Anthony J. Drexel Society Gala

Remarks by President John A. Fry

Thank you, Elizabeth. And welcome to all of you. What a festive evening!

Next week is Thanksgiving. Most of us will gather with loved ones to celebrate the blessing of secure families, able to educate their kids and create viable futures for them.

This is not a small thing. Thanks to you, Drexel’s most devoted supporters, many less fortunate but very determined young people will have similar prospects. In days of uncertainty, with so much wrong in the world, there is so much about Drexel to make things right.

What is in the Drexel DNA? What makes this university such an engine of transformation? Academic excellence, to be sure, but with a particular twist: Our University has always been driven by a passion for practical problem solving.

This passion for solving problems is conveyed to our students. Part of Drexel’s DNA is experiential learning. We were one of the very first to build work experience into the educational process.

Our co-op program exposes students to the rewards and frustrations of the workplace from the start, enabling them to modify their academic choices, each time they return to campus. As a result, students graduate as imaginative and analytic problem solvers, hard workers, with real world experience, prepared to contribute from the day they graduate.

Technology is an essential part of the Drexel DNA. Our students were first to replace scribbled notebooks and slide rules with computers in 1983. Today, with Drexel e-Learning, our university is in the vanguard again—making Drexel accessible to students around the world, whose life circumstances or geography would make attending college otherwise impossible.

Online education is, increasingly, personally customized education. E-learning technology enables professors to track exactly what students have mastered at any point in the learning cycle. For a generation accustomed to digital everything, this is a natural advantage. For a university driving to achieve both quality and reach, it is essential.

From its genesis, Drexel was conceived to provide access. This University was the crowning achievement of our founder. In a life filled with staggering accomplishment, Drexel allowed only three enterprises to bear his name. The other two were his family and his firm.

Anthony J. Drexel was a quiet, self-effacing man, unfailingly polite. His formal education ended at age 13, when he went to work for his father’s small currency exchange. By age 21, he was effectively running the business. Over time, Drexel transformed it into one of America’s most respectable and profitable private banks.

Drexel had a talent for mentoring young people. Without question, his star protégé was JP Morgan.  He met Morgan as a troubled young man—already wealthy, but unfocused—ready to quit his profession, to pursue horse racing and other high-society diversions. Instead, Drexel made him a partner in his New York office. It turned Morgan’s life around. 

From that day, Morgan never made a significant decision without consulting his mentor and senior partner. In turn, Morgan’s dynamism and innovative intelligence transformed the firm and all of Wall Street. The business that began as Drexel & Company in pre-civil war Philadelphia is now known as JP Morgan Chase.

Anthony Drexel spent his entire career assessing opportunity and managing risk. From the tender age of 13, he was relentless about analyzing where to invest and what to avoid. He had no patience with the status quo at his firm. He favored merit. Every Christmas, employees could expect a year-end review. Their letters contained either a bonus, a promotion or encouragement to seek employment elsewhere. I am inspired by Drexel’s values and am grateful to the members of the Drexel family who are with us tonight and are involved in the life of the University.

Next month, we will celebrate the 120th anniversary of this great University. It has been over a year since the Board of Trustees entrusted me with leadership, welcoming me with the clear expectation that this institution would lose no momentum or time addressing its next set of challenges. I have had the incredible privilege of working with students, trustees, faculty, donors, professional staff and alumni to assess our past and imagine our future.

So much has been accomplished recently. The entrepreneurial vision of President Papadakis, with your help, stabilized this university and propelled it to unprecedented appeal and growth. 

But we have learned from our heritage, to be ever wary of the status quo. We are about to finalize a new strategic plan. Many of you have had input and we are grateful for your important contributions.

The plan starts with the historic DNA of Drexel—academic excellence, co-op education, technology propelled access—and adds three vital components: first, a commitment to radically rebuild our campus, turning isolated academic buildings into vibrant, mixed-use complexes, facilitating the creative exchange of ideas and strengthening the fabric of our Drexel community.

Second, we have a plan for civic engagement. We have started by strengthening our relationships in Powelton and Mantua. Our goal is to determine the best multidisciplined approach to improve health, education and economic prospects in our surrounding neighborhoods.

