Numerically Speaking

(The following was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, December 10, 2007)

Last month, I had to deliver a talk over dinner to 200 of Oglethorpe University’s closest friends. Since becoming president here, I have faced plenty of new challenges, but one that never seems to go away is figuring out how to stay on message, speech after speech, week after week, without appearing to repeat myself.

Luckily, I am only in my third year of managing the redundancy issue. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for those 10-year presidents.

So there I was, a day or two before that talk, one of the most significant of the year, struggling for an idea. For the first few months of the semester, my head had been crammed full of numbers and I was having a difficult time finding the right words. Actually, I was having a hard time finding any words. Four numbers, in particular, just kept reappearing in my head: 1,089; 35; 1,385; and 469:

In 2007, 1,089 friends of Oglethorpe had become better friends by increasing their gifts to our annual fund.
Also this year, 35 percent of our freshman class came to us from locations more than 300 miles away — twice the percentage we had attracted from that distance just two years ago.
By that morning’s count, we had received 1,385 applications for early admission, compared to 186 a year before on the same date.
And finally, 469 new people made their first gift to the university in 2007.
Those numbers represented immense progress for us in a very short time, but numbers are funny things. They come and go, and I know that in 2008, we will need a whole new set of positive digits. Standing still in today’s competitive climate is the same as going backward. Our future success will largely be defined by numbers; the number of applications, annual-fund donors, total philanthropic dollars, as well as SAT scores, the tuition-discount rate, the retention rate, and on and on.

I have never been a bean counter, and I promise you that no one has ever accused me of being a numbers guy. I consider myself a big thinker, a strategic planner, a focused executor. This numbers’ obsession is driving me nuts, as evidenced by my behavior in the past few days.

Every night at about 11 p.m., our vice president for enrollment sends me the latest application numbers. By late November, the 1,385 applications of October had swollen to a total of 2,641. That’s 1,100 more applications than we have received in any other year of our history. Even with significantly increased academic standards, we have already admitted more than 700 students, which is more than we admitted all of last year.

Most days, the vice president sends me a midday report as well as the nightly total. I feel like a junkie, waiting for my daily numbers fix. She took a day off recently and at noon I found an excuse to stroll down to the admissions office so I could physically retrieve the numbers myself.

We’ve even taken to placing friendly bets, predicting what the weekend’s total will be. I am sure if we gave it enough thought, we could figure out how to calculate overs and unders. For every two students from Boston with grade-point averages above 4.5 … (That reminds me, GPA’s these days have lost all credibility. When I was a student, a 4.0 was a 4.0. Can we please start there and just go down?)

What’s all this got to do with my speech?

Well, I finally gave into my addiction and structured my entire talk around those four numbers. Afterward, people told me it was the best speech I had given in 30 months. Go figure.

In addition to the numbers themselves, I have to admit I’m quite snoopy about the faces behind them. At Oglethorpe, with an enrollment just over 1,000, students are not just numbers. I know quite a lot about most every student personally and numerically: Right now, I know the admitted students’ median SAT, ACT, and GPA. I even have a pretty good idea of their family incomes based on zip-code data. But there is a lot more to these kids than mere statistics, and so far, that’s been my antidote to the numbers thing.

I have all of the applicants’ e-mail addresses, and all semester, I have been writing to as many of them as I can. It’s amazing how many 17-year-olds will write back. My own children don’t write me as often.

One of my favorite young men, after we exchanged six or seven notes back and forth over the course of a week, finally asked, “By the way, do you work at Oglethorpe?” (I have not been concealing my identity as the president, believe me.) Thankfully, after discovering I was the president, he has continued to write.

I did make the mistake of writing back on one student’s blog (I guess that’s too personal) and her friends, who apparently read every entry, now refer to me as the president who was stalking her. From the glass is half-full perspective, there’s a whole new group of young men and women now talking about Oglethorpe.

I’ve also made several new friends through my e-mail messages. One is coming to visit, bringing me a sweet onion from her hometown in Vidalia, Ga., and another is delivering a biscuit from my favorite diner in Lafayette, La.

That’s another problem I can’t shed: Everything I do seems to involve eating. I’m discovering the freshman 15 applies to presidents, too.

Well, what do I do with my numbers obsession? At the moment, I haven’t found an alternative high, a kind of methadone for college presidents. I have to admit I have followed my first big-numbers speech with several more numerical talks. Surprisingly, the whole number thing has helped me stay on message.

For each talk, I have picked new numbers, but only four. I read somewhere that people remember only three things they hear, but, I figure, on the off chance anyone can recall all four, what do I have to lose? Last week, the number 1 was the first of the four numbers I recounted — as in Oglethorpe’s men’s golf team was ranked first in the nation.

I do wonder what I will do if the numbers start to go south. After all, number 1 is not so wonderful if it represents the size of the entering first-year class. Should that happen, I assume great thoughts will immediately begin to flood my head again and the content of my speeches will rise up like a phoenix (or a stormy petrel, our university’s mascot).

Now there’s a challenge for the future — finding a way to seamlessly and meaningfully introduce an unattractive bird into every talk.