For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Drexel President Constantine Papadakis Dies

April 6, 2009

Drexel University president Constantine Papadakis died unexpectedly Sunday evening, Drexel Board of Trustees chairman Richard Greenawalt announced today. Papadakis, who was in remission from cancer, died from pulmonary complications. Last week, the Drexel board announced that Papadakis had requested a medical leave of absence, and that President Emeritus C.R. “Chuck” Pennoni, a former Drexel trustee, chairman of the board and interim president, had been appointed interim president and CEO. 

“It is with great personal sadness that I report that President Papadakis has passed away,” said Greenawalt. “This is a day of profound mourning for the entire Drexel community of students, faculty, staff and administrators, our alumni worldwide and friends everywhere. Our deepest condolences go out to the Papadakis family.”

Papadakis, called “Taki” by friends, colleagues and loved ones, is survived by his wife of 39 years, Eliana, and daughter Maria, 23, a 2008 Drexel graduate.

Known in the national academic community as an innovator and locally as the chief executive who turned around two venerable institutions, Drexel and the former Allegheny University of the Health Sciences, Papadakis was among the longest-serving presidents in higher education today. He was appointed Drexel’s president in 1995, and his 14-year tenure surpassed 85 percent of current presidents of major American research universities. His impact on Drexel, on Greater Philadelphia and on higher education is likely to be felt for decades to come.

“Taki’s greatest legacy, next to his beloved daughter, is today’s comprehensive Drexel University, poised to continue its remarkable success far into the future,” said Greenawalt. “As a trustee working alongside Taki since the beginning of his tenure and as a Drexel alumnus, I take great pride in his achievements here.”

Papadakis’s arrival at Drexel in 1995 ushered in an era of unprecedented growth and excellence. Papadakis, a professional engineer and executive before his move into academia, famously insisted on measurable goals for his managers at Drexel. So numbers are useful in understanding the University’s growth under his leadership: in 13-plus years, total enrollment at the University grew by more than 130 percent, from about 9,000 to 21,000, with full-time undergraduate enrollment increasing by 144 percent to more than 11,000. At the same time, selectivity increased, with freshman applications growing by nearly 700 percent to 27,500, and the median SAT score of accepted students rising to 1202.

Drexel’s success in competing for students was made possible by the financial stability the University achieved under Papadakis. His commitment to sound fiscal management gained him a national reputation, with The Wall Street Journal opining in a 2005 front-page profile that “few university presidents have a hard-core business style quite like Dr. Papadakis’s.”

His business sense, honed during a decade in private-sector management at national engineering firms including Bechtel, made him the right man for the job at a critical juncture in Drexel’s history. By 1995, enrollments had fallen to historic lows, classrooms sat empty and deteriorating and one dormitory had been boarded up for a decade. Three years had passed without a salary increase for staff, and cash flow was so dire that some stakeholders suggested selling off Drexel’s collection of art, including an 18th-century David Rittenhouse clock that represented a unique piece of Philadelphia’s scientific history.

Just as he had done in previous jobs at the University of Colorado and the University of Cincinnati, Papadakis set out to change the sometimes slow-paced, fiscally lackadaisical academic culture. One oft-repeated story involves him arriving on his first day at Drexel in 1995, a summer Friday, to find most of the staff had the day off. He quickly made it clear that four-day work weeks would be an option only if accompanied by a 20 percent pay cut.

His prudent, cost-conscious management was critical to the repair of Drexel’s finances, as evidenced by four improvements in nine years in the University’s Standard and Poor’s rating: from an unsatisfactory BBB+ in 1997 to A+ with a stable outlook since 2005.

Papadakis’s primary strategy for improving Drexel’s financial situation was to encourage smart growth. Since his arrival, the University’s annual operating budget has grown by more than 300 percent, and the size of Drexel’s research enterprise has grown from $15 million to more than $100 million in each of the past three years.

Papadakis doubled the size of Drexel’s faculty and grew the University’s total employment to 7,300, making Drexel the seventh largest private employer in Philadelphia. And salaries increased by 5 percent annually for 10 consecutive years, with a 4 percent increase in 2008-09 even as other institutions were freezing wages and eliminating staff and programs.