And finally, we need to engage better with the world. Only 8 percent of Drexel students come from abroad. Many of our American students crave international exposure and opportunity. The Drexel reputation is a powerful calling card. We intend to develop a global network of educational and corporate partners, for mutual benefit.

How do we tackle these goals? Our plan includes initiatives in five targeted areas.

First, scholarship and access: The essence of any great university is its community of scholars. Drexel was founded specifically to provide access to highly motivated students eager to change future prospects for their families. What could be more American? Education is the key to economic and social mobility.

But Drexel’s tuition is expensive. Twenty-three percent of our students are the first in their families to attend college. Nearly 80 percent of this year’s entering class applied for financial aid. We are committed to helping these young men and women.

In 2010, the Drexel Liberty Scholars program was established, under the leadership of President Pennoni. It provides 50 Philadelphia high school graduates, from our most underserved communities, with annually renewable scholarships covering 100 percent of tuition and fees. Over the next 5 years, Drexel will contribute more than $28 million to finance 250 more low-income students. No university in the Philadelphia region offers this kind of access and financial support.

We offer scholarships not only to the needy but also to the gifted. Our Presidential Scholar and National Merit Finalist programs attract students who rank at the top of their high school graduating classes. Their intellect and energy is infectious. They inspire one another and our faculty. They help attract a robust and diversified applicant pool to campus.

But even with scholarship assistance and family support, 80 percent of our students still have financial need.

I keep office hours for students. They come to talk about the things they are doing and learning. But too often, they come in desperation.

Some of our seniors can’t graduate because they can’t pay their final year’s fees. Their families, already stretched to the limit, reeling from additional blows dealt by the economy, can’t help. Life-changing employment offers are contingent on earning a degree.

The plight of these students keeps me awake at night, which is why we inaugurated Operation Graduation—to help these students across the last hurdle.

With us tonight is a benefactor whose husband attended Drexel but was forced to drop out, because he could no longer afford tuition. He made a success of himself. His wife chose to honor his achievement with a $1 million gift to our scholarship fund.

Thank you for setting such an outstanding example. I need you to inspire others. Our strategic plan calls for a $50 million investment in scholarships and access.

The second component of our strategic plan involves our physical environment.

For all his modesty, Anthony Drexel loved landmark buildings. The headquarters he built for his firm in Philadelphia and New York were state of the art, equipped with the latest technology, designed by illustrious architects. Their symbolic significance pushed America’s nascent financial industry towards the practice of higher standards.

Likewise, the Great Court in our Main Building expresses the grandeur that he wanted the public to associate with education. Drexel understood that great architecture and design stimulates the productive exchange of ideas and fosters a sense of community.

We intend to apply these insights to our educational enterprise. So much of our academic achievement is, by nature, multidisciplinary. Our campus master plan seeks to unify isolated academic buildings into a campus, surrounded by green space, interlaced with residential and commercial amenities conducive to bringing people together safely, easily and comfortably. This is what creates intellectual productivity and community.

Our program is ambitious. Since 2007 we have invested nearly $200 million in campus improvements, commissioning leading architects to renovate and design new spaces for us. Another $150 million will be spent for projects that will be completed by 2014.

The business school will benefit from Bennett LeBow’s magnificent $45 million gift, the largest ever received from a single donor. The soon-to-be-completed URBN Center will allow us to physically consolidate 21 programs in media, design and the performing arts, currently scattered among 11 different buildings. Can you imagine the creative energy that will be unleashed from potential collaborations in both these projects?

Construction of this complexity and scale requires public/private partnerships to provide both expertise and financing. In January, we will start the Chestnut Street residential and retail development—a $90 million project—in partnership with American Campus Communities. It will provide 30,000 square feet of retail space and 870 beds of student housing. We need more partners and funders, who understand the economic impact generated by projects like these.

It is a particular goal of mine to clean up homes in our adjacent neighborhoods that have been subdivided into poorly maintained student housing. We want to restore the safe, family-oriented neighborhoods that once existed, equipped with desirable schools, attractive shopping and leisure amenities.

