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Death of a University Builder

April 7, 2009

Some college presidents are caretakers; they take over established institutions and manage them competently for a while before passing the reins to the next leader. Others are more ambitious, coming into a college or university with grand plans and, depending on their skill and how the stars align, succeed or fail modestly, or more.

And then there are the transformers -- the relatively atypical leaders who step in at what may or may not otherwise have been a key moment and turn it into one, radically altering the institution's mission or stature or visibility in the higher education universe. Think John Silber at Boston University, and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg at George Washington University.

Or Constantine N. Papadakis at Drexel University, who died suddenly Sunday from pulmonary complications while in remission from lung cancer, three days after the university granted him medical leave. Like many other leaders of his type, Papadakis was described with the kinds of adjectives that can be positive or negative, depending on who's using them: "hard-charging," "larger than life," "visionary," "hands on." A 2005 Wall Street Journal article bore the headline "How Dr. Papadakis Runs a University Like a Company" -- fighting words to many a faculty.

While Papadakis pushed hard on the kinds of changes that often run afoul of faculty leaders -- Drexel created a for-profit arm to expand and manage the university's online offerings, for instance, while a roughly similar experiment failed at New York University and another is running into major troubles now at the University of Illinois -- he generally managed to avoid such turmoil, in part because the turnaround he engineered at Drexel was seen as generally improving the interests of the academic enterprise.

The university's academic profile shot up, as did its research income and expenditures, and perhaps most importantly, he took an institution that had been in financial turmoil and put it on sound footing -- so much so, its board chairman notes, that it has been unscathed in the current economic downturn.

"This university is not laying off faculty, we're not freezing salaries, we're not asking faculty to take salary cuts," Richard A. Greenawalt, the head trustee, said in an interview Monday. "It was often said that he ran the university somewhat like a business, and I say thank goodness he understood the business of higher education. We're seeing struggles right now at a lot of schools where perhaps leadership did not understand the real financial implications of how you can run a school, not only in great times, but in tough times, too. He was very well aware of the ups and downs."

Papadakis came to Drexel in 1995 after stints as an engineering department chair and dean, respectively, at Colorado State University and the University of Cincinnati, respectively, following more than a decade in private industry. At the time, Drexel was in decline -- enrollment at an all-time low, facilities crumbling, faculty and staff without a raise for three years.

Through a process that David Thornburgh, who worked closely with Papadakis as a longtime civic leader in Philadelphia, describes as "strategic impatience," Papadakis, widely known as Taki, aggressively pursued change, but change based on a "quick but effective assessment of realities."

"We were never in a position to just throw money at new ventures," added Greenawalt, the board chairman. "There was always a measured review of what the costs are of doing various initiatives."

One by one, Papadakis took on and largely succeeded at a series of projects of the sort that, when done elsewhere, have been presidency-killers: taking over management of a failing academic medical center in 1998, which formed the basis for Drexel's medical school in 2002; the creation of a law school, which is graduating its first class this spring; and the spinoff of a for-profit subsidiary to manage the university's online education offerings.

Drexel's most recent bold step -- the opening of a graduate center in California, possibly to be followed by the establishment of a full-fledged branch campus in the student-rich West -- is just getting under way and remains largely untested.

But taken together, his initiatives, many of which were controversial at the start, have "completely transformed Drexel into one of our nation’s more entrepreneurial teaching and research universities," Amy Gutmann, president of Drexel's Philadelphia neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, said in a prepared statement. "He was a commanding visionary who never rested on the laurels of Drexel’s gains, however meteoric. Rather, he kept raising the bar by taking the boldest strategic risks for the sake of his students, faculty, and staff." (He also was among the few higher education leaders to go toe-to-toe with a politician whom many of them complained about -- New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo -- over the 2007 student loan controversy. The bravado didn't last, though.)

Many college presidents who are seen as go-getters with a business orientation (and who are paid like it) tend to run afoul of faculty members on their campuses, in part because "faculty like to be above the 'dirty' financing," said Michael C. Kennedy, chair of the University Faculty Senate and professor and chair of the department of health sciences and health administration at Drexel. "But a lot of people here realize that you can't do much of anything without finances, and that we're remarkably better off than conditions were when he took over, when Drexel was in dire straits. Over all, the impression is that people felt he was doing a lot, and helping the university in many ways."

Faculty members who might have questioned the wisdom of Drexel's and Papadakis's ideas at various points are probably inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt now, Greenawalt said, given that the university has managed raise pools averaging 5 percent a year for a decade and is averting economic difficulties now as many wealthier and older institutions struggle. "For any who might have been doubting in the early days, I don't think you'd find many who don't think he's done right by the university," the board chairman said.

The tendency of many institutions that have had charismatic, extremely ambitious leaders is to replace them with more managerial types, people who will build on the growth of their predecessors but take a lower-key approach. Greenawalt said Monday that it was premature to talk about Drexel's "next steps," because its energies were focused on Papadakis's family and the mourning of its staff and students.

He did say, that the university is in "good hands," with the board having appointed as interim president C.R. (Chuck) Pennoni, who preceded Greenawalt as chairman of the Board of Trustees and served as interim president in the months before Papadakis became president 14 years ago. He will carry out the five-year strategic plan that the board and Papadakis developed, Greenawalt said.

But Thornburgh, who watched Drexel grow as head of the Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and is now executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, said it was a "generally accepted theory for institutions that have a period of incredible innovation to sit back, consolidate their gains, and bring in more of a manager type." But "I'm not sure that's either true or healthy," said Thornburgh. "If you build a culture of institutional change, you can't just flip a switch and say, 'Enough, let's sit back and consolidate, be caretakers.' Drexel under Taki has managed a real combination of ambition and strategic assessment, and that's hard to pull off.

"But they've done marvelous things for that university and for the city and community that Taki was very much a part of," he said, "and I think it would be hard for them -- and maybe a mistake -- to change course right now."

 

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