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21st Century Drexel

John L. Puckett

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Drexel University rebounded from financial and reputational decline to become a thriving, multifaceted hub of education and urban revival.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Drexel began a period of revitalization that reinvented the University following a previous period of decline. The change was thanks largely to the visions of two university presidents—Constantine Papadakis and John Fry. Papadakis, Drexel’s charismatic president from 1995–2009, used his exceptional managerial and fundraising skills to transform what had been a failing, demoralized institution into a vital center for education. He rebranded and successfully marketed Drexel with a wildly successful student-recruitment strategy that nearly doubled the University’s enrollments. Under Papadakis, Drexel opened medical and law schools and constructed new research buildings. Papadakis’s successor, Fry, 2010–present, built on and expanded Papadakis’s agenda to include community economic and educational development, upward and eastern expansion of the campus, and commercial redevelopment initiatives in the campus area.

Turnaround under Constantine Papadakis

Constantine Papadakis took office as Drexel’s 12th president in August 1995. A former dean of engineering at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a skillful manager and successful fundraiser, the charismatic Papadakis was to govern Drexel for the next decade as a freewheeling CEO. He would manage the University heavy-handedly, eschewing the inefficiencies attendant on deliberations with faculty; he would seek neither the advice nor the consent of the Faculty Senate.[1]

Repudiating austerity as a failed approach, Papadakis’s revitalization strategy for Drexel emphasized “increasing the number and quality of students concurrently,” operating Drexel as a “business” and treating students as “customers” worthy of high-quality service. Mimicking a slogan used effectively by Bill Clinton in his 1992 presidential campaign, Papadakis was fond of saying, “It’s the student, stupid.” His marketing strategy adopted “co-op, urban location, and technology,” as a recruitment slogan; this strategy benefitted from the increasingly strong Clinton-era economy and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell’s spectacularly successful campaign to revitalize Center City.

Papadakis astutely recognized that by incrementally raising, not lowering, tuition costs, Drexel would attract more and better qualified students—he wagered correctly that applicants would equate higher tuition with higher quality. Drexel’s enrollments soared from 9,000 in the 1996 fiscal year to 16,000 in 2003, with an accompanying increase in the mean SAT scores of freshmen.[2]

Under Papadakis, Drexel not only increased the size and quality of the student body, it also strengthened its graduate and research programs. Papadakis’ most important managerial achievement was the University’s 2003 acquisition of medical and professional schools that had recently operated under the aegis of the bankrupt Allegheny University of the Health Sciences. Once acquired, Papadakis consolidated the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical College, among other entities, to form the Drexel University College of Medicine, the College of Nursing and Health Professions, and the School of Public Health—with a total of 13,000 new Drexel employees. It was also a marketing coup; David Paul notes:

For Papadakis, the potential to acquire a medical school offered Drexel a means to enter the growing health care market, as well as access to the research funding streams of the National Institutes of Health and the pharmaceutical companies. The potential for linking an engineering university with a health care complex could further differentiate Drexel University in the higher education market.[3]

Other curricular expansions included the addition of a school of education in 1997, the opening of a law school in 2005, and the opening of a Sacramento, California campus for the LeBow College of Business in 2009 (the California venture would close in 2015).[4] Papadakis presided over the building of new residence halls and the renovation of older buildings as dormitories; perhaps the most adventuresome of these dormitories was the postmodern Millennium Hall, on 34th Street south of Powelton Avenue. Academic buildings completed or launched by Papadakis included the Bossone Research Enterprise Center for Scientific Research, on the 3100 block of Market Street; the Kline School of Law, on the 3300 block of Market Street; and the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, on the corner of 33rd and Chestnut Streets. Lastly, a state-of-the-art recreation center and basketball arena on the 3300 block of Market Street, replete with a high-end restaurant, is credited to Papadakis.[5]

Constantine Papadakis died of cancer in 2009.

Upward and Eastward Expansion

The entrepreneurial higher education maven John Fry became president of Drexel following the unfortunate passing of Constantine Papadakis. He arrived at Drexel in 2010, having served the previous eight years as president of Franklin and Marshall College. Before that, as executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, Fry had played a major role in the design and implementation of President Judith Rodin’s comprehensive community development initiatives. 

