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The Rebirth of a University at Drexel

The Rebirth of a University at Drexel

Twelve years ago, Philadelphia's Drexel University was plagued with declining student enrollment, an empty checkbook, and a physical plant that was literally falling apart. Today, the institution's financial footing is solid, as is its strategy for intellectual growth and physical expansion. The story of Drexel's renaissance provides valuable lessons to those concerned about the future of America's 4,000-plus colleges and universities.

By By Peter Fabris, Contributing Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200711 issue of BD+C.

In August 1995, having taken the helm of a university with a falling enrollment, a dire balance sheet, and a murky future, Constantine Papadakis knew he faced the challenge of a lifetime. In that first month as Drexel University's president, it quickly became apparent how formidable his task would be.

During the Philadelphia school's summer session, in oppressive 100-degree heat, aging rooftop air-conditioning chillers in 25 buildings had suddenly failed. The best students and faculty could do to cope with the stifling conditions was to try to pry open windows that probably hadn't been opened in years. It was abundantly clear to the new president that the eroded condition of the physical plant was severely hampering learning, and correcting it would have to be given the highest priority.

Papadakis summed up the situation bluntly to his then facilities manager: “If we don't fix this, we're going to be out of a job by next summer.”

This was not hyperbole on Papadakis's part. Drexel University, founded in 1891 through the generosity of Philadelphia financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel, is known primarily for its excellent science and technology curriculum and highly respected co-op work/study program. By the mid-1990s, it was literally falling apart as an institution, a fact that was visibly reflected in the poor condition of much of its physical plant. But deteriorating buildings were only the most visible sign of decay. There was no compelling mission or strategy, enrollment was at its lowest in decades, and the school was nearly broke.

In the 12 years since he first stepped on campus, the 61-year-old Taki (as he is known) Papadakis has overseen a major transformation of the university's mission and financial status, as well as a rejuvenation of its campus with an ambitious—and rapidly accelerating—construction program. Over the past decade, Drexel has constructed or renovated at least one major building each year, and the pace of construction is quickening. The school has $160 million of new construction scheduled to begin over the next 12 months, and more in the works after that, including an ambitious plan to build a West Coast campus from scratch near Sacramento, Calif.

While not all of the nation's 4,216 colleges and universities have faced the same kind of dramatic trials that beset Drexel, many are grappling with similar issues:

  • The need to update academic programs to address the demands of 21st-century technology and business environments.

  • Fierce—some would say cut-throat—competition for top students, faculty, and research funding.

  • An imperative to update residence halls, classrooms, recreation and social centers, and other campus facilities to cater to today's highly discerning students, parents, alumni, and faculty.

A spiral staircase is a key design element of the soaring, six-story atrium for Drexel University's planned Integrated Sciences Building. The facility is one of nearly a dozen projects under way on the downtown Philadelphia campus.

The case of Drexel University provides a window through which we can view how institutions of higher learning are addressing some of their most pressing problems. This case study also demonstrates the importance of providing a highly functional and aesthetically pleasing physical plant that helps attract students, faculty, and research dollars.

Bringing a business sense to academia

To meet his first challenge, Papadakis, who holds a PhD in civil engineering from the University of Michigan, had to dig deep into his bag of tricks from his days as dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Cincinnati and in the private sector at Tetra Tech and STS Consultants, and as the one-time chief engineer at Bechtel Power Corp.

When the estimate to fix the air-conditioning problem in 1995 came in at $7 million—money the college didn't have—Papadakis approached its HVAC vendor, ServiceMaster, with an innovative proposal: ServiceMaster would front the school the cash to install new electric chillers to replace the old gas-fired models. In return, Drexel would reimburse ServiceMaster with the money it saved on its energy bill using the more efficient chillers over the next 12 years.

The ServiceMaster accountants crunched the numbers and liked what they saw. By the summer of 1996, all of Drexel's classrooms were comfortably air conditioned, and Papadakis had earned badly needed credibility points among students, faculty, and the board of directors.

It was the start of a wholesale remaking of the campus by a hard-driving executive with a bold vision, a market-driven strategy, a gift for fundraising, a disdain for slow-moving bureaucracy, and a management style stemming from his private-sector experience.

Papadakis's philosophy is straightforward. “Our management team should resemble a team of corporate managers in the way we manage and plan,” he told Building Design+Construction . He justifies this assertion by pointing to the school's $650 million in annual revenue from its academic ventures alone, which puts it on the scale of a substantial corporation.

