When Executive Vice President John Fry came here seven years ago, he came to a place that had, in his words, “great people with great ideas, but for some reason [they] couldn’t get over the implementation barrier”—Penn’s deliberative, consensus-seeking institutional culture.
Fry’s first encounter with Penn was in 1995, as a consultant at Coopers and Lybrand, where he led the team hired by the University to examine all aspects of its operations in order to improve efficiency and cut costs.
President Judith Rodin (CW’65) was so impressed with his work that she brought him on board as Penn’s chief operating officer that same year. His initial charge was simple: Change the way Penn does business.
His early efforts to change the way that Penn does business succeeded, though not without some friction.
From there, the successes continued to pile up, most notably in the various initiatives that have revived University City as a desirable place to live, work and visit and reconnected the University to its surrounding community. And now that Penn’s operations and its neighborhood have been transformed, he’s moving on to attempt a similar transformation at Franklin & Marshall College, a highly regarded liberal-arts college in Lancaster, Pa.
In a fast-paced interview, Fry looked back on his years at Penn and forward to his new job as president of F&M.
Q. Looking back on your years here, what would you consider your proudest accomplishment?
A. I would say the rebuilding of the Public Safety Department and the formation of the University City District, which happened in tandem. I think that gave us the first plank of our West Philadelphia initiatives, and without that, it would have been hard to build any further.
Q. Why was forming the UCD so important?
A. Because the UCD brought together all the other institutions in University City and eventually gave us a hook into the neighborhoods, to begin to re-
establish those relationships [with Penn’s neighbors]. If we were interested in just creating public safety around Penn, we wouldn’t have had to have done that, but our ambitions in the end were to create as much safety and security and build a base in University City, and as a result, we wanted to do the University City District as well.
Q. What was it like working with the neighborhood on housing and safety issues?
A. Pure pleasure. I guess I expected, given the stories I had heard, that there would be a huge amount of contention, but I think we were united from the very beginning against the common enemy, which was the deterioration of the neighborhood that people had been living [in] for decades and obviously loved. The University had its problems as well. I think that we all looked at each other and said, Let’s bury our differences and let’s move on.
We had points where we disagreed now and then, yes, but I think most of them were minor. ...I know the core groups that I deal with, the groups that have been well organized and at the heart of this thing for years, like the Spruce Hill [Civic Association] people, they’ve been right there and they’ve been terrific to work with.
I think that’s one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, dealing with the neighbors, particularly people like Barry Grossbach, who are just wonderful individuals.
Q. I know that some folks on campus thought some of the attention we’ve paid to the community should have been devoted to the academic mission. What would you say about that view?
A. I think if you look at all the things that have been done academically here, I’d like to know what things didn’t get done because we did things in the neighborhood.
We’ve moved forward, I think, wonderfully on the academic side. And if you look at things we did in the neighborhood, for the most part we were either using other people’s money or we were using the University’s money very judiciously. For example, the Left Bank. Did we buy a six-acre piece of real estate and a 750,000-square-foot building for $6.5 million? Yes. Was that University money? Yes. But $55 million that went in to convert that, that was someone else’s money. The people living there are Penn people who are taking advantage of that, or at least half of them are. So we’ve always been careful about how we use the University’s money, and generally it’s been to stimulate the use of an asset that would benefit the campus and hopefully attract further investment from third parties.
I also might add that if you remember, and you were here in the fall of ’96 [when a series of crimes in University City caused a campus uproar], and you remember the people who were most concerned, you can count among them the faculty and students of the University of Pennsylvania. They were saying, Look, this has gone too far, and we need to do something to make sure that this campus is as good from an environmental standpoint as it is from an academic standpoint. And the two actually work hand in glove, because the people doing the research and teaching around here [are] here all the time, and if they’re in an environment that they don’t feel good about, how does that move the academic enterprise forward?
Q. Is there anything you think you could have done differently in hindsight?
A. I think that what I could have done differently is realize that in the process of trying to change the management culture of the University, I should have paid more attention to the impact that would have had on the academic culture. I had a number of faculty friends, good people like [Professor of Communication] Larry Gross, say to me, You’re bringing in a third party, people will be losing their jobs, you will be rearranging a large piece of the institution. We wish we had been consulted a little more so we could have provided feedback on how this change affects the institution beyond just the management side.
So in the end, I think it was a great learning experience, but at the same time, I don’t think people doubted that I was attempting to do the right thing in terms of shaking up an organization that really did need to improve.
Q. Since Franklin & Marshall is a smaller school, do you think you will have a little more time to relax in your new position?
A. Not relax as much as reflect. I don’t think I’ll ever relax. I’ll be working as hard as I work here, but I think I will have the opportunity, with the faculty, with the students, with my administrative colleagues there, to reflect. There is no crisis situation there; it is a very well-run school. I think the issues they are going to be confronting, national recognition, resource development, things of that nature, will require a lot of consideration to do the right way. So my time frame, I feel, is a long-term one. It will be nice to have a little more time to think.
And I think one of the nice things about F&M is that I’ll have more time with students. That’s something I would love to do.
Q. You mean teaching?
A. Yes, I’m going to try to teach there. Dick [Richard Kneedler, F&M’s outgoing president] teaches right now. He thinks it’s terrific for him intellectually; he also thinks it keeps him in touch with the students, and I would definitely like to do the same.
Originally published on March 7, 2002