Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Death of a Turnaround Artist

By Richard Vedder

Higher education occasionally produces interesting university presidents --persons like Gordon Gee with humor and vibrancy that instil support and confidence, sometimes scholarly leaders like William Bowen or John Silber who bring academic heft as well as managerial acumen to their jobs. In the for-profit sector, you get very successful agents of change, such as Randy Best and, arguably, Andrew Clark of Bridgepoint Education. But seldom do you find a turnaround artist like the business world has-- the person who takes over a moribund or declining enterprise and makes it work --he turns it around.

Constantine Papadakis, President of Drexel University, was such a man. He died suddenly Sunday, and the academic world has lost a great leader. I met him (his friends called him "Taki") only once, but I liked him instantly. He did novel, untried and audacious things, which, of course, annoyed his more cautious, conservative, and traditionalist faculty. For example, he wanted to expand Drexel's on-line presence to compete with growing for-profit providers, and he did so by creating a for-profit company that has proven successful. Many other schools (Illinois comes immediately to mind) have tried to move into this market aggressively and have failed. Most recently, Randy Best's win-win proposal at the University of Toledo was shot down by an angry faculty. But it did not happen at Drexel.
The interesting lesson here is that Constantine Papadakis was a rarity, a nearly unique person in the higher education world. The culture of higher education favors leaders who are smooth, good talkers and fund raisers, hard workers --but cautious. There are so many powerful and relatively unaccountable interests presidents have to appease --the faculty, influential alumni and trustees, politicians, etc. Few persons are ready to buck or antagonize these groups. There is no universally agreed upon "bottom line" in higher education, making goal fulfillment a near impossible task --since there is no universal agreement on what the goals are, or how to measure achievement. The tendency is to "not rock the boat." The top 10 schools in America today (if you believe US News and World Report) are roughly the same ones as 50 years ago, partly because people THINK they are good and we have no good way to measure achievement, and partly because we have so few people like Constantine Papadakis who are willing to take risks and push the envelope in ways that effect positive change.

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