Oglethorpe president takes hands-on approach to sell college, city

Strolling across the Oglethorpe University campus, Larry Schall noticed that an unused dormitory looked unappealingly vacant.

So he went to IKEA, bought curtains for its windows and spent a weekend hemming them to make them fit.

Schall, incidentally, is president of the university.

The shopping-and-sewing project is one example of his hands-on approach to leadership. He also works out with the women's basketball team and takes part in service projects alongside students.

Four years ago when Schall, 56, came to Oglethorpe, the small liberal arts college in Brookhaven was caught in a financial mire that put its accreditation at risk. He has worked to build the student body and the school's morale, reputation and financial stability.

While paying attention to details such as draperies, he has also embraced a big-picture strategy of selling Atlanta along with the college.

Schall — born in New York, raised in Wilmington, Del., and most recently employed as vice president of Pennsylvania's top-drawer Swarthmore College — is a historian who has studied liberal arts colleges.

"Most of them were founded on the frontier and remain in rural areas or the suburbs," he said. "I love cities. Young people love cities. I had this idea that Oglethorpe could create a national niche by being a liberal arts college in a great city."

Some results of his efforts are impressive: Annual applications have more than quadrupled, from about 1,000 to 4,600. The freshman class has increased from 200 to nearly 300, even as average SAT scores escalated by 50 points. Revenue has grown by 40 percent, while expenses stayed flat. Annual fund-raising more than doubled, from $2 million to about $5 million.

Schall can even find good news in the fact that the university's endowment — meager by major institutional standards — is down from $20 million to closer to $15 million in the current economy. Had Oglethorpe had more money invested, he said, the university would have lost more.

Schall knew little about Oglethorpe or Atlanta when he came for an interview in the winter of 2005.

"People used the phrase 'Oglethorpe is Atlanta's best-kept secret,' " he said. "They said all the pieces are here — great school, great faculty, great campus — we've just never been able to put them together. I thought there was an opportunity for me to make a difference here, to take all the things we do well and pull them together in a way that was compelling."

Of course he had to get a handle on the money. With a $20 million annual budget, Oglethorpe was ending every year several million dollars in the hole. The situation resulted in warnings from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2007 and 2008. The agency will re-examine Oglethorpe in December.

The university remains fully accredited, and Schall believes Oglethorpe will satisfy all SACS requirements.

"We're confident this will be behind us in December," he said.

Schall sees finances, function and image as seamless. Improve the image and more students will come, the school will function better and money will follow. Manage the money, and the school will succeed.

Schall "has brought a good deal of discipline to the budgeting process," said William Brightman, an English professor at Oglethorpe since 1975. "He's a very strong leader, very direct."

"In addition to an academic perspective, he has a business focus," said lawyer Joseph Shelton, a 1991 alumnus and member of the school's board of trustees. "It's about the students, the faculty the staff ... but it's still a business."

Jack Guynn, former president and CEO of the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, was on the search committee that brought Schall to Oglethorpe. He credits the president with raising the school's profile both nationally and locally.

"I don't think Oglethorpe had connected with the Atlanta community," he said. "Even people in the community didn't know the university."

Schall set the tone for his presidency during his inauguration weekend, Guynn said. "Instead of pomp and circumstance, he chose a weekend dedicated to community service. I remember both Larry and his wife with mud from feet to chin planting bushes at a public school in Atlanta."

Schall has pushed a program of involvement, beginning with his first weeks during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"I spent close to half of my first 100 days with a group of students, faculty and alumni at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport organizing missions of mercy down to small towns in Louisiana and Mississippi," he said.

Schall conceived the idea of a Center for Civic Engagement to coordinate service projects at Oglethorpe. He was with students on spring break gutting a Katrina-damaged house when he got a call from a donor offering $1 million for the center.

Schall has also played up other Oglethorpe strengths, such as the presence of the Georgia Shakespeare Theatre on campus and the university's evening programs.

He thinks the school is a bit too small — he'd like to get the student body up from about 1,100 to 1,500.

Mostly he wants to get the word out about all that Oglethorpe offers— "so that we're not such a secret anymore."