PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000

The Dragon Slayer 

The Dragon Slayer-Constantine Papadakis 

The aggressive and charismatic Constantive Papadakis, an engineer turned university president, has transformed troubled Drexel into a thriving urban campus.

By Kerry Hannon

It's only 7:30 a.m., but Constantine "Taki" Papadakis is already working the phones. The hard-charging 53-year-old president of Drexel University in West Philadelphia is crackling with energy. He's been on a tear since 5:00 a.m., with no plans to stop his breakneck speed for at least another 14 hours.

"You wanted to know about my traditional Cretan knife," he blares into the receiver. "I'll tell you it's used to kill people. It's 10 inches long, made of silver with an ivory handle and is inscribed with the saying 'Freedom or Death.' I use it for budget cuts," he says and bursts immediately into robust laughter. "Bye." Click.

The knife sits prominently on the coffee table in his wood-paneled, oriental-carpeted office at Drexel. The walls are covered with photos of Papadakis, who is of Cretan heritage, with Pope John Paul II, the Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Ridge, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and others. He has his framed "Papadakis laws" in full view. They include such notions as "If you can't beat them, join them . . . then beat them." And "Multiple projects lead to multiple successes." Outside the expansive office suite sits the "Dragon Bench," carved in the early 20th century from an oak tree by Drexel students. There are eight dragon squares in the back and four carved squares on the front. Two intricately carved dragon replicas festoon either arm.

Drexel and dragons have long been associated. It's the university symbol, after all. But the dragon is truly an apt symbol for a man who has whipped through this university in four years time and slain more than one dragon in his path, as corny as that may sound.

"He's a very dynamic, hands-on manager," says Chuck Pennoni, chairman of Drexel's board of trustees. "His engineering background has allowed him to become a good problem solver with the intuitive judgment that makes a good leader."

Diverse Background

Papadakis, a civil engineer who earned his degree from the National Technical University of Athens in Greece and holds a master's degree in civil engineering from the University of Cincinnati and a doctorate from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has taken Philadelphia and Drexel by storm. He knew what he wanted to study from the time he was about 13 years old. A neighbor attended the National Technology Institute—the MIT of Greece—and the youngster would watch him design bridges for class. Another influence was Papadakis' father, who was a hard-working physician. The son wanted a profession that would require a similar discipline.

Sure, he's an academic in many ways, having served as the dean of the college of engineering at the University of Cincinnati and head of the civil engineering department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins before coming to Drexel. But he's also done his time in the corporate world, with stints as the chief engineer of Bechtel, Inc. and as a vice president of Tetra Tech, a Honeywell subsidiary. Today, he is most certainly more businessman than academic.

In his fifth year as Drexel's president, Papadakis has demonstrated that he gleaned some crucial leadership and management skills from his time in the corporate trenches. He has managed to turn a university that was languishing in enrollment and fund-raising into a vibrant urban campus and earned the respect not only of alumni, but of the close-knit Philadelphia business community—not an easy accomplishment for an outsider.

"He's a decision maker," says Corbin McNeill, chairman of Philadelphia-based Peco Energy Corp. "He's quick and very focused. Moreover, his personality has allowed him to develop political support for the institution."

When Papadakis was recruited to take over the helm of the university founded in 1891 by financier Anthony J. Drexel, the school was rumored to be on the verge of closing its doors. But he has managed to turn the place upside down and stanch the bleeding. In the process, he has had to do some bloodletting, of course, and caused some controversy. In his first year alone he replaced 160 people in top positions, including vice-presidents, directors, and managers. Most recently, he hired a new dean of engineering, Selcuk Güceri [see box, below], from the University of Illinois at Chicago."We're trying to bring in the appropriate people to work with us," he says. "This could make us or break us. We don't have time to teach people to do the job. The word is urgency."

He's impatient, outspoken—blunt, in fact—fast on his feet and utterly charming when he has a story to tell. Nattily dressed in a sleek Hugo Boss blue pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt, gold cufflinks, and eye-popping canary yellow tie, he oozes success. That's what he sells. In this case, it's the success of Drexel. And he has the numbers to back up his pitch.

Vital Stats

Since 1995, full-time enrollment of undergraduates has blasted from 4,595 students to 8,462. Overall enrollment has climbed from 9,021 students to 12,015 last year. Applications for freshman enrollment have been jacked up from 3,513 in 1995 to 11,000 in 2000. The size of the faculty has pushed up to 343 from 283 four years ago. And in maybe the most important measure of a university president's success, the money is flowing in from alumni and others for much-needed funding to the tune of $24 million in 1999, up from $3 million in 1991.

As a result, Drexel has been able to begin to upgrade its aging campus, which is tucked up against the city's 30th Street train station, by spending $82.4 million since 1996. "I am a very good fund-raiser," he says. "I like to ask for money. But I didn't want the university to focus on that as the solution to our problems."

