will yield patents and breakthroughs in commercialization of biomedical research.
Do I have outsize ambitions for Drexel? You bet I do, because no ambition is too tough to wrestle with or too big to realize as long as we work together—and as important, dream together. I ask all of you with a stake in Drexel to share your dreams and visions for making Drexel our kind of modern global university.
While we should respect Drexel’s traditions and accomplishments, we should also heed the wisdom of a maverick leader of another era—Mordecai Kaplan—who said, “The past has a vote; not a veto.”
That means every one of you has license to offer your bold ideas—just as Marla Gold did when she proposed an institute for autism research.
With every success, our reputation and visibility will continue to grow. But many years from now, we won’t be remembered for clever marketing slogans—or a jump in the US News rankings.
Rather, we will be remembered for doing right by our neighbors as we work together to transform Mantua, Powelton Village and the Drexel campus into one flourishing and beloved community.
We will be remembered for translating our technologically infused enterprise into an unstoppable force for progress and a relentless foe against poverty, disease, environmental degradation and ignorance.
We will be remembered most for providing our students with an extraordinary educational experience across the arts, humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and engineering that empowered them to become doers and leaders who serve.
In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, which is currently running on Broadway, one of the characters says, “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.”
I believe all of us have been drawn to Drexel not just by our craving to acquire and create knowledge, but also by our resolve to put our knowledge to good use where it matters—and where it can do the most good.
In answering the call to become Drexel’s 14th president, I present myself to you as a humble servant to our university’s highest ideals —and our shared vision. Let us keep the faith in our dream for Drexel—and serve together with joy.