Drexel’s urban campus is tremendously improved, with the University constructing, acquiring or renovating buildings at a rate of one per year under Papadakis. At his direction, Drexel brought in signature architects including Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei and Michael Graves, whose work now stands alongside that of legendary urban architects like Frank Furness and T. P. Lonsdale. The campus reinvention continues under Drexel’s $500 million West Philadelphia Campus Master Plan. Despite today’s economic downturn the University has an unprecedented four new buildings in various stages of construction in 2009. In addition, a $25 million donation this year from a donor preferring anonymity, the largest individual private gift in Drexel history, allowed the University to purchase two buildings, including one by legendary Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, for conversion into a design center for the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

Perhaps the most transformative change at Drexel under Papadakis was the increase in the University’s comprehensiveness. In 1998 the University trustees signed a landmark agreement to manage the bankrupt Allegheny University of the Health Sciences, followed by a 2002 merger creating the Drexel University College of Medicine. This bold step, undertaken at Papadakis’s urging, saved 13,000 jobs and the education of 3,000 medical and nursing students, kept intact a key academic medical resource for Philadelphia and preserved the traditions of two of the cities most historic institutions, Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (founded in 1850 as the world’s first medical school for women) and Hahnemann Medical College (a pioneer in homeopathic medicine founded in 1848).

“At the most critical moment, Taki was instrumental in rescuing both a vital piece of Philadelphia’s health care infrastructure and an irreplaceable part of medical history,” said Manuel N. Stamatakis, a Drexel trustee who has also served as board chair of the medical college since 1998. “He said that Drexel could do it, and Drexel did it.”

The merger, which also brought the School of Public Health and College of Nursing and Health Professions into Drexel’s fold, resulted in synergies with traditional Drexel research strengths and enhanced Drexel’s status as a national research university.

Just three years later, in 2005, Papadakis made another startling announcement: Drexel would become the first top-ranked doctoral university in the country to open a law school in more than 25 years. By September of 2006, a faculty was in place, a building was under construction and a talented inaugural class entered Drexel Law. In short order, the school earned provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association and received a major naming gift from Drexel alumnus Earle Mack. In May 2009, the University will celebrate the first graduates of the Earle Mack School of Law.

Drexel also made progressive strides in how it reached students. The University was a pioneer in online learning from the early days of Papadakis’s administration, culminating in the establishment of e-learning subsidiary Drexel Online with $4 million of capitalization in 2002. Today, more than 5,200 students are enrolled in 60-plus online degree programs, and tuition revenue through Drexel Online grew from $14.4 million in FY2005 to $40 million in FY2008.

Drexel has developed agreements that facilitate the entry of graduates from a number of Greater Philadelphia community colleges into the University, including a partnership with Burlington County College under which students complete a Drexel bachelor’s degree entirely on BCC’s Mount Laurel, N.J., campus.

Drexel opened a Center for Graduate Studies in Sacramento, Calif., in January 2009, offering hybrid face-to-face/online classes in one of the nation’s biggest growth markets for higher education. The University is also conducting due diligence on an offer of a gift of 1,100 acres of land in Placer County, Calif., 15 miles east of Sacramento. Drexel would build a 600-acre university campus on the site, financed by the sale of the remaining land to developers.

Even as Papadakis worked to expand the breadth of Drexel’s academic offerings and modes of instruction, he focused the University’s marketing message on three main points: its commitment to experience-based learning via one of the nation’s leading co-operative education programs, its reputation for cutting-edge academic technology and its engagement with what he called Drexel’s “living laboratory,” the city of Philadelphia.

During Papadakis’s tenure, Drexel also extended its reputation as a technological leader, becoming in 2000 the first major university with an entirely wireless campus, indoors and out, and in 2002 the first to offer a Web portal to University information for wireless devices. Drexel’s advanced technological infrastructure also allowed it to become a unique type of service provider, managing a variety of information technology for 40 other educational institutions.

Drexel has strengthened its ties to the citizens and communities of Philadelphia through a renewed emphasis on civic engagement. In 2000, Drexel created UNIV 101, a single course required of all Drexel freshmen that included a community service component. And in 2003, Papadakis established the Center for Civic Engagement, a nexus for community service and experiential learning. Each year, Drexel students and staff contribute more than 15,000 hours of service to hundreds of community-based organizations.

In many ways, Drexel is a different university today than 14 years ago, and evidence suggests that it looks that way to outside observers. Once a “third-tier” school according to U.S.News & World Report, Drexel has been ranked in the category of Best National Universities in the magazine’s “America's Best Colleges” for six consecutive years and in 2009 entered the top 100 for the first time at number 89. Drexel is the 50th-ranked private university in the U.S. News survey. Also in 2009, Drexel ranked sixth in the first U.S. News list of “Schools to Watch,” recognizing the nation’s top “up-and-coming schools.” The magazine asked university administrators nationwide to name schools that have demonstrated “the most promising and innovative changes in academics, faculty, students, campus, or facilities,” and Drexel ranked ahead of all but one other private university.