So what's the solution? "If we can recruit 100 new students a year that leaves on the table $1 million a year of tuition. It's easier to get those 100 students than gifts from alumni. Our major business is not fund-raising. Our product is education, and our bread and butter is the tuition of our students."

His concept is fairly simple. Students rule. Once you realize that you have a customer everything flows from it, he expounds. "The customer for us is the student. If we don't have the student, we aren't in business."

And if you were the chief executive officer of a company, chances are you would want to know how your customers felt. As a result, Papadakis encourages students to e-mail him directly and offers a $500 reward for the best suggestion to improve the university each year. He pops in unannounced for lunch with the students in the main cafeteria every few weeks as well.

Critics complain that he has moved too fast and that the campus infrastructure is wobbling under the onslaught of more students. The buildings and faculty just can't handle the numbers, they argue. Computer access is tight. Papadakis shrugs. "We're handling it," he says. "The students don't seem to mind. This is the way I operate. It's a standard. It comes with me. Opportunities do not fit other people's schedules. People who are complacent will never succeed."

Perhaps his most contested act was in the fall of 1998. Allegheny Health Systems declared bankruptcy along with its eight Philadelphia hospitals, and Tenet Healthcare of California came to the rescue with a $345 million deal. Tenet wanted an academic organization to manage the system's MCP Hahnemann School of Medicine and their three other professional schools. Drexel had no experience running a medical school, but agreed to sign on for two and a half years to see what they could do to turn the place around.

"This will change Drexel forever," boasts Papadakis. "We really did not have an outlet into health care. Allegheny was losing almost $1 million a day. The challenge was to turn it around and fast. We've already cut the losses substantially and next year expect to break even." But that is certainly an ambitious goal, sources say.

He thrives on disagreement. "I listen, but I don't like to reach a decision by consensus or through majority, boards and committees." That impedes the speed at which you can make things happen, he insists. "Why would the staff and faculty of Drexel put up with me?" he asks. "Because this works very well."

Problem Solver

The reinventing of Drexel University has a lot to do with Papadakis' training as an engineer. "Engineers are able to analyze a problem and its components, then solve the problem one component at a time," he says. "What I do best is that I am able to analyze circumstances that are fairly complex and make them simple enough for everybody in the organization to understand, whether they agree or disagree."

No doubt this frenetic, 5-foot, 11-inch stocky guy is a leader and revels in it. But leadership requires a lot of common sense, perseverance, and personal sacrifice, he says, admitting that he has only had one vacation during his Drexel tenure and works weekends on a regular basis.

So what's fun about this job? "We have 50 balls in the air, and it's an incredible feeling of accomplishment all the time," he booms. "Day after day you see things happening. Drexel was not in ruins, it just had lousy management."

The office is not the only place that Papadakis is goal-oriented. When his now 15-year-old daughter, Maria, was 3, he decided to learn to play the piano with her. "But she progressed so much faster than I did that I was completely intimidated and had to give it up," he remembers. It is one dragon he wasn't able to conquer.


Papadakis Reels In New Dean

New engineering dean Guceri chats with students. Photograph by I George BilykSelcuk Güceri has a passion for marine biology. He has two saltwater tanks and more than twenty fish of varying sizes at his home in Naperville, Illinois. "It's a challenge to create a pollution-free environment for the fish," he says. And moving them from Chicago to Philadelphia was a major worry.

Happily, the fish survived the move, and in late January Güceri assumed the mantle of dean of engineering at Drexel University. He got the job after an arduous three-year search by President Papadakis and his team. There had been a lot of hemming and hawing over who would be the chosen individual to run the prestigious department, which has long been considered the heart and soul of the university. But Güceri, 53, ran through the process in less than four weeks.

As a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the department head for the past six years, and having spent 17 years before that at the University of Delaware, Güceri is well versed in the worlds of academia and engineering. A native of a small coal mining town in Turkey, he comes from a family of engineers including his mother, father, and brother. It's in his blood, and always on his mind. Even the movement of a fish is an engineering feat, he says: "You have to revel in the structure of their bodies."

Why take on the task of helping Drexel regain its position as one of the nation's leading engineering schools? "What attracted me is how dramatically things have turned around at Drexel," he says. "It's nothing less than a miracle in the last few years. There's a tremendous momentum. It's a rare opportunity to work for an institution that has such an excellent and rapid progression."

Güceri has some big challenges as the new dean on campus, and his first priority is finding the right people for his faculty. He expects to add at least 40 new people to his staff in the next five years and replace more than 50 percent of the existing engineering faculty. The other huge hurdle is improving the infrastructure. A new engineering building is planned and about $40 million has been earmarked to renovate and improve campus labs.

So besides the fish, what calms the new dean? "Work. I find it relaxing to come to the office," he says. Sounds like a certain Drexel president, no?

Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.