Five years in, a look at Drexel's high-flying Fry

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John A. Fry, Drexel University's president, has big plans for the school and its campus. CHARLES FOX /Staff Photographer

Facing a couple hundred of his employees this month, Drexel University president John A. Fry outlined his latest plan to remodel the campus once named the nation's ugliest.

"That East German-like plaza that we have right now is going to be replaced by something that's really wonderful," he said.

Fry pointed to an artist's rendering of a renovated campus quad thick with trees and grass and bordered by the LeBow College of Business building, a contemporary glass-and-limestone tower opened two years ago, and the Korman Center, which would get a much-needed face-lift.

And the beauty part? He said he was about to secure the lead gift for the $16 million project.

As he approaches his fifth anniversary at Drexel, Fry continues to build a reputation as a master developer, one he began decades ago as the prime architect of the University of Pennsylvania's neighborhood transformation.

Drexel's strategic plan is dubbed "Transforming the Modern Urban University."

A West Philadelphia campus where one was hard-pressed to find a cup of coffee now buzzes with restaurants and shops. A plaza with outdoor seating for 700 has replaced a gritty expanse and parking lot. A luxury hotel, child-care center, and a new dorm - all funded by third parties but on Drexel land - are in the offing.

He's planning an "innovation neighborhood," a new center for Jewish life, and a new life sciences building. A $4 million feasibility study is underway to assess Fry's ambition to build over the Schuylkill Rail Yards and pave a new "gateway" to the university.

And as for that Firestone store plopped in the middle of its neighborhood? The university finally acquired it - for $9 million.

"The most expensive tire-changing facility in the world is now ours," Fry told employees, drawing laughs.

Look for a student center there down the road.

"It makes Drexel feel more like a campus," said Sruthi Janakiraman, a senior from West Windsor, N.J.

Fry has established himself as one of the region's most entrepreneurial college presidents, one who moves more quickly than many of his counterparts and builds relationships as well as anyone in the city, the state, and the boardroom.

"Drexel used to be that university over by Penn," said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer. "Now it really has its own brand, its own excitement. I really feel like it's come into its own, and John has had a lot to do with that."

Not everyone is thrilled.

Some students have complained that their clubs and programs have been displaced by renovation and construction, and some employees are concerned too much is changing too quickly.

But overall, said Ludo C.P. Scheffer, chair of the faculty senate and a professor of psychology, there was confidence on campus. The Fry administration, he said, is more transparent and willing to involve faculty in decisions than former leaders.

"I may worry a little bit more," he said, "but at least I know what I am worrying about and I can go talk about it."

Recently, Fry has moved away from programs and efforts he saw as not working. He's overhauled the enrollment process, which he said admitted too many students who were not serious about Drexel. Only 8 percent of those offered admission enrolled - the national average for private colleges is 35 percent.

Fry also scrapped a campus in Sacramento, Calif., started under his predecessor and pulled out of programs with local community colleges in which students could earn four-year degrees on their campuses, taking courses taught by Drexel faculty.

"It's unfortunate that Drexel decided to reimagine or reenvision the program," Victoria Bastecki-Perez, vice president of academic affairs and provost at Montgomery County Community College, said at the time.

For Fry, the decisions were necessary to improve operations at Drexel, which enrolls 26,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

"I feel really positive about the trajectory right now, because any tough decision that had to be made I've made and it's done," said Fry, 54, who wears a salt-and-pepper beard (his wife's idea) and works hard to maintain his athletic physique.

Born in Brooklyn to a government-relations worker for AT&T and a stay-at-home mother, Fry attended Catholic schools and then was lured by a cross-country coach to Lafayette College. After graduating, he worked in the auditing division of what is now KPMG and went to New York University at night for his MBA.

Coopers & Lybrand tapped Fry to run a Philadelphia consulting operation focusing on colleges. He was 34 when he went to work for then-Penn president Judith Rodin.

There, he helped bring to Walnut Street a movie theater and Fresh Grocer, create the public Penn Alexander School, and launch the University City District, fostering relations among colleges, retailers, and residents.

After eight years as president of Franklin and Marshall College, he moved to Drexel in 2010 - with big shoes to fill. Constantine "Taki" Papadakis had rescued Drexel from financial turmoil and started it on rapid expansion, opening medical and law schools and increasing enrollment.

"I was extremely conscious of the fact that I was following a larger-than-life figure," said Fry, whose total compensation exceeded $1 million in 2012-13, according to tax records. "I really wanted to finish the work he started."

