Our Past Presidents
(The following was originally published in the
Chronicle of Higher Education, September
ONE SURPRISE AFTER ANOTHER
by Lawrence Schall
Looking back, as I enter my third year as president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, I am struck by how surprising the first 24 months of my tenure have been.
I have been surprised by the questions asked, surprised by what comes out of my mouth in response, surprised by the enormity of the job and the energy it requires, by how quickly people here become part of my family, and by how much we have accomplished and how much we have yet to do.
There are also things that no longer surprise me. The average tenure of a university president is one that comes to mind. But the small daily surprises are something I've come to appreciate.
Early in the summer of 2006, I met the granddaughter of an alumnus who had at one time shown interest in supporting the university. After a delightful conversation, she stood and up and told me the cart (meaning her interest in contributing to the university) was in the ditch, but that this didn’t mean it had to stay there in perpetuity.
I dropped her an e-mail message a few weeks later, putting in writing this idea we discussed about transforming our campus culture into one where our students were actively engaged every day in the civic life of our community. She wrote back and never mentioned anything about a cart or a ditch. After a few additional electronic conversations, it seemed that an idea was taking hold -- the Oglethorpe Center for Civic Engagement -- that would connect our academic program with our growing civic-engagement efforts.
I was in New Orleans in August 2006, working to restore homes in the lower 9th Ward and covered head to toe in gear (Tyvek suit, helmet, work gloves, boots and goggles) when my phone rang. It took me a minute to unzip far enough to locate the device.
“Larry,” the voice said, “I want you to know we are going to make the center happen.” That’s the way I heard about one of the largest individual gifts ever made to Oglethorpe. Among many other things, the gift has allowed us to buy two new carts (we call them vans down here) to transport our students into the community every day of the week.
A cart of a different sort was part of another surprise. Last year, a young student made an appointment with me to talk about the state of Oglethorpe’s recycling program. Now, in terms of the size of our effort, we looked more like Rhode Island than Texas, so I was a bit anxious about the meeting.
Jessica arrived and proceeded to tell me everything she thought needed to happen on campus. Of course she was right, but at the moment, I knew the resources to make all that happen were unavailable. I was about to explain why we couldn’t do what she was asking when Jessica proceeded to Part 2 of her presentation. If we could provide her and a few of her fellow students some plastic bins and a used golf cart, they were prepared to do all the work.
The bigger surprise, however, is that a year later, Jessica and her band of green students continue to show up every day for duty.
When I arrived at Oglethorpe, there were few signs of religious life on campus. That was another surprise, given my assumptions about religious activism in the South. The fact that there was no appreciable Jewish presence on campus hardly registered with me until the spring of 2006, when a young student and his mother sat in my office, trying to decide where Nathaniel would enroll (yes, I do want to talk to every high school student who visits our campus, and that was a surprise, too).
Nathaniel had been accepted to many institutions, but had narrowed down his choices to Oglethorpe and one larger, more well-known university nearby. The family is Jewish, and since I am Oglethorpe’s first Jewish president in its almost 200-year history, Nathaniel wanted to know about Jewish life at the college. The other university he was considering had, literally, a thousand Jewish students and a well-established organizational structure for them.
Here was my moment of truth -- how truthful was I prepared to be?
I took a deep breath and said, "Well, Nathaniel, that's a great question. It's true that if you go to [that university], you will find it easy to participate in religious life and maybe in a few years you might take a leadership position in one of their many Jewish organizations. On the other hand, if you come to Oglethorpe, you can start our Jewish Student Association and be president from day one. You can change this place, and I will help.”
I knew that soliloquy would not have be persuasive to many 17-year-olds, and I was fairly certain at the end of the meeting that neither Nathaniel nor his mom were convinced of my logic.
After the fall semester got under way, however, I glanced up one day to see Nathaniel in his Atlanta Braves hat, walking across the campus. We chatted briefly. Neither of us mentioned anything about religion. If I recall, we talked baseball. Several weeks later, I saw a notice posted in our student center announcing an upcoming meeting inviting students interested in forming a Jewish student association to attend.
By the end of Nathaniel's first year at Oglethorpe, his vision and energy have stimulated three other student religious groups to spring up or be resurrected.
This past week, I was in our gymnasium at about nine p.m. and members of our women's basketball team were running full court. They asked me if I wanted to play; I think they were kidding. I know I surprised them when I responded affirmatively. There were now eleven of us. They picked up teams fairly discretely, and then the captain walked over to me: Dr. Schall, you have winners. For those who have never played pick-up basketball, that may seem like an honor. It actually means the two players who picked the teams selected everyone but me. Well, at night's end, they actually asked me to come back (apparently, I can still play a bit), even the young woman I elbowed in the mouth by accident. Man, was she surprised!
One of those groups was the source of yet another surprise. It came last spring when Mustafa Abdullah, the founder of the newly formed Muslim Student Association on the campus, came and asked me to be the club's faculty adviser. My first thought, naturally, was, What would my mother think? Two seconds later (her line was busy), I said yes, I would be honored to serve.
In addition, the Jewish, Catholic, Christian and Muslim student associations jointly sponsored an interfaith movie night. Mustafa Abdullah selected a movie about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Nathaniel and others collectively prepared and cooked a meal of culinary delights that would be served at a traditional Passover Seder and at an Easter Sunday celebration. Mustafa began the evening welcoming the crowd in Arabic, Hebrew and English, wishing everyone peace.
Not surprisingly, I was incredibly proud.