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Leadership, Papadakis-styleBY: Dan Rottenberg 04.13.2009
Drexel University’s late president Constantine Papadakis was walking evidence that a single determined individual can still make a big difference— as I discovered during my very first meeting with him.
A lesson from Papadakis:
Constantine Papadakis was walking evidence that a single determined individual can still make a big difference. When he assumed the presidency in 1995, Drexel University was a struggling technical school with a declining enrollment; when he died of cancer last week at the age of 63, Papadakis left a comprehensive research university that includes a medical school, a law school, a school of education and an undergraduate liberal arts program. On his watch Drexel’s enrollment grew from barely 9,000 students to more than 20,000; its endowment from $90 million to $500 million; its annual grants for research from $14 million to more than $100 million.
For better or worse, “Taki,” as he was known, brought to Drexel the energy of a steamroller and the audacious notion that higher education ought to be run like a business. That meant, among other things, a top-down chain of command; treating students as customers and professors as employees (when a group of professors asked to be part of his strategic planning effort, Taki told them, “Fine. Give up your tenure. If we fail, we fail together”); demanding an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay (upon his arrival Taki eliminated Drexel’s quaint summer tradition of three-day weekends); devoting much greater attention to marketing and on-line courses; and breaking down the wall that traditionally separated liberal arts from the so-called “practical” subjects like business, law, medicine and technology.
It was Taki’s shrewd perception that, in a rapidly changing world, a narrowly technical school like Drexel couldn’t remain relevant unless it broadened its scope. That vision related directly to his hard-nosed observation that enrolling ten thousand more students for five years each at $25,000 per year would generate far greater rewards (financial and otherwise) than hitting up foundations and philanthropists for $10 million here or there. (You do the math.) Taki was the spiritual descendant of Henry Ford, who observed, “Cut your own wood and you warm yourself twice.”
An unproven concept
That Papadakis placed Drexel on a sound financial footing seems beyond dispute. The merits of his corporate approach to education remain to be proven. His critics have argued that Drexel’s rapid expansion has resulted in large classes, cramped teaching spaces and overstretched faculty, all of which have compromised the quality of its education. Time will tell whether Taki’s vision works in the long run. But for the moment, allow me simply to relate one small example of Taki’s brand of leadership from my own personal experience.
In 1976, while working on a magazine article about J.P. Morgan & Co., I became curious about the famous investment bank’s little-known founder— no, not the great J.P. Morgan, but Morgan’s senior partner, the Philadelphia banker Anthony Drexel, later the founder of Drexel University. (The House of Morgan actually was created in 1871 as Drexel & Co.’s New York branch, styled Drexel, Morgan & Co.) Over the next 20 years I gathered research about the reclusive Anthony Drexel in the hope of writing his biography. But the project remained on my back burner for lack of funding or interest from a publisher.
Shortly after Papadakis became president of Drexel, he was heard to wonder aloud why no one had written a biography of Anthony Drexel. In due course someone referred him to me and I found myself sitting in his office. On the basis of that single meeting he arranged for a research grant that enabled me to devote serious time to a book proposal that ultimately attracted an enthusiastic publisher. But Taki didn’t treat the grant as a gift: It was a business deal, in exchange for which I would grant Drexel University a cut of the royalties.
Taki plants an idea
In the course of that first conversation, Taki remarked, “I want a book that, when I pick it up, I won’t be able to put it down!” My immediate instinct was to reply: “You can’t commission something like that. Anthony Drexel is what he is. If he’s a boring guy, I can’t make him sexy.” But for some reason I said nothing of the sort. Instead I told myself: “That’s an interesting challenge. Let me see if I can meet it.”
The result was The Man Who Made Wall Street, a page-turner (my opinion, to be sure) published in 2001 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. This biography of a most unsexy banker sold 7,000 copies in hardback (an awesome figure for an academic press) and has passed the 15,000 mark in paperback. Drexel University has recouped much of its investment and has bought its own supply of books to distribute as gifts to its graduates and donors. By spending a little money and planting the seed of an idea in my mind, Papadakis got his school a valuable marketing tool. And I, of course, got a work that may actually outlive me.
Now, that’s what I call leadership.
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