(The following was originally published in the
Chronicle of Higher Education, January
by Lawrence Schall
At an Oglethorpe University alumni
reception the other night (my second of four
such gatherings in four cities in eight days),
the gentleman who introduced me noted that he
had graduated 50 years ago but it seemed like
yesterday. I am not sure what demon took over
my voice when I came to the podium, but I
started my talk by telling everyone I began my
presidency four months ago, but it seemed like
I got a big laugh. I think they thought I
was kidding. I have now passed my five-month
anniversary and it still feels like 50 years; I
guess that's progress.
Just a couple of years ago, after spending
more than a decade as vice president of
administration at Swarthmore College, I decided
that being president of a small liberal-arts
college might be an interesting position to
I knew a fair number of college presidents
casually and one very well, Alfred Bloom, my
president at Swarthmore. I could not have
admired Al more, as a person and a president.
He was always (and I mean always) excited about
the mission of the college, and he actually
moved that venerable place toward a new vision,
in large part his vision. He occasionally
seemed tired and his schedule was hectic, but
he genuinely seemed to love what he did every
day, and every day he made a difference in
I entered my first search for a presidency
on a whim, so much so that I figured I didn't
need to share the venture with my wife. I was
stunned when I got an interview (and of course,
so was she).
When I was offered the position a few months
later, we weren't convinced that the time or
the place was right, so we let the opportunity
pass. From what I can tell, that college found
a great president and is doing swimmingly.
In fact, the handful of us who were
finalists back then in one presidential search
or another -- all looking for the right place
and the right time -- seem to have landed
fortuitously, and we meet a couple of times a
year at one conference of presidents or another
and share stories. I could write a book on the
search process (and probably will when I
retire) but now I've got my hands full.
I began work at Oglethorpe on June 23, 2005,
although work really started for me the minute
my appointment there was announced. I now
belonged to a new community, and everything I
did (or didn't do) mattered in a way that it
had never mattered before.
I could pretty much end this right here. In
a nutshell, that's the life of a president, or
at least the presidency as I know it. And
that's why I love what I have been doing --
because everything I do matters to someone.
And that's also precisely why it's
impossible to have any sense beforehand of what
it's like to try to do this job. I can tell you
(because I'm sure my board chair doesn't read
The Chronicle regularly) that I had no idea.
As president, every call you make matters,
every note you write matters, every person you
talk to matters, every meal you eat matters,
every word you say matters. And every call you
don't make, every note you don't write, . . .
that all matters, too.
Every once in a while, I get exhausted from
14-hour days stacked up one after another and
think to myself, What could it hurt to miss
this next event, have someone go in my place,
not make that trip to see a potential new
friend of the college, leave the theater
So far, I have hauled myself up off the
floor and gone to every thing I could, and
every time, I return knowing I made the right
call. In fact, without exception, I arrive home
late at night totally energized by my
interaction with a student, a faculty member,
or a trustee I met.
I sort of wish one of those ventures would
turn out to be a disaster, so I could justify
the idea of going home at a decent hour. Maybe
in another 50 years.
I guess being oblivious to the demands of
the job was a good thing, as I never would have
believed I could be this happy working this
It probably helps that I have avoided trying
to act "presidential" and concentrated on being
myself. The job is simply so consuming that if
you spent a lot of time trying to act in some
unnatural way, I think you would collapse in a
week or two. So, I'll show up late at night at
a residence hall, wearing blue jeans and an
Oglethorpe T-shirt and carrying a dozen pizzas,
just to talk to students.
One Saturday night, before my family moved
to town, I ran into a university alumnus at a
local Waffle House. I was wearing, of course,
my OU soccer T-shirt and that started a
conversation about what I did at the
university. I had been on the job all of a
week, so I'll admit I didn't know much yet, but
it took me close to an hour to convince that
young man I was the new president. I guess I
might do a better job acting presidential at
least some of the time.
Here's my last two cents' worth. I read an
article in this newspaper tonight (that's what
prompted me to write this at 11 p.m.) about the
demand for presidents with a ton of development
experience. I was not a development guy, and
despite spending a substantial amount of my
time now doing fund raising -- because we are a
remarkable, poorly endowed, tuition-dependent
liberal-arts college -- I would never encourage
a search committee to narrow the pool to
experienced fund raisers.
In my experience (either 5 months or 50
years, whichever way you want to look at it),
it's all about passion, energy, and a vision.
If the job is only a job in any small way,
you'll never keep up the pace. It's simply
ridiculous, and I love it.