Building More Than Buildings

The late Constantine Papadakis revived an endangered Drexel. His successor, John Fry, wants to revive nearby neighborhoods, too.
May 20, 2011

When John A. Fry signed on for the presidency at Drexel University in Philadelphia last year, he knew he had a lot to live up to. He would follow the beloved (and sometimes controversial) Constantine “Taki” Papadakis, whose tenure spanned from 1995 until 2009 and who had a reputation for promising a lot and delivering more, as one higher education official who knew him recently put it.

Papadakis, who died in 2009 from pulmonary complications while in remission from lung cancer, accomplished more than any Drexel president ever had and is widely recognized for saving the university from disaster. He is credited with more than doubling enrollment, to 11,000 in his final year; spiking freshman applications from 3,500 to 22,000 over the course of his tenure; and growing the endowment from $90 million to $650 million. He spearheaded the creation of schools of medicine and law, expanded the institution’s presence to California, and acquired or renovated at least one building a year.

All that left big shoes for Fry to fill, but it also set the stage for him to do what he does best: build.

Fry himself is no stranger to such work. A former higher education consultant who earned an M.B.A. from New York University (he has no Ph.D.), Fry, along with then-President Judith Rodin, ushered in a new era of community ties at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was executive vice president from 1995 to 2002. There, he brought together nonprofit, business, neighborhood and government organizations to push development in what was a low-value, crime-ridden West Philadelphia area and align Penn with its surrounding community. He wasn't always beloved by Penn faculty members, some of whom considered his approach too businesslike. (Fry also carried the same concept over to Franklin & Marshall College, where he was president in the eight years prior to his Drexel debut.)

Now, back in Philadelphia, Fry is at it again. Papadakis built up the campus, leading Fry to look beyond its borders. “What Taki did was necessary,” Fry says. “It does give me the luxury of being able to think about the edges of our campus, the relationship of our neighbors and how this all fits together." (Just Thursday, Drexel announced that Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences will become its subsidiary, with the latter retaining its own governing board and endowment.)

Fry has a new a set of challenges promoting building at Drexel. Although the Drexel and Penn campuses sit side by side, they are vastly different. Penn is an Ivy League institution, with the accompanying classic college architecture and massive endowment and research budget ($5.7 billion and $814 million). Drexel's campus, in contrast, is more utilitarian; its endowment stands at about $440 million and its research budget is $110 million.

At Penn, Fry used his business smarts to cut costs, allowing for renovations and revitalization of the campus and its academic programs. He brought in private developers to maintain the university’s buildings and real estate. Penn was also where Fry came up with an incentive that he now offers at Drexel: faculty members who purchase and occupy homes in struggling nearby neighborhoods can claim $15,000 from the university in forgivable loans if they stay for at least five years ($5,000 each is also up for grabs for employees who already live there and want to improve their residences).

When he assumed the presidency about 70 miles west at Franklin & Marshall, in Lancaster, Penn. – less than 1/6 the size of Philadelphia – he continued the initiative. “Penn is a very well-capitalized university. Franklin & Marshall, also,” Fry said. “Drexel is going to have to be a lot more entrepreneurial because it just doesn’t have the level of capital that the other institutions have.”

Fry said that while the plans at all three institutions have had “similar architecture” and were well-received by the communities, they have differed in size, scope and setting. “Scale brings complexity,” he said, but the basic idea stays pretty much the same. “If you keep working in that mold, you keep meeting people who are potential partners or can facilitate changes.”

At Drexel, he said, he wants students and faculty members to be central to the efforts because one of the university's strengths is cooperative and experiential education. So Drexel is doing things like offering an environmental engineering course this summer in which, with support from the city’s parks and recreation department, student designs for storm water treatments will help shape neighborhood playground renovations.

Drexel enrolls about 4,000 more undergraduates than Penn, and 11,500 more than Franklin & Marshall. Its size, along with its commuter-campus feel, makes it difficult for Fry to sufficiently interact with and hear from all the relevant parties, but he’s working on ways to do that, with things like office hours for students and town hall forums with local residents.

