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

In the last several decades, universities, medical schools, and educational institutions have become dominant drivers of the regional economy. How has this fact of life changed your job, and is Philadelphia getting from the leaders of these institutions the leadership it needs to capitalize on a knowledge based infrastructure? The contributions of these institutions to the development of the region was not publicly understood or discussed in the early 1990s. This became better understood during the Street Administration and when Mark Schweiker took over the Chamber. The value add of these institutions is in excess of $20 billion annually. $2 billion of that comes from Drexel. Penn leads the way but Penn, Drexel and Temple really drive the bus. These are captured assets-we can’t fold our tents and move elsewhere. We are entwined with the city. These facts dictate that Presidents of universities act more like CEOs.

Maybe we need CEOs to act more like Presidents of Universities? (Laughing) I think I’ll let that one pass. That’s how I saw my job from day one. That is why I am so involved with the corporate community in Philadelphia. That community sees Drexel as a profitable and well-run business, which happens to be one of the largest in the city and which is in the education business. We are growing by 1,000 students per year. I asked the economy League to evaluate the impact of that and they found that for every 1,000 students we brought in we created 500 jobs and this at a time when the city was losing 10,000 jobs for year. Our strategy is to be highly visible. Our ads say that "Drexel is Philadelphia’s technology university". We are Philadelphia and we will always be. The modern University President is not to simply be titular or functionary. The CEO really runs the place and that’s been my approach.

How important are the ratings published in U.S. News and World Report? When U.S. News found a gap in college rankings they capitalized and helped to create the brand. Universities failed at measuring their performance, creating an opening that was filled by U.S. News. We want good ratings, and we are in the top 100 of private doctoral universities, but we don’t want to do stupid things to up the ratings. We want to do the right thing for our business and the needs of our customers. Rating improvements should never be a component of strategic planning. They are important and people get excited about them — I just don’t want Drexel to pay too much attention to them.

Is the plan to create a more dynamic campus life at Drexel working? Yes, and it’s really important. Thirteen years ago this was a dead campus. We didn’t have the students. We used student growth, built dormitories, and converted the essential character from commuter to residential, and scheduled events, meetings, and entertainment to help create a critical mass. We use the day to prepare our students to be great professionals. After 5 p.m. we want to prepare our students to be great citizens. We require civic engagement with community service so they learn how to give back. We had very little weekend campus life. We have now taken over the armory from the National Guard and plan to create a world-class convocation center to bring in concerts, shows, and sporting events to strengthen the weekend program.