John Fry reflects on his eight years as F&M's president
President John Fry described his decision to leave Franklin & Marshall College to become Drexel University's president as bittersweet. He and his wife, Cara, and their three children, Mia, Nathaniel and Phoebe, have called Lancaster and the F&M campus home since 2002, when Fry took the reins as F&M's 14th president.
Described by Dale Frey '54, chairman of the Board of Trustees, as "a visionary and remarkably effective and energetic leader of Franklin & Marshall College," Fry will depart on June 30 after a tenure during which he oversaw enormous programmatic and physical changes, built new coalitions and boosted institutional self-confidence, and energized the student body, faculty, professional staff and alumni.
In an engaging and thoughtful question-and-answer session, he shared his reflections, talked about the people at F&M and offered some advice for his successor.
How would you define your legacy?I feel very strongly that this is a legacy of a broad coalition of people that I was privileged to lead. The enormity of what has been done could only have been accomplished by a talented and dedicated group of people. It's often the case that people will be kind and give me a lot of the credit, and I immediately turn around and say the reason things have gone so well is because we've had an ethos of teamwork and shared commitment to the College. You can't ever overvalue that type of commitment.
Were the many physical changes to campus an integral part of your plan?
In a funny way, the plan had very little to do with physical changes, other than the fact that physical changes get people's attention. There was a clear strategy to build momentum, restore confidence and move the place to another level. To give the wake-up call, we needed some big visible wins and projects. And frankly they needed to be tangible. People needed to be able to touch them, participate in them, walk in them.
The bookstore was a quick win with great student leadership and participation. The Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building showed that, if we put our mind to it, we could raise $50 million and build a university-level, multidisciplinary, academic building. That surprised people because it wasn't something we thought we could do.
For me, the physical pieces had to be done, but real success has to do with people. It's how the faculty and the students work together, whether in academic settings or now in residential settings such as the College House system. It's how the faculty, students and professional staff work with their neighbors to build a stronger community. If you look at where the real money has been spent, where the real effort has been made and how the real success has been garnered, it has been in how well- supported people feel in their work here.
Some people point to the greatest change as the energy level at the College. Have you helped change that?I think I have unleashed it. It was there. A lot of the same people who are here now were here in 2002. Many more have joined us. I saw the potential, but it felt bottled up. I think that people had to ask permission for everything and were terribly risk-averse. They couldn't do cool stuff without checking with a lot of people. Hopefully that culture has begun to melt away and has been replaced with a culture where people are ambitious for the place, want to do big, impactful things and don't feel the need to ask 20 people to move their ideas forward. That is what we unleashed, and it's been powerful.
It's more important to try things even if they don't always work out than to wait until you have every last risk buttoned down because that usually means you have missed the opportunity. I feel we are much less risk-averse but still prudently and thoughtfully managed. Some of the projects we have taken on would have made some people run the other way. I'm proud that the College met these challenges square on and got the work done.
It's nice to be sitting in office hours eight years later and having new kids come in and talk about their dreams for the College. One of the great aspects of a college like ours is the constant renewal. As long as you are feeding that renewal, the place is always going to feel young and spirited and full of life. If you freeze in place the practices that we've had and say these are hallowed traditions and nothing can change them, then you're going to eventually have an institution that feels fossilized. Franklin & Marshall feels different now.
We are in a confidence cycle that has been building and building, and there is no reason that the departure of one person should change that. The confidence the College now possesses is one of the great gifts that must be preserved and protected.
Has the College's profile been raised?
Our many innovations have resulted in a lot of visibility for the College. And, practically speaking, the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, which does great work on timely important public policy issues and elections, has helped raise the visibility. I feel that when you talk to the people who really understand American higher education and are really thoughtful observers, they have always had a high regard for Franklin & Marshall in terms of quality and rigor, and I think now they are seeing even more in terms of the national impact the place is having. Putting all the polls and news articles aside, the bottom line is that, when you measure substantively and with data, the impact and visibility of our college has dramatically increased.
Given your somewhat nontraditional background, how did you work with the F&M faculty and how did they influence you?I had the good sense early on not to take their initial trepidation as a personal reproach, because the faculty did not know me. I went out and met them in groups and individually, making a lot of good friendships that I know I will carry the rest of my life. As I worked with faculty across the College, they came to this realization: "Maybe he doesn't come from a traditional place, but he sure is a good colleague and a good friend, and he has my back." The first couple years were about making good on the commitments I made to faculty, whether it was adding 40 new faculty positions to bring our student-faculty ratio down to 10:1, or building and renovating new spaces to facilitate their research and teaching.
