You are here


Rising Stars: Reclaiming a Community

John Fry, Franklin & Marshall College
University Business, Nov 2006

Mention Lancaster, Pa., to some people and the image that will likely come to mind is of black, horse-drawn buggies driven by stern-faced Amish farmers in broad-brimmed hats. But beyond the idyllic farmlands of Pennsylvania's Dutch country, Lancaster is a city with problems like any other. Although a major effort is under way to revitalize the area, Lancaster suffers from high unemployment as well as concerns for safety.

Since John Fry came to Lancaster in 2003 to take the helm of Franklin & Marshall College, he has made it his mission to change not only the way the college is perceived on the outside, but to reclaim the surrounding community to make Lancaster a more desirable place to live and learn.

Urban decay is a contributing factor to the problem, one that hit too close to home in September, when a F&M student was shot during a holdup in the downtown area. In the days following the incident (from which the student has since recovered), the college announced a $25,000 reward for information leading to the shooter's capture.

"I worry about my students out at night late, coming home and getting into situations that are not healthy ones or positive ones," Fry says. "I worry about their health and welfare. They're working very hard and are active in so many different things, and many go out and party too late. They put themselves in an awkward spot-not just at Franklin & Marshall but at many other institutions-and it's the 3 a.m. phone call that we all dread. I've had that phone call before; it's the worst thing."

In late September, Fry announced that Franklin & Marshall was committing $400,000 for increased security in the area. This is in addition to other security improvements-such as installing lights and security cameras in trouble-prone areas-the college has put in place over the last three years.

"I think a lot of the things we are doing are just extending what has already been done, as opposed to just reacting to this and throwing up our hands," he says.

Other security improvements include extending the campus network of emergency call boxes into the surrounding neighborhood, and having campus security officers patrol the area streets. F&M will also pay for additional officers from a private security company to patrol local streets on bicycles and accompany students on campus shuttle buses.

The incident has been a temporary setback to the progress made since Fry arrived, but it has made him more determined to help turn Lancaster's fortunes around.

"The minute you let your guard down is when you get demolished," he says. "You've just got to stay on top of these things. I often tell people that, in terms of strengthening community, you have to be completely committed, 365 days a year, for the long term."

Fry is no stranger to this challenge. In his former post as executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania, he was instrumental in revitalizing the university's West Philadelphia neighborhood. The area was plagued with deteriorating housing, few business opportunities, and an unsafe environment. Fry built a coalition of university, business, and governmental support for a multimillion dollar investment program that breathed new life into the area. In just a few years, residential property values have gone up around UPenn and the crime rate has dropped.

Now he wants to repeat the "Penn Model," as it has become known, at Franklin & Marshall. The college has its sights set on the long-abandoned, 47-acre property once owned by Armstrong World Industries. The property was transferred from Armstrong to the Lancaster Economic Development Company in September, and, following demolition of the Armstrong plant, much of the area will be developed as playing fields and multiuse space for the school.

Adjacent to the campus and near the Armstrong site, work began this summer on construction of the $30 million, 200,000-square-foot retail and residential complex called College Row. The project is being developed by Philadelphia-based Campus Apartments on college-owned land along Harrisburg Avenue. Slated to open next fall, it will feature 50,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and about 150,000 square feet of residential space on the upper floors. It will house about 400 F&M juniors and seniors.

Other projects include the new international center on College Avenue, which opened last month, and the Barshinger Life Sciences and Philosophy Building, which is still under construction.

Fry says these improvements are part of a master plan to make F&M and the surrounding area more appealing to students and young people.

"When I came here I knew there were some things that were Achilles heels for the institution, and one of them was Lancaster," he says. "When people think of Lancaster they think rural, they think Amish, they think country-they think boring. In fact, we enjoy this sort of wonderful diverse urban place that is our home. It's a cool, fun, small city, with great restaurants, and our arts are exploding. It's much more dynamic than you were led to believe. And we want to convey that we do things at our institution that you wouldn't expect a small college to have the capacity to do."