Launched in the mid-1990s, Rodin’s West Philadelphia Initiatives (WPI) averted, through her administration’s receptiveness to community participation, the community relations disaster that attended Penn’s 1960s-era urban renewal projects. Rodin’s leadership team, headed by Fry, consulted with community leaders at every stage of planning and development. Mindful of Drexel’s own top-down approach to urban renewal in the 1970s and the student–community insurgency it unleashed in Powelton Village, Fry’s planners adopted “a more benevolent, inclusive approach.” This time, preparatory to completing the University’s 2012 master plan, they “crowd-source[d] ideas from students, faculty, and neighborhood residents.” The urban design critic Inga Saffron assessed the plan as follows:

While most universities today tend to be in perpetual expansion mode, Drexel’s new master plan calls for consolidating its undergraduate footprint into a tighter core, in an effort to end its destructive sprawl into the Powelton Village and University City neighborhoods. The goal is to concentrate student destinations so that no campus building is more than a five-minute walk from the academic spine on Market Street.[6]

Put another way, Drexel would build upward in the campus core, not outward into Powelton Village.

Complementing the 2012 master plan, Drexel unveiled a visionary plan for an “Innovation Neighborhood” in 2014, summarized as follows: “The Innovation Neighborhood looks to expand the university’s footprint east of the campus to Thirtieth Street Station [30th and Market] and up the Schuylkill over the old Pennsylvania Railroad yards [emphasis added].”[7] According to the planning document: “Twelve acres of prime undeveloped land adjacent to the third largest rail hub along the Northeast Corridor are owned by Drexel. The land lies within an urban/residential district thriving with world class education, research, health and business leaders, driving Philadelphia’s future global brand. An estimated 6.4 million square feet of construction is probable.” [8] When an interviewer asked John Fry to imagine “the ideal state of campus and of this part of Philadelphia” in 2041 (the year of Drexel’s sesquicentennial), he confidently responded:

Drexel is the academic anchor of one of the five great innovation districts in the United States. The Schuylkill, Amtrak, and SEPTA railyard over-build has occurred. There’s another couple hundred thousand people living and working in these newly constructed neighborhoods that go all the way up to the Spring Garden bridge. That whole area is completely filled in. . . . It’s a hothouse of invention and entrepreneurship.[9]  

Commercial Building Boom

Under President John Fry, Drexel began construction of several mixed-use developments combining residential units, restaurants, and retail operations. The most notable are Chestnut Square, the Summit, the Study, and Vue32.

With Fry’s leadership, Drexel transformed the face of Chestnut Street with the creation of Chestnut Square. Situated between 32nd and 33rd Streets, Chestnut Square, a “$97.6 million mixed-use development” was planned as “a new gateway for Drexel and University City.” It was a joint initiative between Drexel and American Campus Communities, a manager and builder of high-end student housing projects. Completed in 2013, two eight-story buildings “front Chestnut Street while maintaining an open entry corridor to the adjacent Creese Student Center.” A 19-story residential tower anchors the corner of 32nd and Chestnut. Restaurants and retail outlets occupy the two-story street-level space of these buildings; the upper floors are high-end student apartments.[10]

A second construction project with American Campus Communities was the 25-story, $270 million residence hall the Summit, a massive, mixed-use development at 34th Street and Lancaster Avenue, which opened in the fall of 2015.[11] Another commercial coup for Fry’s administration was the 10-story “boutique hotel” the Study, which opened on the corner of 33rd and Chestnut Streets in the winter of 2017. It was developed through a land-lease arrangement between Drexel and Hospitality 3, a hotel and real estate development company.[12]

Another highly visible construction project in the Fry administration’s portfolio was the mixed-use, 16-story Vue32 tower, developed jointly with the Radnor Property Group. Located on the high ridge of Drexel’s eastern boundary overlooking the Amtrak–SEPTA railyards, Vue32 affords dramatic views of Center City. In addition to the usual high-end amenities offered by University City’s myriad “luxury” apartment complexes, the facility uniquely includes a privately managed preschool. The building opened to occupants in July 2017.[13] 

All four of these mixed-use developments are heavily dependent on students for their revenues. As reported in 2017, Drexel, a 92-acre campus, counted more than 24,000 students enrolled in its undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs. Fry and his leadership team are betting—and the odds appear to be in their favor—that previous Drexel president Constantine Papadakis’ slogan, “co-op, urban location, and technology” will continue to accelerate Drexel’s growth up to and beyond 2041. Drexel’s future is now intertwined commercially with the futures of Penn and the University City Science Center. These anchor institutions collectively form a two-mile-long phalanx on the west bank of the Schuylkill. Quite simply, a commercial success for one redounds to the benefit of the others.

