Drexel University President Constantine Papadakis, 1946-2009.
Constantine Papadakis, president of Drexel University, died at the age of 63 on April 5. “Taki,” as he liked to be called, succumbed to complications connected to a year-long struggle with lung cancer. His death should not have been surprising, yet it was. It seemed unthinkable that this enormous life force had been quenched.
When Taki became president of Drexel 13 years ago, the university was in dire straits. The physical plant was in disrepair, enrollment had plummeted, and salaries were frozen. I recall the first time the faculty met with its new president. Taki strode briskly into the room; he wore an impeccably tailored suit, a colorful silk tie, and a pair of glittering cufflinks. We academics were more than a little annoyed to see someone so well-brushed and energetic at the helm of our gloomy ship. It annoyed us further when he said he had heard some of us were speaking ill of our university to outsiders: This was not proper form, he admonished; it must stop under his leadership. The notion that anyone would muzzle our complaining — our only compensation, after all, for meager wages and dire working conditions — was not well-received. Who was this creature with his booming, heavily accented voice; bouncy stride; and toothy grin to curb our right to say what we pleased? Yet in a few years’ time, our attitude shifted. We stopped complaining, not because Taki had strong-armed us into keeping our mouths shut, but because there was less to complain about. Enrollment was up, new programs were being launched, merit raises were being awarded, old buildings renovated and new ones under construction. The spirits of the place had lifted, and some of the crabbiest among us had become boosters.
I would later speak to Taki about that early period and ask him what had been on his mind when he gave up his position as dean of engineering at the University of Cincinnati to head an ailing Drexel University. He said that he saw our institution as a challenge — and he loved a challenge. He had also connected with Drexel on a deep level, he explained, as though in some way he had found his true home. Drexel was a maverick culture, an environment less restricted than most universities by stodgy academic rules and procedures. Taki was a cowboy who had come to town to clean things up and set things right. “I wouldn’t have taken the job,” he said, “if I hadn’t thought through what I was going to do in advance.” That was the strategist in him. But just as important was the example he set through his energy and discipline. From the moment he arrived, no one worked harder: He came in first in the morning, left last at night, and represented Drexel at every hour of every day. He loved his job. No lunch or dinner was ever purely social for him; it was always an occasion to market or improve the university, whether to raise money from a potential donor or to float a new idea to a dean or a department head. One felt that if he ever slept — which was doubtful given his 17-hour work days — it was in Drexel Dragon pajamas (though spun out of fine silk, for his tastes were luxurious). Recently, when the salaries of university presidents were published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and his was shown to be among the highest, I heard surprisingly little grumbling from my peers. The assumption was that though we might deserve more pay, he was not begrudged his regal compensation; he had earned every penny of it.
A turning point in the Taki presidency was his decision to have Drexel take control of the bankrupt Allegheny University of the Health Sciences, which included schools of medicine, nursing, and public health. A plethora of naysayers (I was one of them) thought that a medical school would leach valuable resources away from an institution just getting back on its feet. Taki saw the larger picture. He wanted Drexel to be a major research university, to have a national and international profile, and be a significant player on the academic scene. A medical school would help this happen, and the rewards would trickle down to the rest of the university. He was right. Vital partnerships have now been forged between the medical school and other academic programs; our research status has risen, as has our general reputation. Even members of the English and Philosophy Department like myself, seemingly removed from the health sciences, now reap the benefits of increased enrollment, better students, and a newly formed medical humanities program.
Soon after the acquisition of the medical school, Taki decided he wanted to add a law school. Again, there was resistance. Weren’t there enough law schools in the region? His solution was to conceive of one with areas of concentration — intellectual property, entrepreneurship, and health — that drew on Drexel’s strengths and could occupy a special niche in the area. Still, there remained the question of implementation. We had acquired the medical school; the law school would have to be built from scratch. How was this to happen with the rapidity that Taki favored, given the cumbersome bureaucracy associated with a university? When I interviewed Taki last year, he explained how he handled this. Once he made the decision to have a law school, he called The Philadelphia Inquirer and told a reporter that there would be one in two years. Then he took the Inquirer article to Drexel’s Board of Trustees. “We’re committed to fast-tracking the initiative,” he told them, “because here it is in print.” In less than three years, we had our law school, and it will graduate its first class next month.