Such stability benefits both Drexel and gives a lift to our neighbors, which is why we expanded the Drexel Employee Home Purchase Assistance Program to provide $15,000 forgivable loans to eligible employees to purchase these wrecks, provided they turn them into single-family, primary residences. Employees who already reside full-time in this area can apply for $5,000 forgivable loans, to improve their properties.

Property enhancement and strengthened policing provide the foundation for the third component of our strategic plan—our community initiatives. My dream is for Drexel to be the most civically engaged university in the United States, establishing prototypes for urban regeneration in the rest of the world.

Our Lindy Center for Civic Engagement, named in honor of civic leader and philanthropist Phil Lindy, cultivates student skills in service, leadership, citizenship and university-community partnerships. Lindy tutoring programs have already helped 225 children in neighborhood elementary schools.
Collaborations like these not only improve living conditions but also create jobs. We want to recruit qualified people from the community to work with and for Drexel.

Translational research is the fourth component of our strategic plan. We are known for practical problem solving. Our intellectual ingenuity and productivity is increasingly recognized and funded by the most discriminating foundations.

The NIH awarded our School of Public Health $14 million for a long-term study on risk factors and biological indicators for autism. We know that there is a genetic component to this disease. We don’t know what environmental factors trigger it.

Our study will follow 1,200 mothers of autistic children nationwide at the start of a new pregnancy, and document the development of the newborn until they reach the age of three. Nothing this comprehensive has ever been done before. And to support this work we recently established the Autism Public Health Research Institute, which already has attracted $2.5 million in funding.

An extremely competitive application process resulted in grants totaling $15 million from the Coulter Foundation for biomedical engineering research, to develop medical products that enhance patient treatment and healing. We were selected along with a small group of peers that include Stanford and Duke—institutions with endowments and budgets far greater than ours. But with your help, we will shrink that gap.

We expect big things from our collaboration with the Academy of Natural Sciences, like the enormous dinosaur discovered in the deserts of Patagonia—seven and a half times bigger than a typical Tyrannosaurus Rex. Our scientific team has preserved the massive bones and moved them back to Philadelphia, to take advantage of state of the art equipment in the new Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building for further analysis.

The Academy of Natural Sciences will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. It has over 17 million objects in its collection. Our recent affiliation provides world-class research opportunities for faculty and students in the natural and environmental sciences.

Finally, our strategic plan calls for enhancing Drexel’s global impact. We will move beyond study abroad programs toward global experiential learning, including global co-op, global research and global civic engagement.

This year, we agreed to work with Shanghai Jiao Tong University to create a joint doctoral program in biomedical engineering and to partner with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in creating a joint research center. In January, I will conclude a similar research agreement with Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We hope to establish similar relationships in India, Brazil, South Korea and Turkey.

These initiatives are not idealistic dreams. These are ideas to invest in. Each initiative builds on current strengths, comes equipped with metrics to measure success and promises an immediate return on investment.

As we upgrade our academic experience and accessibility, our campus and our neighborhoods, our participation in global networks, Drexel will become an even more powerful and desirable academic destination. The greater the concentration of talent, practical focus and results, the more attractive a magnet Drexel becomes, for even larger future investments.

My friends, our strategic plan will present a clear path and wonderful options to accelerate the impact of Drexel’s DNA. To achieve such results, we need to invest judiciously. But since this plan comes out of our shared deliberations, I am confident that we are ready and able to tackle the challenge.

And so tonight, I am announcing the public phase of a $400 million capital campaign we intend to complete by 2014. With your generosity, $276.5 million—more than 69 percent—has already been raised. Our achievement to date is proof of the worthiness of our mission and the desire of many to help.
According to the Chinese zodiac, the year of the dragon begins in January. Dragons, as you all know, symbolize character traits such as ambition and dominance. Dragons are driven, unafraid of challenges. They are willing to take risks. They are fierce and passionate in all they do.

I need every dragon in this room tonight to turn his or her passion towards realizing our ambitious agenda: academic excellence experiential learning; access, propelled by technology; a transformed physical campus; groundbreaking research; robust civic engagement; and global networks.

Let’s not just dream it. Let’s do it. Together we will make the Drexel DNA a transformative engine of positive change.

Thank you.

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