Neighborhood and Community Development

A key strategy in Drexel’s urban revival initiative in the 2010s was to expand the University’s community relations program to include the development of a university-assisted public school on Drexel’s campus and support for community economic development in the Mantua neighborhood. Leading the initiative was Drexel president John Fry, who predicted that by 2041 Drexel would be “the most civically engaged university in the United States.”[14]

Following Penn’s lead in building the Penn Alexander School, a university-assisted K–8 public school in West Philadelphia, Drexel collaborated with the Samuel Powel Elementary School—a K–4 neighborhood public school in Powelton Village. The aim was

“to strengthen and expand Powel by creating a partner middle school (grades 5–8) in conjunction with Science Leadership Academy High School (SLA), an innovative magnet STEM high school. By 2014, Drexel had purchased the 14-acre University City High School site in a joint venture with Wexford Science + Technology, with the long-term goal of building a new facility to house both schools, as Wexford moved to add commercial, residential and retail development on other parcels on the site.”[15]

University City High School, located at 3601 Filbert, just north of Market Street, closed in 2013. Acquisition of the site allowed Drexel to extend its footprint in the area north of Chestnut and west of 36th Street to the line of 37th Street. This time there was no community uprising.

In 2016, the SLA opened its new middle school in temporary quarters at Drexel’s new Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, located in the 3500 block of Spring Garden Street in Mantua. As of 2017, the University had not reported a timetable for construction of a permanent home for the SLA at the University City High School site. Presumably, the SLA will remain in its present location until Drexel puts up a new building for the school in the area that was once the campus of University City High School.

The Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships opened in 2014. Its founding purpose is to assist federally sponsored community development in Mantua. In 2013, Mantua was designated a federal “Promise Zone,” a status that gave the neighborhood higher priority when seeking federal grants in 25 areas of community life, for example, education, housing, and public safety.[16]

1990s, 2000s, 2010s
[1] David A. Paul, When the Pot Boils: The Decline and Turnaround of Drexel University (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008)  153–182.
[2] Paul, When the Pot Boils, 161–162.
[3] Paul, When the Pot Boils, 178.
[4] Donna Marie De Carolis, Marla Gold, and Larry Keiser, “Drexel’s Newest Schools: Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems; Education; Public Health; Law; Entrepreneurship; and Hospitality and Sports Management,” in in Building Drexel: The University and Its City, 1891–2016, eds. Richard Dilworth and Scott Gabriel Knowles (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), 314 – 330; Roger Dennis, “A Decade of Legal Education at Drexel,” in Dilworth and Knowles, Building Drexel, 333–344; Scott Gabriel Knowles, Jason Ludwig, and Nathaniel Stanton, “The Promise of a New Century: Drexel and the City since the 1970s,” in Dilworth and Knowles, Building Drexel, 382–386.
[5] “Timeline of Drexel History, 1889–Present,” in Dilworth and Knowles, Building Drexel, xv– xxvii.
[6] Inga Saffron, “Changing Skyline: Drexel’s Big Plans,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 September 2012, archived as referenced.
[7] Scott Gabriel Knowles, Jason Ludwig, and Nathaniel Stanton, “The Promise of a New Century: Drexel and the City since the 1970s,” in Building Drexel: The University and Its City, 1891–2016, eds. Richard Dilworth and Scott Gabriel Knowles (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), 395.
[8]Drexel University, Innovation Neighborhood: A Drexel University Vision (Philadelphia: Drexel University, 2014), cited in Knowles, Ludwig, and Stanton, “Promise of New Century,” 393, archived as referenced.
[9] Knowles, Ludwig, and Stanton, “Promise of New Century,” 395.
[12]New Boutique Hotel, the Study, Opens in University City,” Philadelphia Inquirer/Philadelphia Daily News, 11 January 2017, archived as referenced.
[14] John A. Fry, “Drexel at 125 and 150: Celebrating History with an Eye to the Future,” in Building Drexel: The University and Its City, eds. Richardson Dilworth and Scott Gabriel Knowles (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1–6, quote from p. 3.
[15] Scott Gabriel Knowles, Jason Ludwig, and Nathaniel Stanton, “The Promise of a New Century: Drexel and the City Since the 1970s,” in Dilworth and Knowles, Building Philadelphia, 389. 
[16] Knowles, Ludwig, and Stanton, “Promise of New Century,” 390–391.