By Joe Earle
After Lawrence Schall arrived at Oglethorpe University five years ago as its 16th president, he asked for the school’s business plan.
“People looked at me like I was from Mars,” Schall told members of the Brookhaven Community Connection recently. “But if you don’t have a business plan in place that at least has a chance of working, you’re not going to be here next year.”
So, he said, he set out to get the school’s finances in order. Schall, who said he had recently signed a contract for another five years as Oglethorpe’s president, until 2015, used his June 8 appearance before the BCC as a chance to review what’s happened in his first five years heading the Brookhaven-based college and to look at what’s coming in the next five.
When he arrived, Oglethorpe’s finances were in sad shape. He discovered the school was spending about $20 million a year while taking in about $16 million. Today, with more students and expanded evening programs, the school has revenues of about $23 million and expenditures of about $18 million, he said.
Schall discovered that through the years, Oglethorpe had raised cash by selling land. After the school settled in Brookhaven nearly a century ago, it accumulated nearly 1,500 acres, he said, and at one point newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, a supporter of the school, sold about 500 acres to Oglethorpe “for, like, $100.”
“One of the ways Oglethorpe has ended up doing well over the years it’s been there is every 10 years or so, it sold a piece of land,” Schall said. “Even I have sold a piece of land – 24 acres for about a half million an acre.”
The school retains about 104 acres – “Our campus is actually bigger than Emory [University]’s,” he said. – but selling land is not a workable business plan for the college. “We need not to sell any more land,” he said.
Looking to his second five years as president, Schall said he’s seeking ways to set Oglethorpe apart from other Georgia colleges. He wants to establish a “brand” for Oglethorpe, he said.
“People, even in Oglethorpe’s backyard, couldn’t tell you anything about Oglethorpe except, ‘I drove by it every day and it’s really pretty. It looks like a castle,’” Schall said. “They literally couldn’t tell you anything about it, except it sat up there, and maybe my son or daughter went to camp there, or we went to see [a play at Georgia] Shakespeare. … The architecture is not a bad image, but you need to have more than that.”
Schall said college officials recently adopted a strategic plan under which Oglethorpe will provide the kind of education they believe will make the school known as “Atlanta’s liberal arts college.” There are about 20 colleges in the metro area, he said, and what can set Oglethorpe apart from the others would be the way it interacts with the outside world.
“Our kids are very bright kids,” he said, “but they don’t get the work world. They don’t get it because they haven’t been in it.”
In the future, he said, Oglethorpe students should spend a semester abroad and a semester “out in the community” working in a business, a political campaign or a non-profit agency.
“When students get out of Oglethorpe [in the future], the experiences they talk about will not just be the experiences they have with a philosophy professor,” he said, “but the experiences they had off campus.”
Now that school finances appear to be in order, Oglethorpe is doing well, Schall said. Applications are up nearly five-fold, he said.
“It’s a very good place to be now,” Schall said.