By Dr. Lawrence Schall on April 22, 2006.
Thank you so much, Belle and all members of the Board of Trustees, for this tremendous honor. I hope someone was taking notes of the various charges; I clearly have a lot to do.
Good morning and a warm, warm welcome to everyone. What a spectacular few days it has been. On Thursday evening, we listened to an inspirational conversation between Mayor Franklin and Ambassador Young at the Woodruff Arts Center. It was one of the most special events I have ever witnessed. Yesterday, we had 300 turn out for a day of service with the Atlanta Public Schools. Dr. Beverly Hall, Superintendent of the schools system, came to thank us and acknowledge our new partnership. There were trustees, faculty, family and friends there to work, but this morning, I want to say thank you to our students who turned out in droves. I could not be more proud of all of you. I hope this weekend and all its activities will serve as a signal to those inside the Oglethorpe community as well as to our friends in greater Atlanta that our institution is committed to playing an important role in the future of this city.
I want to thank Joe, Alan and Tiana for their kind and generous words. You are all wonderful partners. Thank you Ellen and Al for those gracious introductions but more centrally, for your ability to help define the role of colleges and universities in public life. I also want to acknowledge my parents, Rhoda and Ed Schall, who you all can hold responsible for today’s event. Thank you, mom and dad for all that you do. Also, A huge thanks to my beautiful and brilliant wife, Betty. Those of you who have met her know what a difference she is making. And to my kids, Jaime, Lindsay, Tyler and Lulu. Coming to Atlanta was a hardship for them, the one who came and those that still live in other parts of this country. I love you all. And to all my family, friends and colleagues here, new and old, thank you for joining me in celebrating Oglethorpe today. I want to add my very special welcome to the three Oglethorpe past presidents who have served this institution so well: Larry Large, Manning Patillo, and Donald Stanton.
I have been president of Oglethorpe for ten months now and I am sure a number of you are thinking, why are they calling this an inauguration, shouldn’t it be an anniversary or a ‘we can’t believe he made it this long” ceremony. I will take the blame for the delay. When I arrived, I felt we had lots of work to do and we just needed to get on with it. Patience is not one of my virtues, but my team of trusted advisors (that would be Betty) suggested we could slow down now for a few days and celebrate, not my arrival, but this university and its future. I am glad I waited. Frankly, ten months ago, I would not have known what I would want an inauguration to look like.
Today, I do — Hands On. One of the joys of working at a small place is that everyone matters and can have an impact, a significant impact. Everyone can lay their hands on the institution. As president, I certainly know that all that I do and say matters; my hands affect many lives. Although my friends and colleagues at Swarthmore came to know me as increasingly hands off as time passed, I don’t imagine anyone at Oglethorpe would attach that label to me. I could not be more engaged in the life of Oglethorpe, every aspect of it.
Hands On, for me, though, means something far more than a style. It represents a commitment and explains in large part why I am here and why I am so honored to be president of this magnificent university in one of America’s greatest cities.
I am also honored by the many incredible people who have been part of my life and that so many of them are here today. I think we share something in common: the belief that one person can make a difference in this world.
This belief for me began with my family. I remember my dad representing the last state prisoner in Delaware sentenced to the whipping post. I remember my mom coming home every day from teaching high school and talking with love and passion about her students. I remember Ellen defending what seemed like hundreds of indigent men day after day in the Manhattan criminal courts with unbelievable zeal and passion. I remember my older brother Rich and his wife Marie, upon graduation from college, going to work in a factory for ten years trying to improve the condition of American workers. And I recall working alongside my brother Steve in a camp for children from one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York. My family was my teacher and what an extraordinary teacher I had. These indelible memories shaped what I believed to be true and believed to be possible.
Perhaps the most transformative experience for me was the summer of 1972. I spent ten weeks at a camp for underprivileged children in a small town on the Hudson River 60 miles north of NYC. I lived in a broken down cabin with eight-year old Black and Hispanic children, working alongside people who had grown up very differently than me, and who were largely a different color than me. Although I was born in Manhattan, I was raised in suburban Wilmington Delaware, which is about as homogenous place as one could find. My experience with diversity was limited to the finals of the Delaware State basketball high school championship where I discovered white men couldn’t jump long before the rest of the country. A year after graduation from high school, I set off to Beacon, to that summer that changed the course of my life.
That summer for me was about being hands on, about making a commitment to touch the lives of others in a very personal way and to allow my life to be touched by others. What I remember most vividly was how one moment everything seemed possible for those kids, maybe I was sitting under a tree in a private conversation about school or home, or after dinner, when we gathered as a community reflecting on the day. And then, as if a switch was flipped, it would hit you how severely the odds were stacked against every one of those precious children and how so few of them would end up being safe, well-fed, working in enriching jobs, able to care for their children. It was a summer both of exhilaration, of feeling I could make a difference, and also of despair.
One lesson I did take away was that I needed to work on a different scale, not disconnected from people and relationships, but using my education to try to effect systemic change. Several years later, when I finished law school, I began my legal career with that dream, working alongside community groups in the most impoverished areas of North Philadelphia. But for all the success my legal colleagues and I had in reforming some of our social institutions, I never was able to fully make the move to being lawyerly, scholarly if you will. For every hour I spent in court or in the library drafting a legal document, I spent two in the neighborhood, around people. This is what gave my life purpose. I was making a living, a meager one for a lawyer anyway, but more than that I was building a life that had meaning to me.
