Bringing a heady vision into the realm of reality

May 1, 2012
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Richard “Rick” Pappas considers himself fortunate. It was a question an influential educator volleyed Pappas’ way about 40 years ago that set him on a career pathway that, in turn, has charted the lives of thousands more.

Pappas was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, enrolled in a higher education leadership class taught by Joseph P. Cosand, then director of the University of Michigan Center for the Study of Higher Education. Cosand also is the founding president of three colleges and was former deputy commissioner of the U.S. Office of Education in the early 1970s.

Davenport University
Position: President
Age: 60
Birthplace: Midland
Residence: Holland
Family: Wife, Pam; children Brian, Lisa and Dana; grandson, Charlie.
Business/Community Involvement: 2012 chairman of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce; board member, Heart of West Michigan United Way, The Right Place Inc. and American Council on Education; executive committee board member, Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Michigan; member, CEO Advisory Council, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.
Biggest Career Break: Pappas learned the importance of a college education from his father, who was the president of a community college. His father’s example led to a 35-year career in higher education, including 23 years as president of four colleges and universities.

Given Cosand’s considerable background in education, Pappas paid close attention when Cosand asked him if he ever considered a career as a college president.

“No,” Pappas recalled answering.

“Think about it,” was Cosand’s terse reply.

Pappas did more than that. He took Cosand’s advice to heart, and today has more than 35 years of experience in higher education, including 23 years as a college and university president.

Most recently, he was president of National-Louis University in Chicago. Prior to NLU, he served as president of Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor and Harford Community College in Bel Air, Md.

Now, as president of Davenport University, Pappas said he knows of college students’ struggles to find a career that’s a good fit. And that’s what he wants for the nearly 13,000 students who attend one of the nonprofit university’s 13 statewide campuses: to find a fulfilling vocation in what continues to be a challenging, competitive job market.

That goal has required Davenport to implement a five-year strategic plan and rebranding that was launched in 2010 and dubbed Vision 2015. Pappas is leading the charge.

Among Vision 2015’s goals is to achieve graduation and retention rates in the top 20 percent nationally of higher education institutions; have graduates test in the top 20 percent of professional certifications; grow online development three-fold; keep tuition in the lower 10 percent of private universities in Michigan while growing scholarship; and grow the university’s endowment 50 percent and then double it within another five years.

Pappas also wants to have in place by 2015 a guarantee that students will find a job in the field they majored in, provided they did their part to gain the requisite skills in a field in demand. To give the guarantee some teeth, Davenport hired a vice president of quality effectiveness and executive director of market research.

Pappas said he considers Vision 2015 a heady goal that can be brought into reality. With the rising cost of tuition, students can’t afford anything less.

Vision 2015’s quantifiable goals, as measured by the Malcolm Baldrige Award criteria, are being built into all of the university’s planning and activities.

“A lot of students don’t understand where the jobs are coming from down the road,” said Pappas. “That’s our job. For us to do that, we have to transform this university, meaning we have to know our strengths and weaknesses.

“When we created Vision 2015, we knew we were setting a very high bar for ourselves,” continued Pappas. “We have every intention of achieving our targets, with some achieved by 2015 and some after. I’m proud we have taken many major steps toward achieving these ambitious goals and we are moving in the right direction and making measurable strides.”

And if a student doesn’t find a job in their chosen field after graduation? “We would train them at a new degree program at our own cost,” said Pappas. “We will make sure the markets are available with our degrees.”

Davenport also has taken steps to rebrand itself, said Pappas. Most of the people in the area know it as a business and technological university, but it’s beefing up its health-related degrees, as well. Punctuating that is the goal to have set in place by September of this year a master of science in nursing, and in January 2013, a master of science in occupational therapy, and as early as spring of 2013, the university’s first doctoral degree in physical therapy.

While these are all laudable goals, Pappas also is a student trend watcher. Davenport’s scholarship fund has become increasingly more important since the federal Pell grant has been restructured, forcing a current 800 of its nearly 13,000 students to need additional financial help to pay their tuition. That number is likely to increase in time, said Pappas.

“We give out of our budget almost $22 million in scholarships and discounts,” said Pappas. “It doesn’t help that the Pell grants are more restrictive in getting the skill base they need, plus family and work obligations.”

Blue runs in Pappas’ veins. He earned his doctorate in higher, adult and continuing education and a master’s degree in higher education and business management from the University of Michigan. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University.

Pappas keeps a varied and busy work schedule, which he said he relishes.

“Success is loving what you do,” said Pappas. “Be really good at it and the rest will take care of itself. That’s why I really define challenge as an opportunity. When somebody tells me he can’t do something, I really take it on as an incentive.”

His stint at NLU is partly the reason he assumed the presidential helm at Davenport in 2009.

“I am a good fit for what the university was looking for and what my skills are,” said Pappas. “I come from a similar institution in Chicago. They were also looking for someone who’s inclusive in their style of leadership. We want authority to be at all levels of the university. It’s been a good marriage because of those aspects. I think we’re just beginning to spread our wings with quality initiatives.”

While earning a living is crucial, Pappas doesn’t believe salary should be the sole litmus test for someone who is mulling their occupational options.

“The challenge is understanding what career you want,” he said. “You have to really love what you do. That’s the difference between a job and a career: doing what you love and you’re good at. When you’re really good at it, the rest will take care of itself.”

And to help shepherd that along, Pappas believes it’s vital to track career trends and then tailor degrees so they provide students with the requisite education and skills. He’s determined to be quick on the trigger when it comes to launching a new degree program.

“Normally, it takes a year and half to approve a new degree,” said Pappas. “We got it down to 60 days to approve a new degree.”

Tracking job market trends is crucial to Davenport’s ability to get new degrees up and running, said Pappas.

“Based on having market research available at the onset of discussions about new programs and by applying quality processes, the review process to explore programs through a curriculum committee and obtain approvals from Davenport’s board of trustees has been drastically reduced,” said Pappas.

“Previously, each committee would conduct its own research based on their desire to launch a program. Now, broad market research conducted by the university drives the decisions about which programs should be investigated. That market research provides the university with a clear understanding of future job potential and student interest in new programs. Demand for employees, coupled with availability of students, allows us to speed the approvals process.

“We have a responsibility, when somebody hires our graduates, that they have a high skill level. So we really aspire to be at the highest level, and that is a challenge.”

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