As Executive Vice President John Fry prepares to leave for his new job as president of Franklin and Marshall College on June 30, he sat down for an interview with representatives from The Daily Pennsylvanian yesterday.
Daily Pennsylvanian: Why did you decide to take the presidency at Franklin and Marshall College? Why did you decide to withdraw your name from consideration for the University of Vermont presidency, and how much did the F&M; post have to do with your decision? John Fry: I decided to take the F&M; presidency because I think it was most compatible with the things that I'm interested in, which is liberal arts education. I'm a product of Lafayette College, I sit on the trustees and have since 1997 been on the Lafayette board. This is something that means a lot to me personally because of personal experience. It's been a lifetime goal to return to one of those institutions, and so the F&M; thing couldn't have been closer to what I really wanted to do. It's formed of four years of great undergraduate experience at a similar place, five years of trusteeship, a dozen years of consulting in the industry with a number of assignments with those types of requirements led me to conclude that that's the place I'd like to end up in. As to Vermont, I thought that the move for my family would be too much of a change in our circumstances for them, just too far away from our immediate family and friends and in the end, I had to balance career aspirations with what's right for my family. In this case, I felt what's right for my family would be to hold off on Vermont, and luckily the F&M; opportunity came up.
DP: Looking back over your seven-plus years at Penn, which accomplishments are you most proud of? Fry: I'd say there are probably three. The first is the reorganization and professionalization of the University of Pennsylvania Police Department and the formation of the University City District, sort of in tandem as a way to deal with the significant crime situation that we faced back in the '95-96 time period. The second is taking significant steps to expand the envelope of the campus from a physical standpoint so the University over the next number of decades can continue to expand in a rational way. That goes from all the properties that we've acquired at the core of the campus, like the Christian Association building to the acquisitions that we've made to the east, with the old G.E. building, now the Left Bank, hopefully to the eventual acquisition of the postal lands, as well as the fill-ins that we did on the 3900 and 4000 hundred blocks on the edge of the campus around Pine Street. I feel like what we've done is give our successors the opportunity to continue to grow and develop the campus. The third is the quality of the people I've recruited to work at Penn. They are spread throughout the institution, and they do great work and I'm enormously proud of them and what they've accomplished.
DP: Are there any projects that have disappointed you? What in particular do you feel you could have handled differently? Fry: I'm disappointed that we've had so much trouble bringing the movie theater to a close. I don't fault us for the meltdown of the theater industry, and in fact, I count ourselves lucky that if we do decide to go forward, and that's a question that will be decided by the president and the trustees, that we have such a good potential partner in National Amusements. There is a silver lining here. I don't think many of the other places going through the same process have enjoyed such a good alternative, so I count ourselves lucky there, but nonetheless, I remain frustrated because we've basically lost two years, and you all know how much I value the importance of momentum in terms of building and continuing progress. We lost some of our momentum on 40th Street. I'm happy to see that the fresh food market is doing so well. I think that's a sign that our bet on 40th Street is a good one. It would have been nice just to have wrapped this thing up two years ago so we could have gone on to other things.
DP: What is the status of the movie theater project? Do you think a deal with National Amusements will be reached prior to your departure? Fry: I think that we have without a doubt the ability to finalize this deal before I depart. The issue is going to be whether or not the University wants to invest additional money beyond what it's already invested in the movie theater. And I think that's a question that basically has to be taken up by the president, in consultation with the provost and the deans, as well as the Trustees. Can we do a deal? Yes. Do people want to spend additional dollars to make sure that deal can happen? I think that's a question, and I think that's an issue of institutional governance, not whether or not we can do a deal. We can do a deal. Do you want to put the money there, or do you want to put the money somewhere else? I think that's a fair question for people to be asking right now.
DP: Understandably, the University had no control over the bankruptcy of General Cinemas, but why has the University taken so long to reach a deal with National Amusements after several announcements of imminent deals? Fry: I think that what's happened is that they've been involved in creating this new division within their organization called Cinebridge. They have their first theater opened up in Los Angeles, and I think, frankly, it's understandable. It's taken them time to get that concept refined and up and going, and we've had to go back and forth with them in terms of refining our concept. Remember, they're coming into a project that's sort of half built. I think it might have been easier if we were starting together as one team, from ground up. They've had to look at the building and the original vision for it. They've had to say this is how we want to modify it, and we've had to say, well, if you want to do those modifications, it might cost us additional money, so we pushed back. I think it's really been in the spirit of trying to come up with the best product. I don't fault them at all, nor do I fault ourselves. In fact, I'm actually very happy that we've gotten to the place we've gotten to. Has it been later than I would have liked? Absolutely, yes. Am I grateful that at least we have something to show for it? Absolutely yes. I think in retrospect, I probably should have continued to say "no comment" to the DP's requests. Maybe that was another mistake I made, not having learned my lesson earlier.
