One Surprise After Another

(The following was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 13, 2007)

Looking back, as I enter my third year as president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, I am struck by how surprising the first 24 months of my tenure have been.

I have been surprised by the questions asked, surprised by what comes out of my mouth in response, surprised by the enormity of the job and the energy it requires, by how quickly people here become part of my family, and by how much we have accomplished and how much we have yet to do.

There are also things that no longer surprise me. The average tenure of a university president is one that comes to mind. But the small daily surprises are something I’ve come to appreciate.

Early in the summer of 2006, I met the granddaughter of an alumnus who had at one time shown interest in supporting the university. After a delightful conversation, she stood and up and told me the cart (meaning her interest in contributing to the university) was in the ditch, but that this didn’t mean it had to stay there in perpetuity.

I dropped her an e-mail message a few weeks later, putting in writing this idea we discussed about transforming our campus culture into one where our students were actively engaged every day in the civic life of our community. She wrote back and never mentioned anything about a cart or a ditch. After a few additional electronic conversations, it seemed that an idea was taking hold — the Oglethorpe Center for Civic Engagement — that would connect our academic program with our growing civic-engagement efforts.

I was in New Orleans in August 2006, working to restore homes in the lower 9th Ward and covered head to toe in gear (Tyvek suit, helmet, work gloves, boots and goggles) when my phone rang. It took me a minute to unzip far enough to locate the device.
“Larry,” the voice said, “I want you to know we are going to make the center happen.” That’s the way I heard about one of the largest individual gifts ever made to Oglethorpe. Among many other things, the gift has allowed us to buy two new carts (we call them vans down here) to transport our students into the community every day of the week.
A cart of a different sort was part of another surprise. Last year, a young student made an appointment with me to talk about the state of Oglethorpe’s recycling program. Now, in terms of the size of our effort, we looked more like Rhode Island than Texas, so I was a bit anxious about the meeting.
Jessica arrived and proceeded to tell me everything she thought needed to happen on campus. Of course she was right, but at the moment, I knew the resources to make all that happen were unavailable. I was about to explain why we couldn’t do what she was asking when Jessica proceeded to Part 2 of her presentation. If we could provide her and a few of her fellow students some plastic bins and a used golf cart, they were prepared to do all the work.