One example of this is Writers House, a project he had been involved with at Penn. "In my initial tour of the F&M campus, I was visiting with the English department and they told me about this emerging group of writers that they had-faculty and students who were doing creative writing and looking to publish things-but they didn't have the ability to support them or even convene them as a group," Fry says. "One of the things we had at Penn was the Kelly Writers House. Writers House gave us the ability to invite distinguished writers from around the world to come and take residence. They spend time talking about their craft, critiquing the work of constituencies there, and giving readings-basically creating a literary culture.

"I think it was helpful to learn firsthand the different ways people cope with challenges."

"I said, why don't we do one of our own here?" Fry recalls, "and their first reaction was that we can't because we're not Penn, we're not big. I told them we don't have to be big to broaden ourselves. I know exactly how much the Penn program cost because I helped fund it. So let's do one here."

The Philadelphia Alumni Writers House, as it is formally known, opened in the fall of 2004. The 3,600-square-foot, two-story house contains a main reading room and performance space, two seminar rooms (one a technology-enhanced classroom), a kitchen and dining room, staff offices, and spaces for student writing clubs.

Helping build the Writers House program is Kerry Sherin Wright, recruited as director from the Penn program. As evidence of the program's success, the literary journals that in the past were published only occasionally now come out two or three times a year because of all the submissions. "In just a couple of years, what was sort of a twinkle in a professor's eyes is now a fully built art program, which has really now gained stamina," Fry says.

Unlike many college presidents, Fry did not climb the ranks of academia when he came to F&M, but his background made him uniquely suited for the challenges he was taking on. As a partner with the former Coopers & Lybrand national higher education consulting practice, Fry had spent many years working with hundreds of colleges and universities, big and small, public and private, and experiencing the higher education space from many perspectives.

"I think it was very helpful that I early on learned firsthand the incredible diversity of American higher education and different ways in which people cope with their challenges," he says. "I developed a real appreciation for lots of different circumstances and lots of different missions. That was great because I didn't come to any of my subsequent jobs from any particular bias, because I understood that there are lots of ways to skin the cat."

The projects were usually with presidents or provosts or governing boards or chief operating officers, dealing with the critical issues of the day. The access afforded to a highly paid consultant is immediate and intimate, he says, because clients want results from their investment.

One of those clients was responsible for his next career step. When Judith Rodin was named president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1994, she met with Fry to discuss the work he had been doing at Penn. A year later, she asked Fry to join the university as executive vice president, an invitation that took him by surprise.

"I had no experience to do a job like that. I've met plenty of executive VPs, and consulted for plenty of them, but I've never actually done the job," he recalls. "A consultant's worse nightmare is to implement your own recommendations. But I decided to do that because, as much as I enjoyed being a partner, I felt this was an opportunity really to work with what I have learned but have never been able to practice."

By the time Franklin & Marshall approached him, he had developed a fascination with the way schools worked and wanted to take it further.

Fry admits that it wasn't always easy going in the beginning, especially with a faculty that was wary of someone from outside academia.

"I think we've had a great relationship since. Part of this is because I had approached them honestly at the start, and have dealt with them, I think, with great honesty and transparency since then. I believe that's the No. 1 factor in developing a successful relationship with the faculty," Fry says.

Though he faces occasional opposition to some of his plans, Fry is determined to see them through to help improve the community and the F&M experience.

"I feel very strongly that the liberal arts experience is the complete package. It is very important that there is the appropriate emphasis on the work done in the classroom or laboratory between the faculty and students, but you also want that intellectual discourse to transcend the formal settings and permeate the entire institution, whether it's in a wonderful bookstore cafe, a playing field, or in the new college houses, which have replaced our old residential system."

There needs to be a real examination of the public social life to answer questions like why there is so much alcohol use and abuse, he says, or what role athletics play at a small institution. "I believe these are all linked together and they all contribute to the quality of what happens here intellectually for our students," Fry says. "I think institutions should be more intentional about these things. They should be thinking about how to give students the ability to grow from their time here-not only intellectually, but also as leaders, as people who are going to take their place in society."