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Class Assignment: Jump In and Help Your City Meet Its Challenges

By John Fry (excerpted from Higher Education Today)

For the past seven years, I’ve worked at a university that is about as far removed as possible from an ivory-tower institution.

Drexel University was founded 125 years ago within a short walk of one of the nation’s great rail hubs, now housed in Amtrak’s 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. We are at the confluence of major highways, and the bustle of urban life is all around us. That was intentional: Wall Street pioneer Anthony J. Drexel wanted his institution of higher learning to be deeply connected to the rapidly industrializing U.S. economy, and to educate young people to become its leaders.

That heritage still drives who we are at Drexel today: pioneers of experiential learning, innovative and entrepreneurial. And our heritage also buttresses my belief that, as an anchor institution, we cannot achieve true academic excellence without engaging with our city and working to meet its many challenges.

That is why I accepted the opportunity last fall to become chairman of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia—the first time in its 210-year history that this group has been led by a nonprofit executive. While many of my colleagues at urban colleges and universities will find it unusual that I took on a high-profile business-community assignment, I would make the case that more of us should be doing just that.

Academic leaders should understand that universities hold the future to many regional economies, and that their leadership makes sense, because, in essence, these anchor institutions are the economy—fueling growth through commercialization and entrepreneurship, providing a talented workforce for the businesses that thrive there.

Looking around their own campuses, my colleagues also see some of the same promise and peril. From anywhere on Drexel’s campus, for instance, you are only blocks away from neighborhoods where two jobs may not be enough to make ends meet and the poverty rate approaches 40 percent.

Nearby, there is another world: the rich environment of the University City district, with universities, hospitals, research centers and entrepreneurs. There are 76,000 jobs in this center of activity, but most go to people who live somewhere else. That these two worlds exist blocks apart illustrates the enormous contradictions we live with. It’s why some have likened Philadelphia to “A Tale of Two Cities.”

By the very nature of where Drexel’s campus sits—and where our students live—we must help tackle these problems. All the more so, because we are devoted to preparing a workforce for the new innovation economy.

Read the full piece in Higher Education Today

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