I always had the belief that shared governance and collegial decision-making were not just quaint notions about an idealized academy, but a real way of living out good leadership at this college. There aren't many things of any consequence that I've done where I wasn't having real conversations with facultyÑnot because the handbook said to do it but because I thought the ideas would get better if faculty had substantive input.
Just look at the College House system. From my white paper to what we have today is about a thousand times better. But it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't at one point turned it over to the faculty and to Kent Trachte [dean of the College] and to the students and said, "I've got this thing as far as I can get it in my mind, why don't you take it for a spin?" And look at the result of their workÑsimply fantastic!
What has impressed you most about F&M students?The single great characteristic of Franklin & Marshall students is that, when students come in with a problem, they come in with a solution or proposal, too. They are very earnest in wanting to address the shortcoming or show you how they can seize the opportunity. I've dealt with students at other institutions where they came in and handed you the problem. But the F&M students consistently want to be a part of making it better and to be the authors of these solutions. That's very much a Ben Franklin characteristic. It's not just identifying the problem or explaining the theory; it's talking about the application of practical solutions.
Have you seen progress in the College's efforts to better engage its alumni?
I have seen it change, but there's still an overhang. I haven't talked to many F&M graduates who have said they personally had a bad experience at the College. In fact, it's quite the opposite. They had faculty they really treasured, they met their spouses here, they have friends that 20 or 30 years later they still see. But they were local experiences—the fraternities, sororities, athletic teams. Their experiences didn't seem to translate to love of alma mater.
Often times alumni feel that the place doesn't get enough recognition and are frustrated with that. But if you look at the places that do get the recognition, their alumni embrace the institution as much as they embrace their local experiences. I don't think many of our alumni have done that. For those who are still lamenting certain things about the institution, I say, "Get over it, and get involved." For a guy who didn't go to Franklin & Marshall, it didn't take me long to realize what a jewel this place is. All alumni should treasure the giftsÑintellectual, social, cultural, athleticÑgiven to them by their College.
Was there ever a point during your presidency when you thought to yourself, "Wow, this is a pretty cool job"?
I cannot think of a day that I wasn't really happy and excited to drop the kids off at school and come to work. I've never had a bad day at the office at F&M. Each and every day I carried this gift of being the president of this place, I thought, "Don't take it for granted. This is something very few people have the chance and privilege to do."
A couple of things stand out: Awarding the women their diplomas after they won the National Championship lacrosse game last spring was great. The year before I only gave out one diploma, and the team had just lost. I remember saying to the team that we'll be back here a year from now and it'll be different. Last year I reminded them of my prediction, congratulated everyone and then just watched the room explode with cheers, emotion and pride. That was one of those moments when you thought, "Wow, what a great convergence of academics, athletics and college spirit."
Another moment was when I took my son for a walk on campus last June after everything had quieted down. Keith [Keith Orris '81, vice president for administrative services and business, government and community relations] at one point joined us. And we just walked the campus for about three hours, and I was showing my son the projects. We were making notes and thinking about what we were going to do. I remember thinking at the end of the walk that this feels really good. I remember thinking that was a nice indulgence for me to have that kind of time with my son to point out what it takes to do these types of things. Again, the physical projects are easy markers for the much more profound progress that I think has been made.
What was it like for you and your family to be a part of the F&M community and what will they miss?
I think in many respects this is an ideal community. It's full of really smart, engaged people who love what they do and are glad to be here. What better environment is there in the United States than the environment of a liberal arts college with the freedom to explore all sorts of things, the opportunity to live in a community, the opportunity to push yourself really hard, the opportunity to work individually but also as part of a team? Frankly I can think of no better place for my kids. I think they will just miss being kids on this campus. They have always been around for so many great events. One of the really nice things is that my son has been adopted by some of the squash and tennis players and coaches and he works out with them on a regular basis. That's been very heart-warming to me because it reinforces the importance of growing up in a community like this. I think our kids will look back at this as a very happy time in their lives.
The White House has a tradition where the outgoing president leaves a note for the incoming president. If you were to leave such a note to the next F&M president, what would it say?I haven't composed it yet, but I will take some time with this. The first thing I'll say is to make sure you cherish this place and take it personally. It's not a job. It's a mission and a calling. Be sure you're ready to devote your full self to it, not just the hours.
The second thing is to always think in three time dimensions. Think about what you are doing right now to impact the experience of our students, think about 5 or 10 years from now and how you want to set this place up for whoever comes after you, and think about 50 years from now in terms of how you're going to move the institution forward generationally.
The third thing is that at the same time you are devoting yourself to this job, don't overdo it. Your family is first. If you are not around and you are not a real mom or a real dad and doing things with your spouse or your partner, then you are not going to be enough of a person to do this job. It's very important to go home and turn it off, take real vacations and have a real life beyond the College. It's the only way to avoid burnout and to truly re-energize yourself.