But Fry also made clear that he would involve deans more in decision making at the university, which operates on a $1 billion budget and has a $683 million endowment.

In Fry's first year, Drexel absorbed the Academy of Natural Sciences. And, he said, he learned Drexel had some problems in personnel and fund-raising.

For the first time, gifts are on target to top $100 million, he said, and Drexel is preparing to launch a campaign of up to $1 billion. In September, Fry secured the largest single gift in school history - $50 million - from Philadelphia lawyer Thomas R. Kline, whose name the law school now bears.

"He's disarmingly persuasive," Kline said. "In his view, he's convinced me to give the first $50 million."

Fry, who recently allowed an Inquirer reporter to shadow him, starts his day at home in Haverford with six newspapers, including the New York Post - "my candy" - then hits the gym before dropping off his younger daughter, Phoebe, 14, at the Shipley School.

That morning, April 1, he talked with the chief of staff for the medical school dean, the general counsel, and the athletic director on his commute, then had breakfast with State Sen. Vincent Hughes, followed by conference calls, meetings, and speeches. He drives a black Chevy Silverado truck - big enough to haul his kids' surfboards.

He picked up the student newspaper's April Fools' edition to see the headline "President Fry does the Philly Naked Bike Ride." The photo showed his head superimposed on the bare body of a cyclist, private parts blacked out.

When he told his wife, Cara, he said she worried about the feelings of their son, Nathaniel, a Drexel sophomore.

"What are you going to do?" Fry asked. "They're kids. It's April Fools'."

Later at a town hall meeting, a woman who described herself as a 12-year employee and mother of a Drexel freshman said students working co-op jobs at nonprofits earn little or nothing - far from the $16,000 average the university touts. Co-ops, Drexel's signature program, add a fifth year for work experience.

"Your point is really well taken," Fry told her, noting that he was trying to raise money to add to salaries. Co-op salaries are key because Drexel is not inexpensive. Tuition, fees, and room and board for a freshman total about $63,000. The cost drops in the years that students work co-ops - $47,500. For next year, Drexel froze room, board, and fee costs, while raising tuition 3.9 percent.

Despite the hectic pace, when Fry's at home, he's really at home.

"He's able to put the other stuff out of his mind and be very present with us," said his wife, who volunteers as assistant curator of Drexel's historic costume collection. "I wouldn't be able to do that if I had three speeches the next day."

As though running a university weren't enough, Fry spent much of the holiday season with another full-time job: Serving as chair of Gov. Wolf's transition committee.

Job No. 2 commenced about 4 p.m. each day, his conference room turned into command central. The team interviewed 75 people for cabinet positions.

Wolf, who met Fry when the governor's wife served on Franklin and Marshall's trustee board, said he was amazed at how Fry transformed that school and turned to him to lead the transition.

The governor credited Fry in part for his being able to finish his proposed budget on time.

"He is an incredibly hard worker," Wolf said. "He sees the whole picture."

In his spare time, Fry likes to play squash and read biographies and books on higher education.

"His other sort of vice, that he can't always act on," Cara Fry said, "is real estate. He and our kids are always scouring what's going on in real estate, which I guess dovetails with what he does here."

 


Facts on Fry

Born: Brooklyn.

Age: 54.

Education: Bachelor's, Lafayette College (studied American civilization), master's in business administration from New York University's Stern School of Business.

Recent work history: University of Pennsylvania, executive vice president, 1995-2002.

Franklin and Marshall College, president, 2002-2010.

Drexel University, president, 2010-present.

Last book read: Cathedral: An Illness and a Healing - Bill Henderson.

Favorite book: Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner.

Favorite movie: Babette's Feast.

Favorite musical group: Jack Johnson.

Favorite TV show: House of Cards.

Favorite Philadelphia restaurant: Anywhere that Marc Vetri cooks.

Favorite food: Sashimi.

Favorite vacation spot: Amagansett, Long Island.

The tote bag: For a look at what Fry carries in his tote bag, see the Triangle, the student newspaper: http://thetriangle.org/style/in-his-bag-president-john-a-fry

Drexel University

Founded: 1891.

Location: West Philadelphia.

Campus: 115 acres.

Enrollment: 16,896 undergraduates; 9,463 graduate students.

Budget: $1 billion.

Endowment: $683 million.

Signature program: Co-op, which gives students work experience in their career fields. Most students attend a fifth year to allow for several co-ops.

Average tuition, fees and room and board: About $63,000 for freshmen. About $47,500 for second-, third-, and fourth-year students (who don't pay tuition when they are on co-op). Costs vary for fifth-year students depending on where they live.


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