DP: There are several retail vacancies on campus, particularly along Walnut Street and the 40th Street corridor. What is the status of these vacancies, and why have they remained vacant for as long as they have? Fry: Part of the reason for maintaining the vacancy is to know that if you have the cinema coming in, in that case when we decide to go forward, that is going to dramatically change the profile and the rents that we'll be able to attract to those open spaces. Partly, we've kept those spaces open to see, What is the result going to be? Is it going to be a cinema? I think if we can, in fact, do this deal, our prospects for higher-profile tenants who can pay more rent and add more to the area is going to be greater than if we don't. It's been an intentional strategy to leave ourselves the flexibility to bring tenants in who might be of a better standing. Remember, too, that in the theater there's going to be some additional retail spaces, and until we have our strategy set on how to tenant those additional spaces, and I think there's probably at least eight or nine thousand feet for a restaurant and a smaller space, that will in turn form how we decide to tenant the other spaces. We want to sort of do this right and do it all together. That's been the reason for not rushing to stuff another tenant into one of the open spaces that we have on 40th Street.
DP: Since the Mexican restaurant originally planned for the former Friendly Express location fell through, there hasn't been any kind of similar aggressive attempt to fill that space? Fry: We're talking to lots of people. We have a great network of potentials out there. I think everyone is watching to see whether or not this deal with the cinema gets finalized. That, in turn, will drive a whole bunch of other decisions.
DP: You were involved in the outsourcing of the management of University facilities to Trammell Crow. The role of that company has since been dramatically reduced, and outsourcing doesn't seem to be as popular a concept as it once was. What is the status of Penn's relationship with Trammell Crow, and what is the future of Trammell Crow with the University? Fry: I'm not going to answer that question directly. The only thing I'll say is that I believe that the decision back in 1997 to make that change, I think, will prove to be a very good decision. I think the situation we had in '97 in terms of the quality of the leadership and management and processes and financial systems of the facilities division were very, very questionable. I think we had to make a wholesale dramatic change in the way in which we did that, and I think Crow in that regard has done many good things in terms of helping us. I think together, there are some things that we have not yet achieved, but I'll leave it at that. I do think, though, that the fundamental decision to make the move was a good decision, because I did not have confidence back in '97 that the facilities organization that was running this campus was an organization that really could do for us what needed to get done. If you look at everything that's happened since '97 in terms of the size of construction programs, the processes that we've put in place, the innovations that we've made, I think the University of Pennsylvania is a lot better off from a facilities standpoint than it's ever been.
DP: You were also instrumental in the creation of the University City District. What do you think have been the UCD's major accomplishments? Fry: I think its major accomplishments have been really to sort of execute off its original plan to make this a cleaner and safer neighborhood, and then over time, to gradually add activities as the organization matured. The initial year or two was focused on putting our clean and safe programs in place. Then you saw an emphasis on marketing, with banners and things of that nature. Then you saw LUCY come into place. Now, you see the walk and Direction Philadelphia signage. So I feel very good that they started with a core mission and they gradually over time have expanded that without losing their focus on the things they had at the core. The UCD now is a dramatically different and more sophisticated organization than it was in '97, and I think I attribute that to great leadership from Paul Steinke and now Eric Goldstein, and also from the board in terms of expanding it gradually but steadily to accomplish morphing University City. I think the other thing that has been so tremendous about the UCD is that it's really created a venue for opening of relationships and dialogue among groups who never really had any history of dealing with one another. It's amazing, but back in '97, the institutions who had joined, whether it be Penn, Drexel, University of the Sciences, [the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia], Wistar, etc. never really had much of a relationship at all. The institutions didn't have relationships, and then the institutions and the neighbors probably had bad relationships. The landlords were nowhere to be found. The commercial business owners were nowhere to be found. So, the UCD has really created a great round table for everyone to gather together to begin to talk about the issues of the day in University City and how we work together to address those issues. I think while it's not perfect, the culture among the various neighborhood groups and businesses and institutions is so much better now as a result of having the UCD as a forum to actually come and present your issues and problems in an apolitical environment and to really work together to address those issues. I think that actually in the end will prove to be its greatest contribution, the ability to bring people together who have no history with one another and get them to start working together in a collective way.
DP: How would you evaluate University relations with West Philadelphia? Fry: I think it's at a very good point right now. I'm not going to comment on the outlying groups like the McPenntrifiers [Neighbors Against McPenntrification] or whatever they call themselves, because I think they're a fringe group. I think at the core, when you go out and talk to the neighborhood groups, Spruce Hill and other things like that, I think that people feel very good about the progress that's been made. Is it perfect? No, and I don't think it ever will be. There'll always suspicions about the University's motives and things of that nature, but I think we've done our best to try to lay out our agenda in a very plain way and also to work with the community to achieve that agenda and also to work with the community to achieve things that they want to achieve, with our financial support and our expertise. I'm not sure what else we could do beyond what we're doing right now, and I think we've been very flexible and willing to readjust some of the things that we thought were the right things to do but the neighborhood would say, Well, what about this, this and this? I think we've been very flexible in bringing that in. I don't think it is our goal to try to be loved by everyone, and so I do not personally have any aspirations to make McPenntrification happy. I think what they stand for is ridiculous, and in fact, I think they've used intimidating behavior to try to have their issues raised, which I think is a childish thing.
