Richard Pappas puts Davenport on new footing

September 23, 2009
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Davenport University’s new president, Richard “Rick” Pappas, promises to make sure the private nonprofit college means business.

“Our relationship with business should be really close,” said Pappas, who has spent the early part of his tenure visiting all of DU’s 14 campuses and meeting with community leaders. “With health care, it should be really close. With technology, it should be really close. We ought to understand — and, in fact, help these companies understand — what’s coming down the road.”

Those three specialty areas are the focus for Davenport, which was founded in Grand Rapids in 1866 as Grand Rapids Business College. Davenport offers associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Alma, Battle Creek, Caro, Flint, Gaylord, Holland, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Livonia, Midland, Saginaw, Traverse City and Warren, in addition to Grand Rapids.

Enrollment is about 11,000 students across the state. Davenport reported total revenue of $107.6 million and a positive margin of $3.6 million to the Internal Revenue Service for the tax year that ended June 30, 2008.

Earlier this decade, Davenport University surprised the local community with a decision to leave the city of Grand Rapids and build a new campus in Caledonia Township, near the intersection of Broadmoor Avenue and the new M-6 freeway. It moved much of its operations there in 2005, as speculation continued over the fate of its facilities at 415 E. Fulton St. It also closed a location in Indiana.

The move to the 53-acre Caledonia Township site, which was expanded earlier this year by a 16-acre gift from the Meijer family, has allowed Davenport to develop a more traditional college campus with two dormitories and 14 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division II sports. Davenport’s other locations draw mainly adult commuter students.

A year ago, then Davenport President Randolph Flechsig, who had held the post for eight years and whose $500,000-plus compensation package put him among the state’s highest paid educators, was arrested in East Grand Rapids for drunken driving. He pleaded guilty and resigned from the university.

With Pappas’ arrival less than a year later, Davenport is relying on his two decades of experience as a college president and expertise in strategic planning — plus a quick, dry sense of humor — to move the organization forward with its long-term makeover.

Davenport University
Position: President
Age: 57
Birthplace: Midland
Residence: Holland
Family: Wife, Pam, three grown children and four adult stepchildren.
Community Involvement: Past United Way campaign chair, St. Joseph; former member, state Council for Labor & Economic Growth.
Biggest Career Break: Meeting University of Michigan professor Joe Cosant.

Pappas said he intends to consult leaders in Davenport’s specialty areas to develop a strategic plan that he calls “a living document.”

“The strategic planning process will be inclusive, not only with all faculty and staff and alumni and students and our board, but we’ll also seek the input of business and hospital leaders and civic and political leaders,” said Pappas, who has led six strategic plans during the two decades he has served as a higher education president. “The truth of it is, no one institution can do it by themselves, and strong partnerships will be a hallmark of Davenport.”

The future of the multi-campus institution will be tied to the strategic plans, he said. Preliminary work already is under way.

“Once the strategic plan is done, all the goals that this university will develop will be tied directly to the strategic plan. And then budget will basically be funding for those. We’re going to keep close tabs on how we’re doing. Quarterly, I’m actually going to report back to the trustees and the employees on our progress, and each year we’ll evaluate how far we’ve come on our strategic direction,” Pappas said.

The plan will incorporate quality measurements, he added, as a way to develop standards and track the impact of the university.

“What value are we adding to that student?” Pappas wondered. “What kind of skills do they have that they didn’t have? What kind of ability to work in groups, what kind of critical thinking skills? …

“But the most important, or a large factor, is how employers view the hiring of our students. It’s not just did they get employed in the career that they are trained for, which is important, but really, did they exceed expectations of the employer — I mean, really exceed it?” Pappas said. “We have that kind of ability to add that value. I want to benchmark ourselves against anybody at any time.”

Pappas is a fan of Total Quality Management — the widely adopted manufacturing process — and of its author, Charles Deming, whom he once met. “I actually think there are great opportunities to learn from what he did,” Pappas said.

