John Fry isn’t one to look in the rearview mirror. His focus is always forward, always on the future. That’s the approach he has taken in his first five years at the helm of Franklin & Marshall.
Yet a quick glance backward yields an array of accomplishments. The changes to the physical campus are obvious: the Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building, College Row, Writers House, new athletic venues, and Distler House renovations.
The changes to the College’s psyche are less tangible but no less substantial: reestablishing a Greek presence, raising the admission standards, invigorating the social and residential life, and forging new partnerships with the city and our neighbors.
Interestingly, it’s a less-tangible accomplishment that President Fry counts as his most important contribution: Bringing confidence to an institution that always had reason to be confident but has never projected it. In the interview that follows, he talks about how he went about doing that.
What was your initial attraction to Franklin & Marshall?
You read the specs and you think you know a place, but you don’t until you get here. What I think I knew was that the College shared a mission with an institution that I was very active as a trustee [his alma mater, Lafayette College]. It was my re-immersion in the world of liberal arts colleges. I was working at a research university [University of Pennsylvania], and those three or four trips to Easton over that period of time made me realize how much I liked liberal arts colleges.
Second, I had always known Franklin & Marshall to be a really good school by reputation. I knew all about the quality, the rigor. I had always heard about the number of kids who went to medical school and knew it had this neat arts strategy.
Third, I knew there were diverse and interesting challenges. As a family, we came for a visit, which reinforced certain things but also led me to believe that there was a lot of work to do around here. I was impressed and not impressed at the same time. We didn’t know Franklin & Marshall was in a city.
From the materials I had been sent, I assumed we were in the middle of the country. I also wondered what was going on with the campus looking so shabby in some places and so gorgeous in others. It was an environment that looked like it would be a lot of fun to get my hands around.
Before you came here, did you have some ideas about what you wanted to change?
The issue that the Search Committee focused on was "Why isn't Franklin & Marshall better known and esteemed?" Since this is an institution of bright, first-rate people. I found the lack of pride and lack of confidence puzzling. I thought it was a place I could do a lot quickly and then tell our compelling story creatively and energetically. In the end, the most important thing I will ever do for Franklin & Marshall is re-instill a sense of confidence and pride in the place, particularly among its alumni.
I acknowledged right away that we had some issues, but this was not a turnaround situation by any means. We started by looking at all those things that are just fabulous about F&M—our faculty, the physical campus and its location, its storied athletic program—and invested in those assets.
How did you intend to build that confidence?
There are many ways of going about this. Obviously, one way is tangible physical improvements, things such as the Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building and College Row. By sequencing these projects in the way I did, people kept seeing, year after year, that we had grown and done more. And that builds momentum, instills confidence, and makes people believe they can reach the next milestone. It feels like we are winning. So the physical changes were really key because we were able to convey in a short period of time the positive trajectory of the College.
Did you feel as if you had to get buy-in for changes?
The trustees asked me to provide strong leadership to this institution—straight-forward, no-nonsense, get things done. Identify the problems and resolve them. That's what I've done.
I think the College was ready for change, and the buy-in came quickly. I was pretty good at sizing up the challenges. i talked to a lot of people, made friends, solved small problems along the way, and gradually built trust and credibility. That prepared me to take on the big issues—faculty resources, residentiality, Greek life, neighborhood revitalization, the Life Sciences and Philosophy campaign, and the acquisition of Armstrong.
How much pushback did you get?
A fair amount of skepticism, but not much pushback. The first thing I did was to make the changes everyone wanted but were too polite to push for. The second thing was that I asked, "What do you really think?" And then we moved forward to implement the best of these suggestions, such as the Student Senate's request to move the bookstore back to campus and renovate Distler as its new home.
I also think I gained people's trust because of the way I do things. If I screw something up, I admit it right away. If someone has a better idea, then we adopt it and move on it. Over time, I've noticed that people are taking more ownership of the college's direction, and that is a profoundly good thing.
Developing Lancaster into more of a college town was one such idea. What was the community reaction?
It didn't take much to realize what we should have been doing all along to improve this neighborhood. I never really picked up negative feelings from the community about our ideas—again, just skepticism. Once people saw hat we were doing in terms of public safety, the City Life program [which encourages college employees to live in the neighborhoods surrounding F&M], and retail and residential development, it was incredibly well-received. The revitalization of Northwest Lancaster has been amazing.
What was your take on how the alumni viewed the College?
I found there were good feelings about personal experience but no strong sense of pride and love for the college. If you ask people what their F&M experience was like, they say, "I had great professors, wonderful friends, and terrific experiences.” But not much about Franklin & Marshall as a whole.
I don't want to change the fact that they adored that faculty member and that they had those great friends. I also want alumni to say they went to this incredible place called Franklin & Marshall, and boy, what a brilliant choice. Our priority is to establish among our students a love for and devotion to this place that will stay with them long after they are undergraduates.
Have you experienced any doubts along the way?
No. I believe that Franklin & Marshall has what it takes to move from an excellent, regional liberal arts college to a premier, nationally recognized one. All we need is the love and support of our alumni, parents, and friends.
Since I've been here, it's never occurred to me that something can't be done as long as we work and try as hard as we can. I believe there is no challenge that is too big for this college to take on.