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

Thirteen years in as president of Drexel University, ebullient Constantine “Taki” Papadakis is renowned as Drexel’s savior — the man who turned a school on the brink of extinction into the fastest-growing research university in America. Today, Drexel is in full bloom, with 21,000 students and annual research expenditures exceeding $100 million — a ­Harvard B-school case study just waiting to be written.

After more than a decade here, you still seem to love this job. You bet!

Why? So much pressure. So many demands. Yet you still have that zest. Every year I come up with something new and something big that energizes me and the university administration.

Energizes or exhausts? That’s good! First energizes, then exhausts. That helps us keep our eye on the ball. In the early ‘90s, Drexel was an institute of technology. Today we’re a comprehensive research university with professional schools and a research budget that exceeds $100 million annually. We’re among the top 100 private universities in the U.S. Our growth has been phenomenal. We have 21,000 students, up from 8,000 when I arrived. Plus we have 13,000 Drexel students who attend via the Internet and don’t come to the campus.

How does that work? We started Drexel eLearning, Inc., in 2003, a for-profit business, to be the marketing arm of Drexel to build a virtual university with Drexel professors. We are among the biggest providers of e-learning among American universities. And the quality is outstanding. There are no limitations — no 55-minute lecture, unlimited virtual office visits, extensive interaction and working groups among students — like there are in classroom-based education.

You took over the medical school when the Allegheny Health System collapsed. People thought you were crazy. Actually they told me I was crazy. It was more than just thinking it. We took over the medical school, a school of health professions, the schools of nursing and public health. All of them were losing serious money. It was very tough going in 1999. It took Drexel three years to reverse the financial conditions of these colleges. Now Drexel College of Medicine is the largest private medical school in the U.S., and it is making money. The Nursing School, with 3,000 nursing students, is the largest in Pennsylvania. The College of Public Health just celebrated it tenth anniversary as a Drexel college and is one of only two public health schools in the state. Pitt is the other.

You keep talking about profitability. Are you unique among university presidents keeping financial metrics in the forefront? Our first line of business here was to bring finances back in line. This university lost money consistently. When I came here the school’s bond rating was junk. It’s A+ today. Sound finances enable us to grow, take risks, try important initiatives and deliver a better product to our customers, the students of this university. If you don’t pay a lot of attention to the bottom line, it will eventually pay a lot of attention to you.