A Global Conversation with John Fry

The 2021 Globy Award for Educational Leadership is being awarded to John Fry, who is accepting on behalf of Drexel University. Fry was appointed Drexel University’s 14th president in 2010 and has set out to transform Drexel into a private research university with a strong public purpose — an institution that harnesses its strengths to serve its students, its neighborhood, city, and beyond. We had the opportunity to speak with him to discuss the award, the work of Drexel, and the international significance it brings to our city. 


Will Becker: You're being awarded for your outstanding work in educational leadership on behalf of Drexel University, especially globally. Could you tell me about any initiatives that you're particularly proud of and some coming up in the future?

John Fry: First off, I proudly accept the award on behalf of Drexel because there's virtually nothing I do by myself – everything here is the result of a tremendous team of faculty, students, and staff. 

I think our work internationally is very significant. For example, through our Dornsife School of Public Health, we have a major partnership with World Vision, an organization that brings clean drinking water and modern sanitation practices to countries in Africa and beyond. We provide training for their leaders through various programs we have here at the University to make their work as effective as can be. You can also reinvest in the talent they have at World Vision by initiatives like sponsoring a child, which brings us into contact with distressed communities and contributes something back to World Vision. 

I'm also proud of our work in autism. We have the AJ Drexel Institute For Autism at our institution, which focuses on how people with autism take their place in American society and find opportunities for education, work, and quality of life to open pathways of progress for them. 

We have The Close School of Entrepreneurship that we founded in 2014, where we now provide undergraduate and graduate programs for students who are thinking about starting their own business or even just running divisions and companies in a more entrepreneurial way. 

I think what all of those things have in common is that they're big partnerships between various organizations, the companies and not-for-profits that we work with, and the countries that we serve. Everything we do that's meaningful is done as a team. 

WB: Could you tell us some of the greatest challenges your roles faced at Drexel as a result of the pandemic, and what might be changing or persisting in the future?

JF: The obvious issue was the pivot from in-person teaching and learning that we had to now do online. Luckily for us back in 1999, we started what is now Drexel University Online, which is a subsidiary that primarily is in the graduate-education space that provides online degrees. But I think the issue, in particular, I’ve experienced is how to make sure that an event like the pandemic doesn't have a huge negative impact on the university's finances. We all sacrificed together in terms of voluntary pay reductions, with a commitment to no layoffs, I think that was rewarding because we made a commitment to our people. We were in the middle of a strategic planning process, and we recommitted to the Drexel 2030 strategic planning effort. I think the thing that was important to many people is that while we were dealing with the difficulties of 2020, we were thinking every day about 2030. We have a bright future. 

WB: Could you tell us a little bit more about the work being done with the Promise Neighborhood, the Schuylkill Yards?

JF: President Obama designated a very large part of West Philadelphia as a federal Promise Zone and it was meant to stimulate a comprehensive approach to helping revitalize communities that have been in distress for a long period of time. This is an area with high poverty, low educational attainment, food deserts, and inequitable access to health care. We had the honor of working with neighborhoods and institutions together to begin to focus on how we can help over time and reposition this community for success and prosperity going forward. 

The centerpiece of that was a $30 million Promise Neighborhoods grant to help steward seven K-8 public schools and provide enhancements to their programs that support students and families. During that time we also constructed a beautiful new building that now houses two public schools – The Samuel Powel Elementary School and the Science Leadership Academy Middle School. I think that the key to all of the accomplishments we've had in West Philadelphia so far is high-quality opportunities for students to learn, and with that comes ways to support the growth and development of those students. So while we were working in the Promise Neighborhood, we're also thinking about the economic growth and vitality of West Philadelphia in general. 

A big part of that is starting two major innovation districts during this time. The first is Schuylkill Yards, which is 14-acre life sciences and technology-based innovation district located right outside of the 30th Street Station. That is focused on the growth and development of the life sciences and technology economy in Philadelphia. Then out to 36th Street is UCity Square, where we actually located the K-8 school. Now, our new Health Sciences Building for nursing and health professions is being completed. 

The big work that we're trying to do now is connecting all that innovation with the opportunity of making sure that the people who live in the Promise Neighborhood have access to great new jobs in these two innovation districts. It’s not an easy task, but the best way to do it is by creating these educational pipelines. We've been trying to put all that infrastructure into place to create those pipelines of opportunity.

WB: That’s a really great point. How might you see this vision of Drexel’s impact in the community of West Philadelphia and beyond moving on in the future?

JF: I would like very much to think of Drexel as the main provider of tech talent for this region. We have a great College of Engineering, we have a relatively new and very fast-growing College of Computing and Informatics, and right now our largest college is the College of Nursing and Health Professions. The College of Medicine is the largest private university college of medicine in the country, and we have the absolutely outstanding Dornsife School of Public Health. With all the health assets, technology assets, and engineering assets, we have a mix of very dynamic programs. We're also a Co-Op institution, so our students are constantly out learning by doing, and working in great companies and nonprofits. I think our contribution is going to be to really help build out the workforce of the future. 

WB: Is Drexel currently partnering with any community or nonprofit organizations with the hopes of creating new educational programs in particular? 

JF: One thing that I'm really excited about is the West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Consortium that Vanguard has given us a wonderful grant to help start, which we hope to be the preschool part of the educational pipeline. We're working with 25 child care centers throughout West Philadelphia to provide support to those new students as they're beginning their lives as learners. 

I think for us, that ‘cradle to career’ is our most important goal for community success, and making sure we're providing as much support for students as they access this pipeline of opportunity.