DP: Can you talk about the status of your doctoral work at Penn? What are you studying, and when do you plan to have it completed? Fry: This is a question my wife asks me all the time. I've taken a number of courses, I can't remember how many. I think I have probably a half a dozen left to go before I complete my coursework, and then I have to write my dissertation. I'm working on my proposal -- I have my proposal outlined. I knocked that off last semester, and now that's been approved, and now I'm actually writing the full-fledged dissertation proposal. Then once that's approved, I just go into writing the dissertation, and so I intend to complete all my coursework at Penn by commuting back and forth from Franklin and Marshall. The dissertation work is basically library work, which I can do up in Lancaster. It's going to be another possibly three-four years, with my change in professional circumstances, before I get that done. I am doing my work on the history of university-community relationships, particularly focused on urban areas. It's something I believe passionately in, and I'm actually at this point doing it not because of the credential, which is probably the reason I got into this, but because of my belief that this is a topic that needs to be written about and developed. Everyone I've talked to who knows the field believes that this is a piece of work that really does need to be done and hasn't been done in the way I'm talking about doing it and thinks it will be a significant contribution to the field that we're interested in.
DP: What are the major issues and projects that you think your successor will have to deal with? Fry: I think one is going to be how to continue the momentum we've built up in terms of campus development activities that we need to do, and there are many of them, between finalizing the development of the eastern edge of campus, which have some significant and wonderful opportunities there. Both the post office and the civic center represent incredible opportunities for campus expansion as well as health system expansion. So I think that will be something that that person will work on. I think making sure that the fundamentals continue to be focused on in terms of the financial health of the institution, the delivery of services and things of that nature, is sort of the second thing. It's not as glamourous as some of the other parts of the job, but you really do need to focus on those types of things to make sure that on a daily basis, the institution continues to grow and progress and be strong financially and deliver good services. That would be a second thing. I think there's going to have to be a significant amount of attention paid to our continuing involvement in West Philadelphia. I don't view this as something that's like a project where you have a beginning and an end. This is a long-term sustained commitment on the part of the institution, and I think whoever has my job next has to continue that tradition which I've helped start, at least from this office. I think those are three things. I think that person will have a lot to choose from, and my advice to he or she is that they spend some time listening and getting focused and pick out a couple of things that they think they can add value on and focus on them. That's what I've tried to do.
DP: If you were on the search committee for your successor, what kind of person would you be looking for? Do you have any names in mind of people that you would like to see be considered for your current position? Fry: I think someone who can be very energetic and persistent in the face of a lot of obstacles. I'm assuming anyone who is chosen will be smart enough to figure out what the big issues are. I think that's never been the problem that Penn attracted people who could figure out what the issues are. The problem and the struggle is getting things moved from concept right down to reality, and there are usually a lot barriers in the way. I think that more than anything else, energy and persistence is really called for in this job. There are just a lot of things that, if you're not continually pushing and dogging the issues, they get left, and I think that's enormously important. I think, secondly, someone who really does appreciate that in the end, this is all about developing good relationships with people, convincing them that the agenda that you have is a productive agenda for them and then using those relationships to begin to move things forward. You don't do things by edict around here or by memo -- you do it by knowing people, helping them and then getting them to support what you're trying to do. And I think anyone who has the view that you can sit in this office and sort of dictate things is going to be sadly unhappy or sadly mistaken that they will be able to get things done that way. I think that's a second thing. I do think having at least some sort of working knowledge of how big, complex, decentralized universities work would be an advantage, because I think that without really understanding that and having a set of expectations about how things work, it'll be frustrating to them. So I think someone who at least has some background in higher education, whether it be as a consultant or a practitioner or even as a trustee who's been deeply involved in these institutions would be very helpful. I'd give that person an edge going in. I won't speculate as to particular names.
DP: Do you think the University would be wise to consider people from outside the University, from unorthodox positions as they did when they brought you in? Fry: I think that this is the kind of job where [University President Judith Rodin] has the option both to look internally, because I think there are some very good people here internally, as well as externally. I think it's a good enough job that she can attract a huge number of very qualified applicants, and I think that you go for the person who you think has the most potential. I would encourage her to look broadly and frankly, and I've said this before, she took a huge risk on me, and I guess it worked out OK. But it was because she gave me a lot of good mentoring and a lot of good guidance, and I'm assuming she would do the same with a person who maybe came from out of the industry but she thought had real potential. I think if she can give them the support that she gave a person like me, that person would do well.
DP: Do you have any regrets about leaving Penn? Fry: I'll miss Penn terribly. I love Penn. I also really believe strongly in not overstaying my welcome, and I think after seven years, a lot has been done. I think the issues for the future are cued up and ready to go. I have a good team in place, and I don't want to stay beyond the point where I feel tired or burned out or I start seeing things that make me unhappy. I've loved every day that I've worked here. I've sprang out of bed and ran to work. I think I have the greatest job around, and I want to walk out on June 30 still feeling the same way. I think for the first year, I began to feel a little bit tired this year, and that was a sign to me that it was time to begin to think about what happens next. I feel completely energized now by the prospects of F&M.; I can feel that sort of excitement starting to well up in me, and that's the way I've always felt about Penn, and that's the way I want to leave.Comments powered by Disqus
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