Drexel’s rise to national prominence under Papadakis has coincided with a number of milestone events. In 1997, Jiang Zemin, then-president of the People’s Republic of China, made a major international visit to Drexel, his son’s alma mater. The next year, Papadakis received a private audience with Pope John Paul II in Rome during the canonization of Saint Katherine Drexel, niece of University founder Anthony J. Drexel. Drexel hosted activities during the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, and in October 2007 hosted a Democratic presidential campaign featuring seven candidates including future president Barack Obama.

Papadakis was the only Greek-born president among 2,900 presidents of four-year colleges and universities in the United States. He was born in Athens on February 2, 1946, to Nicholas Papadakis, a Greek physician, and Rita Masciotti Papadakis, a native of Italy. He finished the private high school Kalpaka (Athens) before entering the National Technical University of Athens, where he studied for five years and graduated with a degree in civil engineering. He arrived in the United States in 1969 and settled in Cincinnati where his then fiancée Eliana Apostolides resided with her parents. Papadakis had met Eliana two years previous while she was vacationing in Greece. The two graduated with master’s degrees from the University of Cincinnati in 1971 and traveled to Athens for their wedding. They moved to Michigan, where Papadakis enrolled at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and earned his doctorate in civil engineering in 1973. Their daughter Maria, who graduated from Drexel in 2008 with a bachelor of science in business administration, was born in 1985.

In 1974, Papadakis joined Bechtel, where his first assignment was to oversee the construction of the metro in Washington D.C. He later managed a group of engineering specialists who did pioneering work in flood-control systems, hydroelectric power and cooling systems for nuclear reactors. He was recruited by STS Consultants, one of the top 150 engineering design firms in the nation, as vice president in charge of its Water Resources Division, which had 17 offices. His accomplishments there included privatization of small hydroelectric power plants in the early 1980s. Tetra Tech, a Honeywell subsidiary in Pasadena, attracted him next. As vice president of the company he led FEMA and Superfund environmental projects.

Papadakis was lured back to academia when he realized that strong management could revolutionize an institution. In 1984, he agreed to head up Colorado State University's civil engineering department, then the second largest in the nation and known for water resources research and an entrepreneurial faculty. Two years later, he became the dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering. There, he built top-quality graduate programs, more than quadrupled research contracts and grants and established relationships with leaders of local industry. During his tenure he increased the size of the faculty from 94 to 170 and commissioned architect Michael Graves to design a research center, completed in 1995.

His growing reputation for the relentless pursuit of excellence coupled with a no-nonsense approach to the business of higher education led to Papadakis becoming the target of presidential searches. He was hired by Drexel in 1995 after a national search led by then-interim president Pennoni.

A civic leader and cultural patron since his arrival in Philadelphia, Papadakis served on numerous civic boards including the board of directors of the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce Executive Committee, the board of directors of the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Judicial Council of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Papadakis was also active on behalf of the broader interests of higher education. He chaired the National Commission for Cooperative Education, served on the boards of the Eisenhower Fellowships and the Hellenic College/Holy Cross and was a member of the Business Higher Education Forum and the Council on Competitiveness.

With his unique background in business, engineering and academia, Papadakis was sought after by numerous corporate boards and served as a director of Amkor Technology, Inc., Aqua America, Inc., CDI, Inc., Mace Security International and Met-Pro Corporation.

A member of many professional and honorary societies, Papadakis was a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Society for Engineering Education and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. He was author or co-author of 80 articles and technical publications.

For his achievements, commitment to higher education and involvement in charitable organizations, Papadakis received 153 awards and honors including the 2008 Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce William Penn Award, the 2008 Union League Business Leadership Award, the Medal of the City of Athens, the Opera Company of Philadelphia Viva La Diva Award, and the 2006 Gold Medal Award of the Philadelphia Public Relations Association. In 2004, Papadakis was Knighted Cavaliere Ufficiale in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by President Berlusconi. He was also awarded the Congressional Medal of Ellis Island for his success as an immigrant.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Papadakis is survived by a sister, Katy Papadourakis (Emmanuel), and her family, of Athens, Greece; Mrs. Gregory Papadourakis and family of Patras, Greece; and cousins, nephews and nieces of Athens and Crete, Greece. His immediate family includes Dr. Anthony and Patty Apostolides and Anthony, Jr., of Hagerstown, Md.; and Dr. Anthony Papadourakis, Kosh McGuigan and their sons Gregory, Antonios and Andreas Papadourakis of Cherry Hill, N.J.

A church service will be held at noon on Tuesday, April 14, at St. Luke Greek Orthodox Church in Broomall, Pa. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Constantine Papadakis Fund at Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104.