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THE SPIRITUALITY OF INNOVATION: EPISCOPAL ACADEMY MURPHY LECTURE

Lecture by President John A. Fry, March 4, 2013

Good morning, everyone.

I want to start by telling you how honored I am to deliver this year’s Maura Murphy Lecture. It’s a daunting invitation, to be asked to offer my thoughts on your moral and emotional development, when you’re already such an impressive community of young people.

And it feels like an especially weighty challenge to speak in a place as spiritual as the amazing Class of 1944 Chapel. But fortunately, this particular building serves as a great lead-in to my theme, which is this: In order to find both spiritual and worldly success, you have to cultivate not just ideas, but the skills and the fortitude to make something real out of those ideas. That is the great journey of life, and one of the most important ways of creating a legacy for yourself.

In short, creativity is the spark, but once you have a great or a true idea, you’re just starting down a long and sometimes difficult road to changing the world. We call that road “Innovation,” and it is a never-ending road if we approach it in the right way.

It is a road fraught with great challenges and risks; lined with struggle and disappointment; but filled with moments of exhilaration, joy and the sweet sense of knowing that your life has clear and deep purpose, which is to serve others and society by adding value in a way that only you could do, based on the power of your ideas and your willingness and ability to drive them into action.

That is the way to lead a life worth living. That is a way to honor God and your families and friends.

So let’s come back to the Class of 1944 Chapel again. At educational institutions, we have a lot of buildings and open spaces named after graduating classes. That’s mostly in honor of the generosity of individuals, families and foundations.

But I know this chapel comes by its name in a different way, because it was designed by a member of Episcopal’s class of ’44, one of the absolute masters of modern architecture, Robert Venturi.

Mr. Venturi is a vivid example for our conversation this morning about the importance of ideas, and how to develop and champion your own ideas until they qualify as innovation. Few people have been more single-minded in the pursuit of their ideas than Robert Venturi, even as he created awesomely practical buildings that we can live and work in.

So I was fascinated to learn the story—one I’m sure many of you know—about his master’s thesis at Princeton, which he completed in 1950. The subject? A chapel for the Episcopal Academy.

That 1950 design was never built, but 50 years later, at long last, this building is a wonderful and thoroughly modern creation by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates.
 
It’s not hard to imagine a visionary like Robert Venturi turning over the idea of a chapel for his alma mater, in some corner of his mind, for more than half a century. And when you stay committed to your own ideas, and you work to develop them, you’ll often discover that the right time eventually comes along.

Staying with Mr. Venturi for a moment, several years ago, Drexel bought a building he designed in the 1980s. I got to work with him and his partner and wife, Denise Scott Brown, as we created the URBN Center, a home for our Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, the creative hub of so much of the innovative work that we do at Drexel.

I understand that two of Antoinette Westphal’s granddaughters are members of the student body at Episcopal Academy, her namesake, Toni Radcliffe, and Kailey Radcliffe. They’re part of a wonderful and far-sighted family, one that has meant so much to Drexel.

The building we bought was perhaps the most famous example of what Mr. Venturi called the “Decorated Shed.” To Bob, that means an extremely practical and adaptable space, one that advertises itself with an attractive but otherwise utilitarian façade.

But in this building on our campus, that basic façade comes to life because of a remarkably sophisticated cantilevered beam, hidden to the eye, that allows the corner over the entrance to extend out into space. So you stand on the street, looking at this unremarkable box, and suddenly you realize that one corner of the building is floating in the air with no visible means of support. And you wonder, as I did, “How did he do that?”

And that’s the genius of it, so much so that the architects we hired to renovate the building—very thoughtful people, and highly respected in their own right—proposed cutting windows in the side of the building to expose that famous beam.

On the one hand that made a lot of sense to us, and for that building, which was to be Drexel’s home base for design. By exposing and celebrating the execution of great design, we could make the building itself into a teaching tool, and celebrate the most innovative feature of this famous Venturi building.

