• August 21, 2014

From Have to Have Not

Last June I left Swarthmore College, which enjoys a top ranking in U.S. News & World Report and a $1-billion-plus endowment, to become president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. Oglethorpe is neither highly ranked nor highly endowed. Downwardly mobile, some might call the move.

After 15 years at Swarthmore, I remain in close touch with many dear friends there. Sometimes, almost too close. I am writing this from a hotel room in Houston that I am sharing with a former Swat colleague who took over my job when I left, in order to save Oglethorpe the expense of my hotel.

We have both come down to Texas to celebrate the swearing in of yet another Swarthmore colleague who is being installed as the president of a national association. Our conversation over the weekend has been mostly about Swarthmore, the institution we hold in common. Yet despite the inequities of endowment between my old institution and my new one, at this moment, I am struck by an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I am where I am. Before you write me off as some kind of career masochist, allow me to explain.

I know that money solves a lot of problems, and beyond that, provides great opportunity. Swarthmore's experience proves that in spades.

Two years ago, for instance, a Swarthmore trustee in the communications industry had the wild idea of creating a student-run radio show focusing on the war in Iraq. We estimated the cost might be on the order of $100,000 a year and truly had no idea if it would work. Part of what we were trying to accomplish (beyond providing students yet another unique educational experience) was to put Swarthmore on the national map in a new way.

Well, turns out the thing worked pretty well, as an article in The New Yorker, a spot on CNN, and a story on Fox News might testify. Year one of Radio Iraq turned into years two and three, and I suspect, although I don't know, that the $100,000 annual investment was just the beginning. There's an example of a great and worthy venture that accomplished its goals magnificently, thanks to that money. (I may not be doing a very good job at supporting my thesis yet, but hang on a bit longer.)

My colleague and I also talked about a town/gown hotel venture that I played a significant role in kick-starting at Swarthmore. I remain convinced that it is a great thing for the college and the borough, and the latest good news is that a trustee whose business is doing feasibility studies for similar projects has volunteered her time to complete one for Swarthmore. If and when the time comes to build that project, the college might sell a little of the property it has amassed over the years to make it happen. Again, bravo.

So, what is the good news on my new and far less wealthy campus? Every year Oglethorpe struggles to balance its budget. Our endowment has grown but is still only $24-million. (Pop quiz: What is $1.2-billion divided by $24-million?) I have a list of 100 projects we need to undertake but cannot afford. Our faculty is underpaid. We are short-staffed. Get the picture?

In short, we have a fraction of the resources of Swarthmore and, honestly, will never be able to provide all the opportunities to our students that are available at Swarthmore.

Yet, despite those things, the two colleges aren't all that different. I've never been a big fan of old sayings like "Where there's a will, there's a way," but I have found that somehow there is always a way. Some of that way involves money, and that's a big part of my job (OK, that is my job), but energy, excitement, and a little bit of vision can make something happen as well.

People who know what an amazing job Oglethorpe does educating and inspiring students want to be a part of that enterprise. And every bit of extra money makes life a little easier for all of us and allows us to focus more intently on what matters.

So, what does matter? As the philosopher John Dewey wrote, "The ultimate value of every institution is its distinctively human effect." I would argue that what matters most about a college education is what kind of people we turn out -- what they learn, how they live, the ways in which their lives make a difference to others.

Harold Shapiro argues in A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society that the ultimate obligation of the contemporary university is to influence the moral development of its students, their ethical judgments and behaviors as leaders. We accomplish that, according to Shapiro, in two ways: by assisting students in understanding the responsibilities inherent in living in a moral community and by modeling for them how one particular community can act morally.

I believe that Oglethorpe, because of its very struggle to flourish, may eventually do those things even better than Swarthmore -- and that's a mighty high standard to shoot for.

In some ways, the amount of money available to Swarthmore makes the choices they make a bit less significant. Money has certainly not corrupted Swarthmore, but I know from being there over a long period of years that it does, at least for some, bring a sense of expectation and even entitlement. I can promise you that entitlement is not a word in the Oglethorpe vocabulary. Expectation is, however, and my greatest hope is that it becomes a word we use a whole lot more.

For spring break this year, I traveled to New Orleans with 26 of our students. The trip reminded me in an odd way of a book I owned in the early 70s: Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Well, 30 years later, our group managed to live in New Orleans for quite a bit less than that, and we made a real difference to the five families whose homes we helped to restore.

In April, to mark my inauguration, our entire community spent a day of service at an Atlanta public elementary school, wearing work gloves donated by one local corporation and eating lunch donated by another. The day before was Oglethorpe's liberal-arts symposium event where our students presented research conducted this academic year, including projects on "The Significance of Scott Joplin's Opera, Treemonisha," "Master Timekeepers of Ancient Mexico: The Calendar and Cosmology of the Mayas," and "Globalizing Humanitarian Aid: A Cooperative Model for Nonprofits Communicating the Refugee Story."

To my mind, all of that is a great example of doing more with less, of rising above obstacles to accomplish great things. No one expects us to be as excellent as Swarthmore, and on some level, I know we will never match an institution that well financed. But in the ways that matter most -- in having a distinctively human effect on the lives of young men and women -- we can be as excellent as anyone.

Lawrence Schall is the president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.

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