Drexel came through the pandemic better than expected. Now president John Fry is contemplating his next step.
“The art of this game is you don’t overstay your welcome,” Fry said. “It’s time for the natural cycle of change.”
Drexel University and its real estate partner last month broke ground on the first major development that is part of a $3.5 billion innovation neighborhood in University City.
The university’s enrollment for fall looks strong, with hundreds more submitting deposits and fewer withdrawing this summer compared with last year, university officials said.
And, while Drexel had been projecting a $90 million shortfall for the fiscal year that just ended June 30, it appears poised to end with $50 million more than expected, thanks in part to federal stimulus dollars. The university said it had restored contributions to employee retirement funds and added a 2% lump-sum salary payment for most employees to make up for sacrifices during the pandemic. Merit raises will return this year, too.
“Going into [the pandemic], we had high anxiety,” said university president John A. Fry. “Coming out of it, we have sort of really high hopes.”
Now, Fry, who became Drexel’s president in 2010, is publicly acknowledging for the first time that, although he hasn’t decided the exact timing, this could be his last full year at Drexel. He has two more years left on his contract.
“The art of this game is you don’t overstay your welcome,” he said. “I’m starting my 12th year. I’ll finish that out and who knows beyond that, but not a whole lot more. It’s time for the natural cycle of change.”
His not-too-distant departure means four of the city’s top colleges — Temple, the University of Pennsylvania, La Salle, and Drexel — will have seen turnover in the presidency within a couple of years.
At Temple, Jason Wingard, a former Ivy League school dean and Chestnut Hill resident, began his tenure this month. University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann has been nominated to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Germany and likely will leave before her contract ends next summer. And Colleen Hanycz left La Salle for another presidency last month. They are among a flurry of college leadership changes happening or expected to happen in the region.
Fry, 61, said he’s far from done and hopes to land another opportunity at a college or another nonprofit. Asked if he would vie for the presidency of Penn, where he once worked, he declined comment.
» READ MORE: College president as urban planner
He said that over the last year, a number of friends and colleagues have encouraged him to run for mayor.
“While I am completely devoted to improving the quality of life and economic competitiveness of Philadelphia,” he said, “I feel that the best way for me to make a difference to the city is by continuing to build Drexel’s capacity to be a highly effective and impactful civic anchor institution.”
Fry is as much an urban planner as he is a college president. When he was an executive vice president under former Penn president Judith Rodin, he helped bring in a movie theater and Fresh Grocer, created the public Penn Alexander School, and started the University City District, fostering relations among colleges, businesses, and residents. At Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, where he became president, he helped to move a landfill and railroad yard, knock down a huge factory, and launch a major redevelopment project.
At Drexel, he partnered with Brandywine Realty Trust to launch the multibillion-dollar project to turn parking lots and industrial buildings between Drexel’s campus and 30th Street Station into a neighborhood of businesses, retailers, parks, and residential towers, called Schuylkill Yards. Construction has begun on the West Tower, which will include residential, office, and retail space.
He also upgraded Drexel’s campus, once named the nation’s ugliest, and in partnership with the Philadelphia School District, opened a new building near campus that will house two public schools this fall. The district will lease the building from Drexel, and Drexel will provide teacher training and expertise in areas, including technology, instruction, performing arts, and health.
“He has had an extraordinary portfolio of accomplishments by any university leadership measurement and I would predict much more left in his reservoir,” said Tom Kline, a Drexel trustee and namesake of Drexel’s law school.
» READ MORE: Five years in, a look at Drexel's high-flying Fry
Early in his tenure, Fry negotiated Drexel’s affiliation with the Academy of Natural Sciences; together, the two have a combined endowment of about $960 million.
A native of New York who has a bachelor’s from Lafayette College and an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business, Fry also led Gov. Tom Wolf’s transition team and serves on the Federal Reserve Bank board.
Fry said he intends to remain at Drexel until he finds other partners to help run St. Christopher’s Hospital, which hosts rotations for third- and fourth-year students from Drexel’s medical school. Drexel and Tower Health bought St. Christopher’s out of bankruptcy in 2019 and have been overseeing the hospital as partners, but Tower, which is selling hospitals as it struggles financially, has indicated it wants to step back, Fry said.
“I’m not moving until that situation is resolved,” he said.
He’s also focused on readying the campus for fall. The university currently is looking into employees’ returning to the office and recognizes the need for flexibility. In addition to weighing needs of employees and the university, Drexel also will consider the city, he said. If office buildings stand empty, that will hurt the city both in wage tax and restaurant business, and in turn the colleges within it.
“We have to think about the whole sweep, because a big part of our pitch is Philadelphia,” he said. “We get to say, ‘Come live and study and work in one of the best cities in the world.’”
He said University City faces less strain because it is not as dependent on the hospitality economy as Center City.
One piece of Fry’s vision — building over 30th Street Station’s rail yard to allow for more development — won’t happen before he leaves. Fry said a study Drexel was part of showed the development could be done without disrupting Amtrak traffic. He thinks it will happen some day.
“It will be a decade or so out,” he said.
Staff writer Harold Brubaker contributed to this article.