In his October convocation speech, Fry wasted no time letting everyone know about his focus. “While the occasion calls for lofty rhetoric and a reaffirmation of important traditions, I would instead like to use this opportunity to frame several challenges facing our surrounding neighborhoods, and call the Drexel University community to action and commit ourselves to bettering our shared community,” he said. “I feel a sense of urgency given the continued deterioration of the public environment and housing stock of these neighborhoods, which house well over 5,000 of Drexel's undergraduate and graduate students.”

At the crux of this endeavor is not just the practical – and rather obvious – idea that better surroundings make for a better university experience. Fry believes such work is key to the university’s mission of research, teaching and – the least robust component – service, and to its “highest purpose” of educating students to lead (in this case, by example).

However, the practical need is undeniable. Drexel’s rapid enrollment growth was not accommodated with new student housing. The university’s next-door neighborhoods to the north, Powelton Village and Mantua, have become largely transient; 76 percent of those who live in the former are students with absentee landlords who neither maintain the properties nor hold their residents accountable. The streets are in poor physical condition, full of graffiti and garbage, and safety is an issue. Nearby public schools have low capacity, and local retail is lacking.

“President Papadakis saved Drexel University from the brink of disaster. At the same time, Drexel’s unrestrained growth under Papadakis put a tremendous amount of pressure on our neighborhood,” George Poulin, president of the Powelton Village Civic Association, said in an e-mail. As it happens, that group is in the midst of executing its own strategic development plan that includes significant work with Drexel. “The boundaries of Powelton Village cannot be expanded. If the homeownership base in the neighborhood shrinks below current levels [of 16 percent], a critical mass of neighbors may cease to exist. Young professionals and families do not want to be surrounded by students.” On some blocks, Poulin said, home ownership has declined by as much as 56 percent since 2000.

Fry has a five-part plan for a long-term partnership between Drexel and its surrounding community. The strategy hinges on healthy and safe neighborhoods with affordable housing, strong public schools, a vibrant retail and cultural area, and good jobs. The “entrepreneurial” strategy will require Drexel to work with myriad other entities, public and private. “A lot of it, frankly, is based on just getting to know people and just understand what motivates them to help,” Fry said.

For instance, housing more students on campus – one thing Fry does aspire to do – will likely lead to less crime and help stabilize Powelton Village and Mantua. Drexel is also contracting with the University City District, a residential and retail neighborhood with three colleges that sits between Drexel and the adjacent Penn campus, to expand the boundaries of its security patrol area. The university is also selling its president’s residence, a three-acre property and century-old house called "The Orchards" (it's on the market for $2.7 million), and buying a house for Fry and his family to host events for neighbors and other Drexel stakeholders in Powelton Village (though he won't actually live there). And the university is looking for external money to invest in the neighborhood’s Powelton School.

The neighborhood development poses an opportunity for students and faculty members, said Barbara Hornum, associate professor of anthropology and Faculty Senate chair. Hornum, who has resided in University City since 1966, said there's a significant population of students and faculty members living in the area because of the work Penn did. Now she hopes more young faculty members will move into Powelton Village to help boost the neighborhood's schools and decaying housing.

"I'm personally a big supporter of what [Fry's] doing because I think it made a big difference here for faculty. I think it's long overdue," Hornum said, noting that while not everyone is completely on board with community development, she thinks a "significant majority" of faculty members support these efforts. "Are there some faculty who are afraid that this could pull resources away from some of the more traditional areas? Possibly. I don't think there's a majority and I don't know how vocal they are. I've heard sentiments, but nothing major." She expects that many faculty members will be "heavily involved" in different aspects of the project.

There will be great potential for students, too, Hornum said, as experiential learning and internship positions arise in areas like public school and city development, and research into aging neighborhoods. A few students who live in the neighborhoods have already begun working on projects like tutoring and mentoring children in after-school programs; others are still in the early planning stages. Soon, students and faculty members will begin working on a city initiative to help "local corner stores" stock more healthy food options. The university aims to help sustain these businesses and build their capacity while also promoting healthy eating.