But on the other hand, the idea went against the very grain of the decorated shed concept, which said that form should not speak more loudly than function. And Mr. Venturi spoke up about that himself, respectfully but firmly, when we asked him.

He was complimentary of, and open to, almost all the ideas our architects had to alter the interior of the building. He recognized that this was a living building, to be inhabited by future innovators in the fields of architecture, gaming, product design and many more dynamic fields.

But when it came to his core animating idea, his great innovation, Bob still believed in it, and he championed it. And we listened to him, along with other architects and preservationists who felt similarly, and we left the beam, the “form,” unexposed, and led with function.

So today, let’s talk about how you can take ownership of your own ideas, and make them into reality through your own innovations. Because if you don’t, no one else will. And maybe you’ll remember that each time you step into this chapel, and think of Bob Venturi.

Let’s not minimize the fact that you start this journey with some great advantages. First and foremost is this wonderful institution, Episcopal Academy.

Each year at Drexel, we look forward to the arrival of Episcopal graduates in our fall freshman class. Over the past five years, we’ve over 20 students from Episcopal enter Drexel. And they’ve all been successful, and have added character and dimension to our student body.

I hope that some of you will follow in their footsteps and join us on our “bursting-with-vitality,” rapidly growing University City Campus.

EA has in turn been well led and stewarded over many years. Let me take a moment to recognize your Head of School, Ham Clark.

I know that this is his last year at Episcopal after a long, inspired and successful tenure. Ham, I wish you the best of luck at the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. Even in ending this chapter in your career, you’ve set a great example for your students, by taking on such an exciting and interesting post that will stretch and challenge you.

And I’m confident that Episcopal’s search committee has found a great new leader in Dr. T.J. Locke, who comes here fresh off his own incredibly challenging role, heading up the Isidore Newman School in post-Katrina New Orleans. The future of Episcopal Academy remains in great hands.

Let me also acknowledge Reverend Squire. I know that he’s the moral and spiritual heart of this school. I also understand that he’s deeply involved with Episcopal’s unique educational focus on bioethics. That sets a great example, a man of spirit tying his life’s work to critical real-world questions.

Reverend, thank you for inviting me to Chapel today.

I also want to thank my dear friend and neighbor, Winnie Doherty, who so kindly extended me this invitation to speak to you.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Bob Mascioli for his generous introduction. Bob is not only an Episcopal grad, but a member of the quintessential Drexel University family.

You’ve probably seen our Drexel dragon. In fact, he is named for Bob’s late father Mario, one of our greatest alumni and most generous benefactors.

I believe that Bob is actually the only one of Mario’s four children not to graduate from Drexel. But he more than made up for that as the founding director of our Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship in Technology.

Entrepreneurship, or how to bring ideas to life in the real world, is one of the driving concepts at Drexel right now, and it forms the basis for the discussion I’m having with you today. And way back at the turn of the century, Bob helped to create a culture of entrepreneurship at Drexel that is flowering right now.

So thank you, Bob.

Let me also acknowledge the great example set by the Murphy family and friends, who created this annual lecture in honor of Maura.

As a parent, I can’t imagine what you went through, except that it’s the worst experience life could hand us. To turn such a tragic loss into a lasting legacy shows incredible grace. I believe that the success and longevity of this lecture reflects the impact Maura had in her life, which was too short, but obviously filled with love and great experiences. I am honored to help perpetuate her memory.

Finally, let me thank all of the students, faculty members and professional staff present this morning for listening to me, and hopefully speaking to me as well. This is a great opportunity for me to take the pulse of an institution that produces exactly the type of students that Drexel wants, and that I believe higher education and society need.

So what type of students am I talking about?

In short, I’m talking about young men and women who can see themselves as innovators and entrepreneurs. Now when I say the word “entrepreneur,” you probably think first and foremost of someone launching their own business.

That’s certainly a major expression of entrepreneurship, and we’re deeply committed to helping Drexel students and faculty start businesses. But in recent years, we’ve come to see a broader definition of entrepreneurship.

