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

How is being Penn’s neighbor? It’s been great, and we couldn’t ask for a better neighbor. We think along the same lines and have many of the same goals for our students. There is a resurgence of interest that we share with Penn toward the University City Science Center, toward University City, toward major construction projects. We are working to develop a major four-star hotel. Penn’s plan for the Postal Annex site has been amazing. Drexel focuses on Mantua and Powelton. Penn is headed west and south.

Has the Harvard Business School showed up to do a case study on big vision, customer-driven programming and attention to business and the bottom line in running the modern university? Not yet. [Some laughter.] I don’t think that the majority of the 3,500 universities in the U.S. subscribe to our business model. They are more traditional. But the best-run universities have a similar outlook to Drexel. I’m talking about schools like Southern Cal, which experienced a similar transformation to Drexel; NYU, almost broke, and now one of the best and a product of smart growth; and Boston University.

What do you hope your legacy here will be? It’s almost cast already, as the team that transformed Drexel from a small tech institute to a major university. I don’t think too many schools can make that claim. It’s not enough to be good at what you do. You have to be lucky. MCP Hahnemann fell into our lap.

An awful lot of people wouldn’t have qualified that as a stroke of good luck. For us it was great timing. One year earlier, we couldn’t have done it. We weren’t ready. The transition of Drexel was still underway. My staff was poised. My CFO had worked with Tenant before. All the stars were aligned, and it helped that the bankruptcy trustees realized that Drexel was critical to the retention of the whole hospital system. My board had second thoughts. The bankruptcy trustees came back with an offer of $50 million to help ease the transition to Drexel. This was a huge undertaking and the most exciting time in my life.

What’s next for Taki Papadakis? I don’t plan to retire early. As long as I can produce for Drexel and the board feels that I am adding value, I will continue here. Drexel is a very exciting place to work because of the environment we have created. You won’t find this anywhere else. Universities don’t like change. We had no choice when I came. There was no place to go other than change. If not, the school would have gone under. So now we have a culture where change is accepted as a key variable. Being a CEO or a cabinet officer represents so much bureaucracy they would drive me nuts. Being around people who are unwilling to change isn’t a place I could ever see myself. Politics requires too much compromise for my tastes.

What worries and excites you about the future of Philadelphia? The obvious ones — crime, the quality of schools, jobs creation, traffic. You helped get the corporate community to focus on the key issues when you ran Greater Philadelphia First. The political class here has not been consistently effective, and the business community has developed into a very strong force. Now the new administration gives us the best chance to have two powerful forces working hand in hand to tackle some of the bigger issues.