PATRICK HARKER’S FIRST visit to the University of Delaware’s
campus occurred some 30 years ago when, as a high-school student,
he took a tour to see whether it seemed like the right choice for
an aspiring engineer who was also an outstanding football player.
He liked Delaware well enough but opted for an Ivy League education
at the University of Pennsylvania.
Harker came full circle when he returned to Delaware for a second
visit last year. This was a recruiting trip of a different sort.
Harker was on campus as a finalist for the university presidency,
and this time Delaware got its man. At the age of 48, Harker assumed
the top post on July 1.
In the three decades between the two visits, Harker built a distinguished—and
unusual—career that bridged the worlds of engineering and
business. After an injury during his junior year ended his days
playing defensive tackle, Harker focused more intensely on engineering.
A professor of civil engineering hired Harker to work in his lab
and encouraged him to write a paper that won a national competition
conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. “Football
opened the door to an Ivy League school for me,” says Harker,
who grew up in a working-class family in southern New Jersey. “Now,
here I was presenting a paper that opened the world to me.”
Harker also came under the wing of an adjunct faculty member who
ran an engineering consulting firm that had been hired to help redesign
the New York City subway system. The faculty member employed Harker
to work on the project.
“These experiences and the two faculty members changed the
way I thought about the world,” says Harker. “Getting
hurt playing football was probably the best thing that happened
to me. I learned that if you are open to opportunities, wonderful
things can happen.”
By the time he was a senior at Penn, Harker had begun graduate
work in civil engineering. He earned both master’s and doctoral
degrees in the field as well as a master’s in economics. After
he spent a year teaching at the University of California at Santa
Barbara, family considerations brought him back to the East Coast.
Harker had no intention of returning to Penn. In fact, he was ready
to take a position at another school when he received an offer from
his alma mater that was just too good to turn down. He joined the
faculty at Penn’s internationally known Wharton business school
in 1984 and eventually became the youngest faculty member at the
school to hold an endowed chair. At the same time, he held an appointment
at Penn’s engineering school, where in 1994 he was named chair
of the department of systems engineering.
Keeping one foot in business and the other in engineering suited
Harker. He eventually left the chairmanship of the systems engineering
department to head the operations and information management department
Early on, Harker’s research focused on transportation systems.
He received support from a major railroad to develop an algorithm-based
system to control the movement of trains. From controlling trains,
he switched to controlling the movement of customers. He developed
call centers for financial services enterprises. “Traffic
is traffic whether you are dealing with telephone calls or box cars,”
he explains. In both instances, Harker was designing large, complex
systems. “Engineering helped me to see how everything interrelates,”
he says. “I was looking at the relationship between technical
systems and economics, which also involved a lot of socioeconomic
aspects. I was attracted by the complexity of it.”
At one point, Harker took a year off from research and teaching
to serve as a White House Fellow. The prestigious program attracts
up to 1,000 applicants annually from whom a maximum of 19 are chosen
to work in government. Harker held the post of special assistant
to the director of the FBI, helping to oversee development of a
nationwide fingerprint system. “The Fellows program led me
to develop my own personal leadership skills,” he recalls.
“After that experience, I realized I could be good at leading.”
Nonetheless, he returned to Penn fully intending to resume his
research. But he found himself being asked to serve in various administrative
capacities, including deputy and then interim dean at Wharton. In
2000, he was named dean of the school. He presided over a 10 percent
expansion of the full-time faculty. Harker also took over a fund-raising
campaign in midstream and led it to a successful conclusion by raising
more than $450 million.
He expanded Wharton’s reach by opening a branch on the West
Coast and forming an alliance in global management education with
INSEAD, an international institution with campuses in Europe and
Asia. “The global market has been one of his themes,”
says Eduardo Glandt, dean of Penn’s engineering school.
Harker also took Wharton into both print and online publishing.
The biweekly online electronic newsletter knowledge@wharton provides
a wide range of information and research about business and has
more than half a million subscribers. “He is willing to take
risks and innovate,” says David Schmittlein, Wharton’s
A Leader Who Listens
has always had an aura of “gravitas,” says Glandt, who
was a young professor at Penn when Harker was still an undergraduate.
“He is a big guy with a lot of presence.” Harker stands
6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 220 pounds—on the smallish
side for a defensive tackle at a football powerhouse but not for
an Ivy Leaguer or someone who would become a university president.
Schmittlein says that Harker is aware of the impact of his physical
presence and will purposely slouch or make fun of himself in order
to come across as less imposing.
Those who have worked with Harker describe his management style
as “faculty-based.” Glandt says that Harker “comes
from the faculty and has never forgotten that. When deans from Penn
would meet, Pat’s words were informed by what his faculty’s
feelings were.” His concerns extended beyond the faculty,
however. Immediately after becoming Wharton’s dean, he instituted
a series of breakfasts for the school staff—people who were
often overlooked, even though they played a vital role in helping
the school run smoothly. “Sometimes a level of disrespect
was shown these people by tenured faculty,” says Schmittlein.
“But Pat was sending a message that everyone has a contribution
to make, and their contributions should not be taken for granted.”
Penn administrators say Harker is equally at home on campus and
off. “He is comfortable in his own skin,” says Glandt.
“He is relaxed and well spoken. He has been a rainmaker for
Over the years, Harker had been contacted about various university
presidencies, but the opening at Delaware was the first one he seriously
pursued. It appealed to him in part because the school has positive
momentum: It stands 67th among 124 national universities rated as
“top schools” in the annual rankings published by U.S.
News & World Report. “It is a gem of an institution,”
says Harker. “The citizens of Delaware are very supportive
of their institutions of higher education and see education as driving
economic growth and social progress in the state.”
taking the Delaware job, Harker became one of a relatively small
but growing number of engineers moving into top-tier university
administrative roles. For him, the move was also a family-friendly
one. Although Delaware is now the Harkers’ primary residence,
the family maintains a home in southern New Jersey, and his wife
continues to teach high school mathematics in Camden. Family is
very important to Harker, the father of three children. In fact,
he celebrated the news that he had won the Delaware job by attending
his daughter’s high school basketball game.
Howard E. Cosgrove, chairman of Delaware’s board of trustees,
says that the presidential search committee was impressed by Harker’s
openness and thoughtfulness. “He did not walk in with a set
agenda. He has the ability to assess an institution and then develop
an agenda.” Eric Kaler, dean of Delaware’s College of
Engineering and a member of the search committee, anticipates that
Harker will strengthen programs that bring together business and
engineering. “It is exciting to have a president with his
kind of experience,” Kaler says.
Delaware, which has an endowment of $1.2 billion, was the first
university in the nation to develop a program for studying abroad,
and Harker’s interest in global education is a natural fit.
Cosgrove says that in his discussions at Delaware, Harker “showed
an understanding of the global economy and the world, and that was
important to us. We wanted to find somebody to build on our strengths
and the accomplishments of our outgoing president, and Pat is a
builder with a strong commitment to higher education.”
Perhaps in part as a result of his years playing football, Harker
is accustomed to operating as part of a team. “I intend to
be careful and not impose my vision on Delaware,” he says.
“I plan to listen to people—to hear what they think
is great about the institution and what could be even greater and
then to build a consensus.”
Alvin P. Sanoff, a former managing editor of U.S. News &
World Report’s guides to colleges and graduate schools, was
a longtime Prism contributor. He died May 17 of pancreatic cancer
at age 65.