Papadakis's businesslike style has served Drexel well. The university today has over 20,000 total enrollment, up from 9,000 in 1995, a larger and vastly upgraded campus, and a healthy financial outlook. Its bond rating has leaped from junk status to A+. The endowment has leaped from $90 million in 1995 to $640 million today. Research funding now stands at $110 million a year, compared to $14 million when Papadakis took over. Drexel is the sixth-largest employer in Philadelphia.

A broadened academic mission that has attracted more students from beyond its core market of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware accounts for much of the institution's renaissance. Drexel had been narrowly focused on technical and engineering fields, and needed to broaden its scope, Papadakis says, particularly with forecasts of the East Coast college-age population declining within a generation. “We had to become a comprehensive research university in order to survive over the next 20 years,” he says.

Several bold moves have put the school on course to fulfill this re-branding vision:

  • 1997: Three new schools—Education, Environment, and Biomedical—established.

  • 1998: Purchase of financially unstable MCP Hahnemann University in downtown Philadelphia, which added a school of medicine, a school of nursing and health sciences professions, and a school of public health to Drexel's portfolio, making Drexel the largest private medical school in the country.

  • 2002: Drexel School of Law founded.

  • 2002-2003: Drexel's for-profit virtual university goes online.

An important guiding vision was to build on the university's strengths in science and technology by offering complementary programs. For example, Drexel's expertise in high-tech made for a natural tie-in with intellectual property law in the law school. Medicine and health were also natural fits in a science-oriented environment.

In support of these initiatives, and to accommodate growth, Drexel has spent $300 million on campus improvements since 1995. The current master plan calls for construction of seven new buildings, three major additions to existing structures, and a substantial renovation of an armory at its main West Philadelphia campus over the next five years.

Easing the space squeeze

Guiding the planned construction is a significantly reconfigured campus plan. Drexel has two sites in Philadelphia for its medical and health programs and a 14-acre varsity athletic complex about a mile from the central campus. (The Drexel Dragons field eight NCAA Division I men's teams and eight in women's sports.) But the main campus is crammed into just 48 acres. With such tight quarters in which to work, Papadakis, who has taken a hands-on role in the development of the master plan, and Drexel's planning consultant and architect Burt Hill, are keenly aware that every inch of space has to be used with greatest care.

Though Drexel's campus is decidedly urban, many of its buildings were sited with suburban-like setbacks from the street. The school plans to take advantage of this bonus space by adding on to some structures (or constructing new ones) closer to the sidewalks. With the purchase of several adjoining properties, and with the city's cooperation in allowing the college to vacate a number of streets within its campus borders, planners have squeezed out adequate, though not abundant, space for new construction.

The main campus can be roughly delineated into four zones with distinct purposes: residential, recreational, academic, and commercial. These zones will continue to provide the framework for the master plan, with new structures and amenities for the most part infilling within their appropriate zones.

“Important to the plan is linkage of the zones by reinforcing the main pedestrian and vehicular corridors with buildings and landscape,” says David Madeira, AIA, principal at Burt Hill and lead designer for the master plan. “The initial execution of the master plan was to underpin the major corridor, Market Street, through the campus, creating vitality.”

Another goal is to give Drexel's L-shaped campus a more distinct identity and more clearly defined borders. As next-door neighbor to the much larger University of Pennsylvania in a section of Philadelphia known as University City, Drexel's campus is overshadowed by the more well-known Penn, with its distinct Ivy League architecture and more cohesive campus.

New Drexel buildings, such as the law school, the Bossone Research Enterprise Center, and a planned six-story Integrated Sciences Building, are prominent, modernist structures with huge expanses of windows and glass that give passersby a glimpse into the academic and research work going on inside. These buildings, more easily visible from the street than the older, more nondescript structures, are helping to provide a stronger neighborhood presence. Plans also call for a 40-foot-tall campanile clock tower on Market Street to serve as a gateway to the academic zone. “Along with strengthening Drexel's presence on Market Street, the buildings have transparency to enhance the campus core with a sense of vibrancy,” notes Madeira.

The look of the campus will continue to change as several key buildings in the planning stage come online. Most of the new structures will have a distinctly modern vocabulary that echoes Drexel's high-tech mission, while aiming to honor many historic campus buildings. They will resemble structures such as the Bossone Center, designed by I.M. Pei, which features a glass atrium that calls to mind a ship's bow, as well as brick accents that respect the neighboring Paul Peck Alumni Center. That Frank Furness-designed structure opened as a bank in 1876; its aesthetic of glass and traditional red brick has been featured in several other recently constructed residential and academic buildings on the campus.