Number one, it’s a habit of mind and attitude. Just as you’ve learned through practice to study effectively, to write well, and to think critically in order to succeed in your classes, you can learn a set of lifelong skills that will help you pursue innovation in everything you do, whether it’s a new venture you will conceive and grow, or a new way of doing work in a large, complex organization that needs a fresh perspective.

Number two, entrepreneurship is an approach to life. That approach is built around innovative thinking, taking calculated risks, always thinking and acting ahead and doing something to “pay it forward”, given the many graces and advantages each of you now enjoys.

Number three, entrepreneurship is the process through which you create or recognize the opportunity to pursue something of value, regardless of the resources available, or the challenges and risks that lie ahead.

The world desperately needs entrepreneurial skills in every activity, in every organization, in every challenge. At Drexel, we believe this way of thinking is so important to the future that we want to give every student access to classes and programs that will help them think innovatively and entrepreneurially.

So we’ve just created the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship. The Close School is a way to make sure that all our majors, from business to science to healthcare and design, embrace entrepreneurship as a way to think, learn and act.

We also plan to have the Close School develop joint degrees with our other colleges, so that we can say that Drexel is the number one place in the nation to educate, for example, entrepreneurial engineers, fashion designers, research scientists, nurses, teachers or public servants.

Our ultimate goal is to encourage our students and faculty to pursue their passions, and make their best ideas reality by embracing innovation and practicing entrepreneurship.

One of our first undertakings to build this innovative culture will be to launch an Entrepreneurship Living-Learning Community. The Living-Learning Community is a very successful residential model that brings students with a common interest together in residence halls. You’ll find them at a number of colleges and universities, sometimes called College Houses, like the residential system we created at Franklin & Marshall, where I served as president before Drexel.

I strongly recommend that you look into such communities if you go off to a residential university. They offer mentorship and activities built around that common interest, and they can help you expand your learning and build bonds that last through college and beyond.

For example, imagine the power of an entire floor of Drexel students who are studying in many different majors, but connected together by a strong desire to innovate and start new ventures.
I expect we’ll see a pretty competitive group. But I also think we’ll see some collaborations that will go in different and more interesting directions than the participants might have gone on their own.

I’ve talked a bit about what we’re doing at Drexel, because I’m so excited by our efforts. But I firmly believe that the focus on innovation and entrepreneurship is critical to higher education, and to the future of our nation. Other universities are right alongside Drexel in recognizing that, and I think many more will follow soon.

And that’s good news for you, our next generation of leaders and community builders. Because as I said earlier, I believe that an innovative, entrepreneurial outlook should extend beyond business or career or academic aspirations.

On the central questions of life, of spirituality and morality and basic right and wrong, you have spent the past several years developing your own ideas, I’m sure.

You’ve done so with the guidance of your parents and your families. You’ve had the help of spiritual mentors like Mr. Clark and Reverend Squire, and all the wonderful teachers and coaches here at Episcopal Academy.

But still, ultimately those ideas of right and wrong, of fairness and charity, are your own. And so is the responsibility to put them into action in your life, to make sure that the moral compass you’re developing is reflected not only in the things you say, but in what you actually do, and especially the way you treat others, including those who are less fortunate and in true need of help.

Another way to put this is “Esse Quam Videri,” your school’s motto.

Your most important innovation is you.

And I believe that the things that we’re teaching about innovation, at Drexel and elsewhere, are relevant to the great, ongoing project of your formation: things like how to make a plan, and create milestones for your development, and adjust those milestones as necessary; how to communicate your ideas in a way that not only helps others understand what you’re saying, but encourages them to buy into your plan, to put their talents alongside yours; how to cope with change, and actually turn unexpected developments and setbacks into advantages; and how to stay with the idea when it gets difficult to carry out, because you know you’ve done your homework and you’re on the right path.

So consider adding one more “character stripe” to EA’s list: “innovation.”

I’d like to know what you think about the innovation process, and any other subjects you want to discuss. So let me thank you all once again for your attention and the opportunity to be here, and let me open up the floor to any questions you have may have.