In 1990, I went back to Swarthmore, my alma mater. I never imagined I would work in higher education. In fact, I remember asking Bill Spock, right after he offered me a very senior position at the college, what exactly was I supposed to do. I knew Bill pretty well, so I felt safe asking him this, but for all the young people in the audience, trust me when I tell you this is not a great question to ask after you are offered a job. I still remember Bill’s response like it was yesterday. “In six months, you will have learned virtually everything you need to know to do your job. After all, you are the product of a great liberal arts education. I’m not worried about that. I want you to work for Swarthmore because you understand why we are here and I believe you will ensure that everything we do begins and ends from that place of purpose”.
A year after I started work, Al Bloom began his term as Swarthmore’s president. He is now in year 16. Al Bloom is the reason I am president. I learned more than I can tell you from Al, but let me share two things with you today. Al came to Swarthmore with a vision of what Swarthmore could be. It wasn’t as if that vision had all the fine points filled in, but he understood what a special, important place Swarthmore was and he knew he could move us to an even better place. This was not about an improvement in the rankings or anything like that – it was something more substantial. He had a vision of what our community might become: open to people who had not traditionally been part of our community; providing a curriculum that engaged the world, the whole world; and committed to educating a new kind of leadership for that world. I have never seen anyone so committed to helping an institution move forward, to working countless hours, day after day, year and after year, to make this happen. And he did make it happen. And I got to watch it all. For all those years, I had no idea where he got his energy from. Today, I do.
I remember making an appointment with Al to tell him I was thinking of leaving to become president of another institution. I can’t tell you how nervous I was. There was a piece of me that felt disloyal, as if I was abandoning Swarthmore. Laura, his assistant, asked what she should tell Al the meeting was about and I made up something vague. I walked in, sat down, caught my breathe and before I got a word out, Al said, you’ll be a great president. I can only hope he was right.
I arrived in Atlanta last summer after 52 years in the northeast. July is not the best month to move south, but nevertheless I came full of energy, commitment and optimism. I came to be part of a new community, to lead an extraordinary institution, almost two centuries old. To re-affirm our commitment to a liberal arts education, one that is broadly conceived and designed to prepare citizens who will guide their communities wisely and ethically. I came to provide support to a faculty that is second to none in their commitment to students and to teaching. And I came to help instill a sense of business and administrative discipline to ensure that Oglethorpe has a long and healthy future.
Between you and me, I had no idea what I was in for. Not because anything I discovered surprised me (well, not too much anyway). I found a faculty that was engaged, intellectual and creative. I found students who were amazing young men and women, here because they have a love of learning and want to make a difference with their lives. I found a staff fully prepared to kick it up another notch or two and make things happen. I found a board of trustees fully engaged and committed to this institution. Many are here with us today. Since January of this year, 28 of the 32 trustees have made their largest gift ever to the university. And finally, I found a city that is open to new people and new ideas, optimistic about the future, full of opportunity. I absolutely love Atlanta, although I admit my commute takes about a minute and a half and I haven’t lived through an entire summer yet.
In all these regards, I have found what I had hoped I would. The surprise, though, was to discover a community that seemed unsure of its place in the larger world of higher education as well as of its place in this city. What is it that brings us together? What is our unique opportunity? What is our purpose?
Oglethorpe University, I believe, does have a unique obligation in American higher education, derived from the intersection of three conditions: the visionary ideals and call to action of our namesake, our tradition of education in the liberal arts, and our place in the city of Atlanta.
What made the life of James Edward Oglethorpe extraordinary was not simply his opposition to the destructive and demeaning institution of slavery in the face of a culture that relied on that practice, but the courage he exhibited by committing himself to do something about it. Because of James Oglethorpe, Georgia was the first British colony to outlaw slavery yet his insistence on upholding this ideal of freedom cost him dearly. He was a man of words and of action. Liberal education at its best is reflective of those same qualities.
Liberal education in America has always been grounded in a public purpose, to provide our society with leaders who think independently, analyze critically, communicate effectively, and act ethically. Today, many institutions of higher education have wavered from that public purpose, yet Oglethorpe remains committed to making a difference. John Dewey wrote 100 years ago that the measure of the worth of any social institution is its effect in enlarging and improving the human experience. That is how I would like Oglethorpe and my presidency to ultimately be measured.
It is clear to me that the natural landing place for the engagement of this university with its public purpose is the city of Atlanta, our home. America’s future rests on the future of its great cities, yet we have neglected both our cities and the people left behind in them. This spring, I traveled to New Orleans with 26 of our students. We worked side by side, shoulder to shoulder, re-building five homes of families whose lives were literally destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. There was a lot of learning that went on that week. Some of it came from listening to leaders of the Crescent City as well as ordinary citizens who are confronting the enormous challenges that lie ahead. But I suspect we learned the most just from being there, from engaging with the reality that is New Orleans today. The real tragedy of New Orleans existed far before Katrina with tens of thousands of children left to fail in an under-funded and neglected school system. The issues that we confront in Atlanta and other American cities today are not that different from those in New Orleans. We are losing another generation of our children.
Today, I am making a commitment. Oglethorpe University will lay its hands on this city. We are small and not rich in financial resources, but our community is rich in spirit, and the individuals that make up our community will come together to make a difference to this city.
Yesterday marked a new era in our history. We are Atlanta’ liberal arts college. We belong to this great city. We are committed to its future.