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Drexel President Talks Need for Computing, Engineering

John Fry, president of Drexel University and winner of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia's William Penn Award, reflects on innovation districts, interest in computing and informatics and other developments.

Drexel University
(TNS) — Built as a factory and financial center, Philadelphia's economy now relies more on its universities. So it's no surprise that the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia recently picked John Fry, president of Drexel University and an architect of the development around its main campus in University City, for its highest yearly honor, the William Penn Award.

Fry, once a senior officer at the University of Pennsylvania, then president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, set big goals for Drexel when he arrived, and recently signed on for five more years running the city's second-largest university. He spoke to The Inquirer about how his focus has evolved, and Drexel's role in the region's future. The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Your predecessor, the late Constantine "Taki" Papadakis, added medical and law schools and pushed for a second campus in California. You're retrenched. What changed?

When I got here, all people wanted to talk about was the future of Drexel in Sacramento. They wanted to build Drexel West! We had a little branch campus there. I looked at the cost. It would have been absolutely prohibitive.

We wound it down, and I wanted to focus on University City and Philadelphia.

You talked about adding 10,000 students. Why didn't that happen?

I saw that our retention rate was not where it should be. I decided to focus on retaining more students, instead of recruiting more and losing a lot of them, and to double down on experiential learning, our co-ops [six-month paid business internships]. We are a very specific type of university, and I wanted to tell our story to the students we felt would fit best, who would be able to graduate.

The average graduate has at least one job offer at an average compensation of well over $50,000. This is a great model. We emphasized all this, and our retention rate has increased.

What is Drexel's role in Philadelphia?

I was very influenced by the work we did at Penn. We founded the University City Special Services District in 1997. It gave us a district approach to improvements in the public realm, maintaining a clean and safe environment, and marketing and branding University City as a desirable place, not only to go to school but to do business. I raised money for it, and I was founding chair.

When I came back to Philadelphia, I started looking more at the area around the [Amtrak] station at 30th Street.

Before I came here, Drexel had purchased the old Evening Bulletin building at 31st and Market. We went on and bought the Five Star parking lot between 30th and 32nd Streets, and the old Firestone site at 32nd and Market. And the old Abbott's Dairy at 31st and Chestnut.

What we weren't doing, Gerry Sweeney [CEO of Brandywine Real Estate Investment Trust and his team] were doing nearby: the Cira tower, the FMC tower, the renovations on the post office block. It was clear to me that if we partnered and began to put this all together in one package, we would have something pretty powerful to offer [corporate tenants] devoted to innovation, development, economic opportunity, and economic growth.

We got involved with Amtrak and SEPTA in commissioning the 30th Street District plan, and the 85 acres of rail yard north all the way to Spring Garden Street — the Schuylkill Yards.

Philadelphia is ringed by firms that left the city for the suburbs — Arkema, Boeing, GSK, Lincoln Financial, Merck, Sunoco, Vanguard. What have you done to keep companies that start in University City growing here?

We were lucky to recruit Spark Therapeutics [the gene therapy company started by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia scientists] as our anchor tenant [at the Evening Bulletin building]. Roche purchased Spark and has expanded beyond its Bulletin building headquarters to also add the Abbott's Dairy site as a gene manufacturing center.

This makes Spark the most important example of a company whose technology was created here in West Philadelphia. Between Gerry Sweeney and Wexford and Drexel, we gave them a place to grow.

Then the School District closed University City High School at 31st and Filbert. John Grady and Joe Reagan at Wexford Science and Technology set up an innovation district, uCity Square, from Powelton to Filbert. There were already [biotech tenants in University City], but Wexford recruited Cambridge Innovation Center to operate on-site , and we moved our fastest-growing school, the College of Computing and Informatics, to two floors there.

And we brought in American Campus Communities, they added 3,000 [student housing] beds. We could not have done that ourselves, we didn't have the capital, so we went to the market and had a competition.

Is there lasting damage to Drexel's medical school from the 2019 closing of Hahnemann University Hospital, where Drexel doctors trained?

Medical school applications have risen [to 16,000 this year, from 14,000 in 2019]. Our first-year enrollments are up [to 303 in 2021, from 254 in 2019, including the new campus at Tower Health in Wyomissing, Berks County].

The board of trustees [has committed to financing] another hospital we worked closely with, St. Christopher's Hospital for Children [until at least 2026, as it seeks a buyer]. As with the Academy of Natural Sciences and recently the former Atwater Kent Museum, Drexel has taken on these institutions that are vital to the future of our city but have suffered from underinvestment. What if St. Chris wasn't there?

Philadelphia is often ranked in the second tier of biotech regions, behind Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego. What does Philadelphia have to solve to get bigger?

We want to be in the A league in terms of gene therapy. What I learned from the [2017-2018] effort to bring Amazon here — I was chair of the chamber that year — we made a joint venture bid with PIDC and significant corporate engagement, in a great competition with the best cities in the country. It came out that their team recommended three cities: Philadelphia, Chicago, and Raleigh, N.C. On the merits, we did really well — walkability, transit, great recreation, great restaurants and hospitals, a city with intellectual assets but also a real place full of neighborhoods.

Of course, they overruled their own committee and went to New York and Virginia. They hammered us mostly on tech talent. Our schools don't graduate enough engineers. Our students weren't doing enough computing.

So we have done something about it at Drexel. We tripled the size of our College of Computing and Informatics since then. We've grown health sciences significantly. And we're doubling down on engineering, [all] to attract future tech talent.

Is the bigger problem basic education in Philadelphia?

A biomanufacturing facility that will employ 500 or 600 people, they don't all need to be baccalaureates. We are missing the infrastructure for preparing a lot of people for these well-paid jobs.

We are having an intense conversation with Spark about this. Community College of Philadelphia does its best, but it's overwhelmed. I talked to the president of Thaddeus Stevens [vocational-technical college, in Lancaster] about starting a branch here. We could support that venture in terms of filling the pipeline with talent, so they eventually work at places like Spark.

What have you done about your promise to build up Drexel's humanities program?

In 2011 we wrapped our deal with the Academy of Natural Sciences that gave us access to researchers and building our biodiversity portfolio. And just this month we accepted the city of Philadelphia's historical collection [from its shuttered Atwater Kent Museum]. The mayor came to us and said they were going to exit and they weren't sure what to do with it.

Well, the history of Philadelphia is the history of this country — manufacturing, building neighborhoods, racial tensions. I thought it was the right thing to do and a way for us at Drexel to move deeper into these fields, with these powerful stories about humanity.

We are ready to move that entire collection into the public realm through digitization. So little of the collection has been seen by the public over decades. What a sin.

Why did you agree to stay five more years?

I've been so lucky to do this work so long at Penn, and now at Drexel. I believe in continuity, given the challenges ahead in the next decade. We have huge momentum.

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