Serving the needs of the business community is an important part of Davenport’s role in the wider community, he added. “We ought to be able to work with a company, and I’m willing, if they have enough students, to offer the program right within the company,” Pappas said. “Even maybe customize some of our MBA programs to their needs, or baccalaureate programs.”

Davenport might someday host a center to support entrepreneurship, he added.

Pappas said his tour of Davenport locations provided an opportunity to meet with leaders across the state. He said he plans on making sure Davenport representatives are involved in local communities. He has his eye on getting involved with local business organizations such as The Right Place, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Heart of West Michigan United Way.

“We want to have a positive impact, not just on this community, but other communities where we have campuses,” he said. “It’s meaningful for us to make a difference.”

Pappas, a Michigan native, joined Davenport after four years as president of National-Louis University in Chicago. At the age of 37, he became a college president for the first time, at Harford Community College in Maryland. He spent 11 years at the helm of Lake Michigan College, a community college in Benton Harbor, where the student services building is named after him.

Pappas follows in his father’s footsteps as a college president. Born in Midland, he was the youngest of three boys in the family of Charles and Sydell Pappas. He spent grade school years in Marquette, where his father was a dean at Northern Michigan University. By his high school years, the family lived in Cleveland.

“I’ve lived in Ann Arbor, Jackson, St. Joseph for 11 years as president of Lake Michigan College, Novi and Troy. So I’ve lived in a lot of places. I always tell people I should run for governor because I always say ‘I lived here,’” Pappas quipped.

“I really like the west side of the state. Grand Rapids has always sort of been cosmopolitan yet small. My wife’s from Chicago, and Chicago is only three hours away, so it’s really the best of both worlds.”

Pappas remains close to his brothers and his parents, who met in Brooklyn during World War II and are planning to celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary this fall. His father is a retired president of Mott Community College in Flint, which has named a building after him.

“My parents were major influences in my life,” Pappas said.

His brother, Norm, of Bloomfield Hills, owns an investment firm in the Detroit area, and his brother, Ed, of Franklin, is a partner with Dickinson Wright and president of the Michigan State Bar.

Wife Pam, a school social worker, has kept her job in Chicago, although the couple has purchased a home in Holland. They’ve been married for four years. “This is a second marriage for both of us, and we both had long-term marriages the first time,” Pappas said. “She has four children and I have three, so it’s ‘The Brady Bunch’ at an older age.”

Away from the job, Pappas enjoys reading, running, biking and basketball and has been known to play a mean game of table tennis.

The entire family has a history of amassing college degrees, with many of them coming from the University of Michigan. Pappas, his brother and son both have two degrees from the university and season tickets for football. There is little doubt where Pappas’ sentiments lie, when he’s not cheering for one of Davenport’s 14 athletic teams.

“I wear my Michigan ring everywhere,” he said. “My youngest has actually told me, ‘When you die, I want your ring.’ I said, ‘Do you mind waiting a few years?’”

He had obtained a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Eastern Michigan University, but wasn’t sure where to go from there. Pappas credited his father for pointing him toward the University of Michigan’s School of Education and its late professor Joe Cosant.

“I took a higher ed class in the School of Education and I loved it. He said to me — I took my master’s there in higher ed and business management — he said to me, ‘Did you ever think about becoming president of a college?’ I said, ‘Wow.’ My father and I had talked, but I didn’t know that I wanted it because I didn’t understand.

“It’s a noble profession. You’re really changing people’s lives. The light came on. When I became a dean, I was only 30. When I become the head of a campus, I was only 34. When I got my first presidency, I was 37.”

With his history at Lake Michigan College and having served on committees in Lansing, Pappas arrived at Davenport with a Rolodex already filled with names familiar in West Michigan. He said he was recruited by former Grand Rapids Community College President Juan Olivarez and former Western Michigan University President Elson Floyd.

In fact, two current college presidents in Michigan — at Mott and at Bay de Noc Community College — once worked for Pappas.

“I was fortunate to have parents who let me be what I wanted to be,” he said. “I look at adults who come to Davenport, I look at kids who come to Davenport, who have dreams. I want them to know what possible dreams there are. I want to help them fulfill it.”

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