By Maria Saporta
Friday, December 16, 2011
When Lawrence Schall first saw the Gothic-style campus of Oglethorpe University in 2005, he thought to himself: “This is what colleges ought to look like.”
Indeed, today Oglethorpe University has found a successful niche as a private liberal arts college in an urban setting. It is exceeding just about every measure of academic achievement and financial security among its peer institutions.
But that was not the situation less than seven years ago.
Schall’s first day as Oglethorpe’s president was June 23, 2005 — a week before the end of the university’s fiscal year. It did not take long for Schall to realize that the physical beauty of the Oglethorpe campus in Brookhaven did not represent the college’s financial challenges.
“Things were in much more difficult straits than I had thought,” Schall said. The university was spending nearly $22 million, and its revenue was only about $17 million. That meant that its annual deficit of more than $4 million was having to come out of the university’s modest $20 million endowment.
The situation became so serious, that a major accreditation entity placed the university on a “warning” status, primarily for financial reasons, from 2007 to 2009.
“The Oglethorpe story is an amazing one,” said Jack Guynn, retired president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, who recently completed a three-year term as the chairman of its board of trustees. “Every indicator of success has moved in the right direction under Larry’s leadership — enrollment, markers of academic strength such as SAT scores, philanthropic giving and on and on. And this has all been accomplished during the most difficult economic times most of us have ever seen.”
Guynn attributes most of the success to Schall’s “bold and decisive leadership,” which helped position Oglethorpe as a unique institution nationally.
As Guynn said, it is “a small, top-quality co-ed liberal arts university in the shadow of the great urban environment” of Atlanta.
Early on, Schall shared his vision with the board that “Atlanta was our unique value proposition, and the more we integrated the Oglethorpe experience with the Atlanta experience, the more successful we would become. That’s all become a reality in seven short years.”
In recognition of Oglethorpe’s turnaround, the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation — a sister foundation of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation — has given the university a $5 million grant, the largest individual gift in the school’s history.
The grant is part of a capital campaign that is still in its silent phase to build a new campus center and several other capital projects. The university has received commitments of more than $30 million in the past nine months, and it now is considering increasing its campaign goal from $45 million to $50 million — the largest campaign in Oglethorpe’s history.
Schall said that he rarely gives much thought to the situation Oglethorpe was in when he arrived, calling that “ancient history.” He said “the ship is turned and our trajectory set,” and he is spending his energies on realizing the university’s potential.
But Schall acknowledged that 2005 does serve as an important baseline to measure how far the university has come. In 2005, Oglethorpe received about 1,000 applications from prospective students. For the last four years, it has received about 5,000 applications each year — of which about 350 are accepted. The university has gone from having a $4.5 million deficit to having a $2 million surplus. And its student body has grown from about 900 five years ago to 1,100 — resulting in a 30 percent net increase in tuition revenue.
Other barometers of success include:
• annual fund giving has increased 43 percent over the past five years;
• full-time enrollment has grown more than 20 percent;
• the number of students living on campus has increased by more than 20 percent;
• the size of the first-year class has grown more than 40 percent; and
• the university has been named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for five consecutive years.
Looking forward, Schall said the university’s business model is to have a total of 1,500 students in the next several years.
In 2015, Oglethorpe will celebrate its 100th year since it was rechartered and the cornerstone was laid at its Brookhaven campus on Peachtree Road. Thanks to a gift from William Randolph Hearst, the university once owned 600 acres. But parcels of land have been sold off over the years — and today the campus is only 100 acres.
Schall said he does not believe the university should pay its bills by selling land or by eating into its endowment, and it appears he has come up with a formula to keep Oglethorpe from having to do either.
As for his own future, Schall is contemplating his next career — he has been a civil rights attorney, a business executive and in higher education for 22 years.
“I committed to being here 10 years,” Schall said of his contract that will be up in 2015. “It takes that long to move a place. It’s been wonderful — we’re selling a great university with a great faculty in a great city.”