Drexel president builds on a legacy he respects

Drexel president John A. Fry stays busy leading the university into new areas of growth - as well as playing squash and spending time with his family. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
Drexel president John A. Fry stays busy leading the university into new areas of growth - as well as playing squash and spending time with his family. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 25, 2014

In Philadelphia, Drexel University's president, John A. Fry, 53, is known as one of the chief architects of a revitalization of West Philadelphia in a program developed while he held the top nonacademic post at the University of Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2002.

These days, he's trying to pull off the same transformation in three neighborhoods around Drexel. He also has grand plans to cap the Amtrak and SEPTA rail yards near 30th Street Station, creating 80 to 90 acres of developable space in the heart of what he's calling the "Innovation Neighborhood."

Nationally, Fry is known as a leader in a different way. He leads US Squash, the governing body of the sport, in schools, clubs, or professionally.

Question: So, when do you get a chance to play?

Answer: I always start the day with hard exercise. I get up early, so I have an hour to get myself organized, do a little writing. At 6 a.m., I'm playing squash. I do that for a solid hour.

Q: Then what?

A: I've always taken my children to school on the theory that you start your day and you see your wife and children. I'm not a 7 a.m. [business] breakfast person. Unless I'm traveling, I'm taking my children to school.

Q: Sounds sane. What else?

A: When I go on vacation, I really go on vacation. If there's a real problem, [my staff] will call. Plus, I need a break.

Q: Even though there was, briefly, an interim president between you and former Drexel University leader Constantine Papadakis, you had to follow a larger-than-life figure who had become almost synonymous with Drexel University, building its enrollment, endowment, and faculty until he ended his tenure shortly before his death in 2009. What was that like?

A: It was an honor. He was a very close friend. I started working at Penn in April 1995. He started a few months later. I met him right away. It was out of a sense of real loyalty and admiration that I took this on, knowing that he would be a hard act to follow.

Q: To switch gears, what mistake do CEOs commonly make?

A: Making the place too CEO- or too leader-centric, as if it all depends on who sits in that office. Too often, it's too much about the president and not enough about the institution.

Q: That sounds like Papadakis.

A: Yes, but remember the time. The time was 1995. The place was in horrible financial shape. Things were not going well. They needed a strong person to come in and start to build the place up again and tell a new story. He was the perfect person for the time.

Q: How's it going with Tenet Healthcare Corp., owner of Hahnemann University Hospital, home of Drexel's College of Medicine? I had heard that Tenet was going to dump Hahnemann.

A: That's not the case. What they are looking to do is renew their partnership with us, which had languished.

Q: Why?

A: I inherited a situation where there was a very negative relationship. I don't think either side really held the other in high esteem, and Drexel was just as culpable as Tenet. So I made it my business to get to know these people. This has turned into a really productive set of conversations.


Title: President, Drexel University, since 2010.

Hometown: Haverford.

Family: Wife, Cara; children, Mia, 23, Nathaniel, 19, and Phoebe, 13.

Diplomas: Lafayette College, American civilization; New York University, master's in business.

Resumé: Led education practice for national accounting firm before joining University of Pennsylvania in 1995. Served as president of Franklin and Marshall College, 2002 to 2010.

Dream major: To return to college for a Ph.D. in art history.

Pet peeve: Campus food trucks that don't clean up after themselves.


Students: 25,500

Employees: 9,829

Tuition, fees: $45,505 per year.

2013 revenue: $965 million.

Wow: $400 million fund-raising campaign nets $455 million.

What's new: Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship, Gerri C. Lebow and Urban buildings, Dana and David Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships.


Want to lead? Try it, says Drexel president John A. Fry. www.inquirer.com/jobbing

Questions, answers have been edited for space.




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