Shortly after becoming Drexel University's president in 2010, John A. Fry stood before the faculty and student body at convocation and declared civic engagement as one of his major goals.
"My aspiration for Drexel University is for it to be the most civically engaged university in the United States, across all three dimensions of engagement: academic, student, and employee voluntarism, and institutionally supported neighborhood investment," Fry told the packed auditorium of about 900 people.
Today, Fry will announce a $10 million gift from 1983 alumna Dana Dornsife and her husband, David, to start a multifaceted community center in West Philadelphia, home to Drexel.
The Dana and David Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, between 35th and 36th Streets on the north side of Spring Garden Street, will direct resources from departments across the university toward solving quality-of-life issues in West Philadelphia, Fry said in an interview. Those problems, he said, can range from health care to legal issues and from the struggles of small businesses to pesky home conditions, such as mold.
The Dornsifes are California-based philanthropists who last year gave $200 million to the University of Southern California, his alma mater. They said they were inspired to give to Drexel because of Fry's vision.
"I really genuinely appreciate John Fry's forward thinking in relation to civic engagement," said Dana Dornsife, a graduate of Drexel's LeBow School of Business. "It's really an attempt not to just work in the community but work with the community, and help them take advantage of some of the things that Drexel can offer that can really transform their lives."
Fry said his intention is for the center to go further than any other university-affiliated facility in the nation in engaging with the community.
As executive vice president and chief operating officer of the University of Pennsylvania from 1995 through 2002, Fry led Penn's neighborhood revitalization under president Judith Rodin. He also renovated and developed the campus at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, where he served as president from 2002 until 2010.
West Philadelphia already is home to two university-led centers on civic engagement.
The University of Pennsylvania's Netter Center for Community Partnerships opened in 1992. It directs the university's broad range of knowledge toward solving complex city problems to benefit West Philadelphia, the city at large, and the nation. Among its programs, the center sends students into the community for internships, offers nutritional advice, aids public schools, and promotes college and career readiness.
Drexel's own Center for Civic Engagement was founded in 2004 to promote "community-based experiential learning for students, faculty, and staff." With a $15 million gift from local property management magnate Philip B. Lindy in 2011, the center was renamed for him and expanded its outreach.
Fry said the new facility would be different because it would be broader in scope.
"We will have a situation where professional faculty and staff can go out and work hand in hand on real, significant problems facing the community, be it health issues ... legal issues, small businesses that are struggling ... mold in people's houses, and how you address creating a healthy environment in the home," he said. "The list goes on and on and on. We can bring a very broad array of hands-on applied services to our community and do it in partnership with our community."
The university will rehabilitate two vacant administrative buildings and a former elementary school on the 1.3-acre site, then open the center in 2014, officials said.
The center will offer health screenings, fitness classes and counseling services, a community kitchen with healthy meals and cooking demonstrations, a free law clinic, and an architectural design-build studio to work on problems faced by local churches and community centers, the university said. Computer access and summer courses for children also are among the offerings planned.
The Dornsifes will be in town for the announcement Thursday. David Dornsife is chairman of Herrick Corp., the largest steel fabricator and contractor on the West Coast, and Dana Dornsife is the founder and CEO of the Lazarex Cancer Foundation, which helps end-stage cancer patients evaluate and fund their opportunities for clinical trials.
Dana Dornsife, a 1979 graduate of Pennsbury High School in Bucks County, said she reconnected with Drexel about five years ago, and she and her husband donated $2.5 million to LeBow. She said she is impressed with the university's transformation under its former president, the late Constantine Papadakis, and now Fry. During Papadakis' 14-year tenure, Drexel started medical and law schools and a graduate campus in Sacramento, Calif., increased enrollment, and improved finances.
"I just cannot believe the development, the growth, the opportunity it gives to its students," she said.
City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, who was aware of the project, said she was pleased with the neighborhood addition.
"They're open to the needs that the community has," she said, adding that she also liked the fact that there will be buildings to house the community activities. "There is a specific venue where all those things will take place."
Fry called the center an "urban extension" and said it was patterned after the Cooperative Extension programs that brought university education and services to rural areas.
Fry also is talking to other prospective donors about supporting the start-up of the center. Once the center is under way, Drexel will use university resources to staff and run it, he said. It will operate seven days a week, morning, afternoon, and evening, he said, and employ local residents.
In planning for the center, the university invited its leaders to a brainstorming session, and all 13 deans showed up to participate, Fry said.
"They all basically said, 'We're in,' " Fry said.
He declined to define any specific boundaries for the center, but said its focus would be West Philadelphia.
"We're in service to the communities around us."