Shooting for star power in design

Employing the talents of signature architects such as Pei, Michael Graves, and Philip Johnson has been a strategy that Papadakis has adopted from his stint as dean of the engineering school at Cincinnati. It's all part of a conscious effort to raise the school's image and attract the best and brightest minds.

“Top faculty and students look for better space,” says Bob Francis, vice president of university facilities. Those who work in cutting-edge fields such as nanotechnology and biotechnology expect to work in attractive, up-to-date labs and facilities. This assertion is supported by a recent study by the Center for Facilities Research, which reported that 73% of students surveyed said “facilities related to my major” were “extremely” or “very important” in college selection.

Papadakis has certainly taken such findings to heart. “We are becoming one of the most appealing urban campuses in the country,” he says. “That's the goal.”

Designs by signature architects add cachet, but they don't always win the competitions for Drexel projects. The design competition for the planned 34th Street Residence Hall was won by local firm Erdy McHenry Architects over several more well-known firms. “We look for firms that have the best reputations in a certain building type,” says Kimberly Miller, Drexel's associate director for planning design and construction. For example, Sasaki Associates, well known for its recreation centers, will design a 60,000-sf addition to the school's Daskalakis Athletic Center. This facility will primarily serve the student body at large, not the varsity teams.

As Drexel has expanded its course of study, it has had to face the difficult task of forecasting how much space to allocate for new programs. How do you know how large your law school building should be before you have determined your target enrollment? To address these uncertainties, some buildings were designed to provide swing space—temporary homes for various programs. These spaces had to have a flexible design because they may have to be used as law classrooms one semester, then be converted to another classroom use or faculty offices the next.

Drexel's enrollment is on the rise, particularly among students recruited from outside the university's core market area, but that growth has made the addition of residential and classroom space an even greater priority. Five years ago, Drexel housed 2,786 students on campus; by this fall, its resident population had increased 56% to 4,339, and even more are expected in the next few years. Several new and planned residence halls favor the hotel-like suite-style configuration that is becoming de rigueur on many campuses nowadays, reflecting the increasingly market-driven approach to design and construction in higher education.

One of Drexel's most ambitious planned projects is a 180- to 250-room hotel and conference center to be constructed behind the 30th Street Amtrak Station. The university is examining six proposals from major hotel developers, among them Marriott and Westin. The plan is for the hotel vendor to pay $500,000-800,000 a year to the school in a land lease deal. After 10 years, Drexel would also get a percentage of revenue. After 40-60 years, the vendor would turn the facility's ownership over to the university. This is the kind of project that the entrepreneurial-minded Papadakis is looking for to enhance Drexel's bottom line.

Town/gown relations

Operating within an urban setting with adjoining residential areas, the school has to maintain good relations with neighborhood groups in order to get things done. “Zoning rules are very sensitive to the concerns of the neighborhood,” says Drexel's Miller, who says the university also maintains a good relationship with the local member of the city council, Jannie Blackwell.

With the university asking for major alterations to the neighborhood, such as the closing of two blocks of 32nd Street to create a landscaped pedestrian mall, cooperation with neighborhood groups is essential. “With something like street closings, we try to get the neighborhood on board first,” says Jim Tucker, senior vice president for student life and administrative services.

To maintain goodwill, neighborhood groups are kept apprised of the college's plans, and Drexel has shown it can be sensitive to their needs. For instance, when the school purchased the former site of Consolidated Laundry to construct a new administration building, it agreed to a request from a neighborhood group to maintain half the property as green space.

Though all the planned construction makes for an exciting time to be university president, Papadakis says he has some concerns about the fast-paced schedule. “We are worried that with so much construction that we are doing and that Penn is doing, that there is only so much capacity for construction by local contractors,” he says. “And downtown Philadelphia is also booming with condo and office building development.”

Sacramento dreamin'

Drexel's bid to build a West Coast campus some 2,788 miles from 3141 Chestnut Street poses new challenges for Papadakis and his team. A gift from an alumnus of 1,100 undeveloped acres 17 miles northeast of Sacramento provides plenty of room for a West Coast campus. The problem: The Drexel name is virtually unknown to prospective students on the West Coast.

But Papadakis is confident of success, pointing to the Sacramento area's rapid population growth and the fact that it has no private universities, whereas the Philadelphia metro area has 83. For starters, Drexel will hold classes next September at rented space in downtown Sacramento.

Papadakis has ambitious goals for this project. “We are exporting our brand and working toward becoming a national powerhouse,” he says. “We plan to develop our own Silicon Valley—'Sacramento Valley'—with our own research park. Not many universities have this type of opportunity.”

Those are sky-high aims, but based on Papadakis's record, ones that can't be easily dismissed.

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