Public health and nutrition professors are interested in that project, said Brianne M. Tangney, program director for community partnerships at Drexel's Lindy Center for Civic Engagement. She said the timeline and other specifics haven't been nailed down yet, but the hope is to have something up and running by next academic year. Tangney hadn't heard of any other college-city partnerships specifically like this one, but Hornum lauded it, saying students often resort to shopping at these convenience stores and wind up paying more -- for worse food. "The idea of having some kind of food places where students and residents can buy fresh goods and non-processed foods," she said, "foods that are healthier and reasonable in price, it would benefit the community, but it would certainly benefit our students."

Drexel students and the campus have a “commuter relationship,” Fry says, even though so many of them live only four or five blocks from campus; this is an issue that administrators have been trying to address for some time. The university has built two new residences in the past five years, and property negotiations for another are nearing a close. “There are enough additional sites that Drexel has ownership of that I think we can continue doing this for a number of years,” he said. Other construction projects are under way on campus, too: the Constantine N. Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, as well as a new 12-story center for the LeBow College of Business, will be Drexel's newest facilities, and the university is repurposing a landmark building to house its college of media arts and design. “We want to make the campus, for lack of a better term, as sticky as possible…. The ability for students to have really autonomous residential living, but at the same time be in the middle of a dense, buzzing campus, is going to enrich their intellectual experience; it’s going to enrich their social experience.”

Lucy Kerman, Drexel’s vice provost for university and community partnerships, worked with Fry and Rodin at Penn on their similar work. “I think one of the most important pieces that John was so successful at at Penn was understanding that the university, by virtue of its real business operation, just had enormous capacity for creating change in a community. Universities are big economic engines; they purchase goods and services to a great extent, they significantly invest in real estate…. When you use that work strategically, that can have an enormous impact, particularly on the economic health and also the safety of the community broadly,” Kerman said. “While we had been in practices at Drexel that considered the community in a number of different ways, he has really raised the visibility and the importance of that work.”

Kerman, too, acknowledged that Drexel will have to be strategic about how it pays for all this. “The university doesn’t have huge amounts of funds that they can simply put into this work. So what we need to do is work in partnerships – with the city, with other nonprofits in the neighborhood, and funders,” she said. “The goal is really to leverage all the resources that we can, including some of the institutional funds. But we’re not in a position to simply invest resources into the community.”

In some cases, staff hours will be refocused on community efforts; Kerman said several colleges and departments are also contributing program funds and staff time. In others, the administration will have to add new budget line items, as is the case for the mortgage assistance program. For real estate development, Drexel is lobbying donors (individuals, corporations and foundations) for funding. It’s also asking the city to relocate some of its programming to the neighborhoods. “Drexel is contributing less direct money up front,” Kerman said, “but it is actively trying to leverage as much as possible from partners and other sources.”

Those include the mayor and city council; police, fire, streets, parks and commerce departments and other city agencies; federal and state representatives; city development corporations; and the University City District and its member organizations, notably, Penn and the University City Science Center, the research park west of Drexel.

Kerman said Penn is still collaborating with its nearby neighborhoods, such as the University City District, so there will be some overlap. They’re also working to help support diverse suppliers by purchasing goods and services from minority and women-owned businesses, and develop small local businesses. And they want to utilize Penn’s strong planning department and Drexel’s agriculture and engineering departments when considering neighborhood plans.

All this work is only one component of Drexel's 2012-17 strategic plan. It's an exciting time for Hornum, who has seen the campus through several presidents and is encouraged by what has transpired over the last nine months. "My sense is that President Fry is a very contemplative, thoughtful individual. He likes to collect as much information as he can about an issue, think it through and reach conclusions. Once he reaches a conclusion, he moves pretty much as fast as Taki did," she said. "[Taki] did what he needed to do to not only save the university, but help it grow. And I think President Fry wants to build on that legacy, but he's also going to move in new directions."


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