Pulse: Sam Katz’s Power Lunch: Quick Study

Between meetings, Drexel president Taki Papadakis schools Sam Katz (over salads) on creating an A-list university

If you have the resources, you can buy quality and have a better university — better services, better faculty, more programs. There are two categories of universities — the "haves" and the "have nots." Drexel used to be in the middle of the "have nots"; today we’re at the top of the "have nots." But we’re still "have nots” compared to Ivy League universities. The gap is wide and gets bigger. So our strategy has been to grow faster than the "haves." I benchmark against 25 universities [such as Boston, USC, MIT, and  Penn]. My goal is simple: Grow faster. Revenues, research grants and contracts. And we’ve done it. Drexel is number one in growth, and has been consistently. This is our way of closing the gap. It can’t be done through conventional means. We can’t compete head to head by offering the same programs and competing on quality and services. We could only succeed competing by deploying unconventional means.

Like what? We acquired a company called Math Forum to help tutor students in math and science. Drexel eLearning will, we think, be a huge educational business for us and for many students. We started the ASP company in information technology to provide services to smaller universities like Cabrini and Neumann — seven customers in total. We provide the back office and IT service to a university in downtown Buffalo with a couple thousand students. Each of the enterprises contributes to Drexel’s financial health. Plus we keep our IT professionals engaged in interesting and challenging stuff and that has enabled us to keep them at Drexel. And these businesses make a lot of money.

How is Drexel getting ahead of the curve in addressing educational methods? We are starting an institute of innovation in teaching and learning and hope to be operational in the fall. We’ll train professors to create and deliver more engaging and entertaining methods for educating students. Some people call it edu-tainment, but the fact is students don’t want dull. They want inspiring and interesting and provocative. A "have" university will emphasize research, attendance at international conferences, and publishing. We want to be the university that delivers the next generation of educational methodology. Too often the curriculum is inflexible. This generation wants flexibility. They want to combine engineering, media arts and business. We want to create an environment where the best students will find expert academic advice to make a curriculum that speaks to what they want to do in their lives.

Red flags are going off with Drexel seeking to be a bicoastal university. How can you make a major campus in Sacramento, California, work? The better question may be how can we not? Two years ago we looked at demographics of 18-year-olds. Our research showed that we will face a significant reduction in the 18-year-old population — about 7 percent over 10 years — in the northeastern U.S. and significantly more in Pennsylvania. At the same time, Phoenix will grow 38 percent, California by 25 percent, Florida and Texas by 30 percent. Drexel does not have a national brand. So we decided to configure a national network for Drexel with nodes in the fastest-growing places in America. We want to start slowly. On January 1st we started offering courses in Sacramento in business administration, engineering management, nursing, education and library sciences, all taught by our Philadelphia faculty. We’re focused on getting our MBAs in Sacramento collaborating in teams with our Philadelphia MBA students. This has generated a very positive response from the business community out there. We’re leasing a building downtown for our classroom-based courses plus our online programs. This is new territory — blending traditional with virtual classroom learning. Drexel is a leader in this.