It was Jan. 24 when Drexel University issued its first campus-wide communication about a “potentially fatal” virus that had emerged in China and spread to neighboring countries.
“The Centers for Disease Control considers the risk to the American public to be low,” the message said, "but much about this new virus remains unknown.”
Then the unthinkable happened as the virus spread. In-person classes moved online. Sports halted. Commencement was postponed. And the once-bustling West Philadelphia campus of 24,000 students now stands largely empty.
“I learned that anything I thought couldn’t happen seemed to keep eventually happening,” said Drexel president John A. Fry.
Dozens more campus-wide messages would follow; by March 9, they came daily. Two doctors affiliated with St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, which Drexel co-owns, had become infected, then three students.
Fry is one of many college presidents having to steer a major enterprise through a pandemic layered with uncertainties. This week, he offered a window into the rapid-fire decisions Drexel had to make, the challenges his institution still faces, and the lessons learned.
“I don’t think on Jan. 24 … we ever would have thought we would be sitting where we are barely two-plus months later,” he said.
» READ MORE: Five years in, a look at Drexel's Fry
Like every college, Drexel also faces lost revenue and an uncertain enrollment picture, and the economic fallout may at least delay pieces of a multibillion-dollar redevelopment project near the campus.
But the pandemic also has forced Drexel and other universities to learn on a dime how to move all instruction online, and schools that embrace that transformation may have an easier time navigating a competitive and challenging higher education marketplace, Fry said. Drexel will emerge with every professor knowing how to teach online, he said, freeing the university to offer more options.
“This is a moment," he said, "and the moment is about how we take all of this that we learned and try to [use] that in the future.”
Fry was very worried even in January, given that Drexel is a dense campus in a highly populated neighborhood. By early March, Drexel had set aside empty suites for quarantine, and about a half-dozen students who had traveled to affected countries or were exhibiting symptoms were placed there. None got the virus.
Fry had already assembled an advisory committee, drawing on expertise in Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health, including faculty members who serve on Philadelphia’s Board of Health. As the situation worsened, the group grew to about three dozen, including senior leaders, deans, and faculty.
They convened daily by phone, sharing public health and medical updates, the latest governmental actions, and feedback from parents, students and staff. They talked about how the campus was adjusting to changes, such as last month’s move to conduct final exams remotely.
Fry, 59, has led Drexel for a decade, having previously served as president of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. He has had an interest in urban planning in his colleges’ neighborhoods throughout his career. He got much of his experience as an executive at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the chief architect of its neighborhood transformation. Now he’s behind a $3.5 billion plan to transform parking lots and industrial buildings between Drexel’s campus and 30th Street Station into a thriving new district. Two parts of the project are complete; others may be delayed, he said.
As the virus brought the world to heel, he had to get comfortable with reversing decisions made the day before.
By mid-March, the coronavirus was hitting home. A doctor at St. Christopher’s tested positive. Within a couple of days, an intensive care unit doctor tested positive. Tower Health, which co-owns and manages the hospital, shut the unit to new admissions. Fry said Tower leaders kept him informed of their decisions, and he stood by them.
“At this point, we have to trust the health-care professionals,” he said.
About a week later, the first student tested positive. Two more would follow.
“I had a pain in my stomach,” Fry recalled. “It’s what you most fear.”
Luckily, he said, most students were off campus for spring break.
By March 13, Drexel had issued a recommendation that employees work from home. Four days later, the campus was closed to the public. Only about 100 students who were unable to go home remain, along with public safety and other essential workers. Fry was last there March 24.
“I kind of wanted to be the last one there to make sure in fact everyone had left,” he said.
It’s been difficult watching seniors and student athletes lose the last few months of campus life, Fry said. Four minutes before the women’s basketball team was to play in a Colonial Athletic Association tournament game in North Carolina, it was canceled. The team had to walk off the court, the seniors knowing they’d likely never play another Drexel game.
“All these kids, they haven’t had a proper goodbye, and they’re not going to have a proper transition," he said. “That to me is the most heartbreaking.”
The university’s co-op program, which sends students into the workforce for several semesters, also had to pivot. International co-op placements were canceled, but Fry said the university had been able to figure out a co-op plan for most students for spring term.
Now, Fry works from the Haverford home that he shares with his wife and three children and their significant others. His days are still filled with virtual meetings and conference calls, some almost making life seem normal again: A session on promotion and tenure, an upcoming search for a new provost. Plans for the new term, which started Monday.
Administrators talk about the potential financial impact daily and have begun belt-tightening. Drexel will not charge for room and board for spring quarter, since students won’t be on campus. That’s an $11 million hit to the budget. The university also may have to conduct summer courses remotely.
Spring enrollment looks steady. Summer and fall are a bit less certain. The university is down a little over 30 student deposits from last year, he said.
“We know many of our families who have challenges,” he said. “We’re working with those families.”
The university-wide commencement, scheduled for June, has been postponed. He hopes to bring the Class of 2020 back in September and is talking to the Phillies about using Citizens Bank Park. He’d like to combine a commencement celebration with an alumni event and freshman-welcome week.
“But,” he said, “we’re proceeding cautiously, because we don’t know how September is going to look.”