In about 15 months, David Maxwell is scheduled to retire after 16 years as Drake University’s president.

Maxwell, 69, announced last week that he will retire effective June 30, 2015.

But don’t expect Maxwell to take it easy during the final months of 
his tenure.

“It’s full tilt up to the last minute,” Maxwell said. “There are some major things that I want to do from my position in the university to move us as far along as I can.”

The Business Record asked Maxwell about his plans, the opportunities and challenges facing Drake, and Drake’s health compared with its state during Maxwell’s first year at the school in 1999.

The next 15 months

Maxwell said one of his top goals is to complete the “distinctlyDrake” fundraising campaign. The university has raised about $162 million toward its $200 million goal already. The money will finance capital projects, including building additions for some science facilities, a new health sciences building and a new building that will house the School of Education and the department of mathematics and computer science.

His other goals:
• Continuing conversations with the faculty and deans about new programs at every level of the university
• Developing a five-year strategic budget
• Completing an administrative overview to ensure that the university is using its money effectively to give students the best learning experience

The next president

Maxwell expects to play an active role in the search for his replacement, as a resource to the campus community and to the board of trustees.

“The first thing we need to do as a campus community and also involving community leadership is say, ‘OK, so who are we looking for? What are the challenges that we think the university is going to have to manage in the next 10 years, and so what kinds of strengths are we looking for, what kind of experience are we looking for?’” he said. “And I certainly expect to be a resource in those discussions.”

The university will have to be broad in its thinking, he said, because the traditional path to becoming a college president is changing. The old path is to advance from department chair to dean to provost to president. Increasingly, more presidents are nontraditional. Some are coming from the fundraising or finance side of the university. Some are retired politicians. Some are people from the business world. 

“There are studies out there that say there is a shortage of people who are both willing and able to do this job,” Maxwell said. “Historically, boards have been risk-averse. They want to hire a sitting president because they’ve already proven they can do it. And that’s getting tougher.”

What’s next for Drake?

The university is in a good place today, Maxwell said, but it must continue to evolve. Maxwell believes in what author and future forecaster Bob Johansen refers to as a “VUCA” environment .  VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

“I don’t think these days that any organization can afford to say, ‘We’re there,’” Maxwell said. “In many ways, that’s a death knell for an organization. The ‘there’ always has to be out ahead somewhere.”

The next “there” for Drake, Maxwell said is outlined in the university’s strategic plan for the years 2012 to 2017.
1) Define what a 21st-century learning environment looks like. According to Johansen and neuroscience research, tomorrow’s students will think differently than students of the past due to their reliance on technology. “They are wired differently,” Maxwell said. The trick for Drake is to use technology to teach students at the same time the school helps them develop higher-order cognitive abilities, such as the ability to focus on reading a large book or legal document.
2) Become flexible enough as an organization to change quickly.
3) Figure out a sustainable financial model beyond raising tuition. Endowment funding goes up and down with the economy, and research money sources were hurt by the federal government sequester. One solution Drake has found is setting up programs to help with skill development for employees and executives in businesses. 
4) Evaluate interactions with students, faculty, staff, alumni, the Des Moines community and the national community. “Our ability to fulfill the first three goals are all dependent on the quality of those interactions,” he said.

What’s next for Maxwell?

“I can tell you what it’s not,” Maxwell said. “I don’t play golf.” Maxwell said he doesn’t anticipate completely walking away from higher education. There are options out there for retiring presidents, with national higher education associations or serving as a consultant for presidential hires at colleges. 

“I’m not going to walk away from higher ed, but I’m also not looking for another full-time job,” he said. 

Tell Drake’s story

Although Des Moines has always been a very supportive community, Maxwell said Drake wasn’t telling its story well when he arrived in 1999. 

“I don’t think Des Moines realized that one of the best master’s universities in the country is in Des Moines,” he said. “I think the higher education community’s view of Drake and the value of Drake was ahead of what the community knew about Drake, and that’s our fault. That’s not Des Moines’ fault.”

Today, “we’re getting there,” Maxwell said, thanks in part to a symbiotic relationship with the Des Moines business community. About 85 percent of Drake students work internships, and the city’s business climate helps attract students to apply to attend the university. 

Maxwell’s ultimate measure for success would be for Drake to be mentioned in the same breath as all of the other great, well-known things about the city, such as its strong finance and publishing industries, its political relevance, the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park and the Des Moines Arts Festival.

“I would like people to get off an airplane at the Des Moines airport and at the bottom of the stairs be confronted by this huge sign that says, ‘Welcome to Des Moines, home of Drake University,’ and Des Moines put it up there, not Drake,” he said. “I want us to be part of the community’s definition of itself.”

Act your age

Yes, Maxwell really is 69 years old, which came as a surprise to many students on campus.

He says that being around students has kept him feeling young – except when he practices with the women’s tennis team on occasion.

“After two hours of playing with the women’s tennis team, I feel like I’m 142,” he said. “It’s ice and Advil.”