From civil rights attorney, to real-estate partner, to university president.
It is an unconventional career path for an academic leader, but the path no less that led Dr. Lawrence M. Schall to a place where he never thought he’d be – a born and bred northerner leading a small southern college.
But when he took his first steps on the campus of , none of that mattered. The familiar, stoic architecture of Oglethorpe’s old buildings give the college a northern Ivy League-college feel. It was familiar somehow, he said, and perhaps reminded him of his days at the University of Pennsylvania where he earned his law degree. Despite its appearance, OU is intimate. The campus is home to about 1,000 students and nestled inside a private enclave of a major city. It was just right - the rare combination of old southern charm encased in big city life - and is what sold he and his wife Betty Londergan on the idea of moving to Brookhaven.
That, and the Westminster chimes.
The tune rings on the bell tower right above his office, and coincidentally, the same tune that rings on the bells of his alma mater turned employer Swarthmore College, where he served at vice president for administration for 15 years. It had to be destiny.
Born in Manhattan, and reared in Wilmington, Del., Schall, 57, spent the first part of his career practicing civil rights law for Community Legal Services in the heart of North Philadelphia at Broad and Erie. His diverse professional training no doubt prepared him for what he inherited more than six years ago - "a good school with tough challenges ahead."
Oglethorpe was in danger of losing its Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation after the agency found that the school’s financial stability was an area of “major concern.”
But after having been named this year among the nation's top schools by the Princeton Review, among other academic accolades, Schall said those days are long gone and that the school's financial standing is "very healthy".
Under Schall’s leadership, Oglethorpe opened the Center for Civic Engagement in 2007, connecting its students to the city of Atlanta and beyond in volunteer, curricular, civic and cultural projects, according to the school's website. In 2010, Oglethorpe launched IDEX Fellowship for Social Enterprise, a new international fellowship program in India, in partnership with Gray Matters Capital, a private operating foundation in Atlanta. In the last six years, Oglethorpe has seen a dramatic rise in enrollment and philanthropic giving. Schall also is in the process of implementing an extensive study-abroad program where every student will spend at least a semester studying in another country.
Patch sat down Schall and discussed the highs and lows of his last six years and what's ahead for OU.
Since becoming president, what has been your major challenge:
Schall: The immediate challenge was that the school wasn’t doing well financially, so we put a plan in place and executed a plan. Every milestone we not only hit, we exceeded. The second challenge was to provide a rigorous meaningful education to 18-year-old, 20-years-olds, that the students find challenging, rewarding and useful. It’s a different world now than it was 10 years years ago. You’ve got to evolve what you teach and how you teach and change, especially for a 176 year-old institution does always come easy.
The school community suffered a devastating loss with the Erik Downes. How did you deal with getting the students through the difficult ordeal while continuing with the business of educating the students?
Schall: Erik was a good friend of me and my wife's, and it was a terrible loss to all of us. His mother, though was so resolute in her faith that she was the one who really got us through it all. She told us, "don't you dare shed one tear. His life is to be celebrated, not mourned."
This year’s freshmen class is expected to be the largest in the school’s recent history with 340 new students, what do you attribute that to?
Schall: Telling our story and being clear about what our story is, which is that it’s a great place and it’s always been a great place. We were a little too quiet for too long. That’s not a good thing in this business. It’s hard to get students to come here if they don’t know about us.
What is OU’s story?
Schall: Our story is that you get an extraordinary education here, and in some ways it’s an old fashioned education because it’s based on students reading, students writing, and student’s thinking. We’re not so focused on training someone for their first job, or a particular skill set because these days, the first job is likely to come and go rather quickly. If you’re a reader, thinker and writer, and you can communicate, you’re going to do well. That’s really our historical mission and it’s a mission that goes back 176 years.
What are you most proud of about Oglethorpe?
Schall: This campus is diverse in ways in which most college campuses are not. That’s partly why they come here. We tell them that they're going to live in a community that I can guarantee you that does not look like the community you come from and is likely not going to look like any other community you go to.
Also, the Center for Civic Engagement in its fifth year. When all the freshmen show up on campus, they all go do a service project together. You have to be intentional about [serving the community]. Sometimes you get that from your family, sometimes you don't. It’s a nice way to say to our students that our expectations is that you’re living in the community and you have to serve that community while you’re living here.
In addition to the diversity, what's unique about Oglethorpe?
Schall: We’re lucky to find ourselves in one of the great American cities that continues to grow and people want to live in. The combination of this great extraordinary education with the extraordinary opportunity of being in Atlanta brings any student here who wants to go to work and be in an internship in anything they are interested in. Whether it’s medicine or science, or photography, or working for a non-profit, we can find a partner in Atlanta for them to get real work experience and there’s not many places you can say that about.
What's happening new on campus?
Schall: We're getting ready to tear down the old student center and we're restoring a stream that runs through campus. It’s totally overgrown.
What do you do for fun?
Schall: I play a lot of tennis, I work out just about every day and read a lot.