Another coup of the Taki presidency was Drexel’s hosting of a nationally televised debate among Democratic candidates during the 2008 primary campaign. At the meet-and-greet before that debate, I spoke to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell about how the event happened to end up at Drexel. He was frank with me. The University of Pennsylvania had been asked to host the debate but had judged it to be too logistically complicated. The organizers had then approached Temple University; it too had demurred. The organizers finally asked Rendell for advice. “I know someone who can do it,” he said. It was Taki. And the event happened with all the requisite fanfare, including banners lining the streets announcing “Debate at Drexel.”
One of the hallmarks of Taki’s identity as a leader was his ability to use his Greek heritage to advantage. He knew every Greek-American in the Delaware Valley, from the restaurant owner in Cherry Hill, New Jersey to the corporate big-shot in Wilmington, Delaware. He had a pronounced Greek accent, which he seemed to revel in: “Come to Drexel and be a weener,” he used to say, his eyes sparkling. But his love of his heritage translated into more than just amiable or lucrative contacts. It made him a model for a multicultural pride that came to permeate Drexel on many levels. Under Taki’s leadership, ethnic and minority programs in African-American Studies, Judaic Studies, Women’s Studies, and Greek Studies were initiated or strengthened. Ties to China and Eastern Europe were forged, and the study abroad program and international co-op initiatives expanded. Taki was often jetting off to explore Drexel’s interests in various corners of the globe — he met with the Pope for the beatification of Saint Katharine Drexel and had lunch with the Dalai Lama. Drexel University is not a “politically correct” institution — it toes no party line — but it is a genuinely diverse and vibrant place, and I believe that this owes much to Taki’s leadership. He exemplified the notion that one could be part of a whole but also part of a distinct group, without the two coming into conflict. One of the last initiatives under his watch was an exhibition of contemporary art from China (the show is currently on display). The opening was the sort of lavish spectacle that had become par for the course under Taki’s presidency: a world-class exhibit, first-rate food, a roster of famous guests. Eliana Papadakis, Taki’s wife of 39 years, was present at the opening, but Taki himself was not there. He was in the hospital and would be dead four days later.
It is difficult for those who didn’t know him to understand the effect that Constantine Papadakis had on people. It was not just a matter of personal charisma, of which he had a huge fund, but of a kind of intelligence, both rare and elegantly uncomplicated. He had the ability to see what he wanted to do and then to head for it, without being deterred by the many obstacles that lay in the way. I am sure that there are people who found his methods aggressive and high-handed — he did not back down when he thought he was right. But he was never malevolent, never petty, never inclined to squabble. I have used his example when faced with difficult situations myself and taught it to my students. When opposed by people who don’t “get” you, who snub or insult you, better to simply find another way to your goal than to rage or brood. Anger and bitterness will only paralyze you. Taki’s way was always to keep his objective in view, arguing down or ignoring his opponents, as he saw fit. He had the confidence of his vision, and the intelligence to figure out how to achieve it. His latest initiative, underway as I write, was the development of a second Drexel campus in Sacramento, California. He launched this site because he believed that in 10 years time the college age population would diminish on the East Coast; good cowboy that he was, he was heading West to plumb the resources there.
At a small luncheon a few months ago, before Taki became too ill to work on campus, he told a story that registered on me powerfully. We were speaking about dreams, and someone mentioned a bad dream he’d had. “I don’t have bad dreams,” Taki said. “When one starts, I refuse to accept it and turn it into a good dream.” I believe this. He had a will stronger than that of any person I’ve ever known, and a zest for accomplishment that was gigantic. I do not know what his prognosis was after he was diagnosed with cancer, but, I believe, he was convinced to the end that, as with a bad dream, he could change the course of his illness. Unfortunately, death was the one antagonist that he could not strategize around or overcome through force of will.
Though he lost that final battle, we remain the beneficiaries of his energy, his vitality, his can-do optimism. He was deeply allied to his Greek heritage but he was also wholly American in the spirit of entrepreneurship associated with this country: failure was not an option for him.
When I think of Taki I also think of Ulysses in the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, in which the Greek hero is described in old age as continuing to push forward: “to seek a newer world . . . To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths,/Of all the western stars, until I die.” I imagine Taki, to the end, taking the attitude expressed in the last lines of the poem, which celebrate the heroism of exertion in the face of impossible odds: “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” • 8 April 2009
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is author of the bestselling novels Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Hudson Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She also writes the On Shopping column for The Smart Set. She can be reached at email@example.com.