A College President Puts Down His Pencil for a Water Balloon

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 22, 2011

As a college president, it's so easy to lose oneself in spreadsheets, lines of credit, and rates of discount. It's so easy to become consumed by annual-fund totals, alumni-participation rates, and capital campaigns. It's so easy to get discouraged about the faculty and the administration not coming together the way one wishes they would. And as I close out my sixth year in the job, it's astonishingly easy to understand why I have already surpassed the average tenure of a college president. Everything is all-consuming and all-important, and every step one takes and every word one utters is open to scrutiny and interpretation.

Yet I still love my job. Maybe not with the unabashed and naïve zeal that I felt in the early days, but still, the work I do remains interesting and vital. And, I suppose, despite the bumps and bruises along the way, I still feel relevant. There is important work left to do, and I am in a position after six years to continue to help our university accomplish that work and secure its future. That's what keeps me going most days.

But on a recent spring weekend, all that old zeal returned. The weekend marked the opening of an art exhibition at the university museum, and because of my relationship with the collectors lending us the art, I had spent an extraordinary amount of time helping to prepare for the opening and plan events for the first weekend. The art was from India, all painted after its independence from Britain in 1947. The campus events, accordingly, all had an Indian theme. They started Thursday evening with a student-sponsored showing of Slumdog Millionaire, and after a long day, I decided to head back to campus to support the students' efforts.

That night was where it started for me. For some reason—maybe it was just the power of the movie—I felt more like a student enjoying a late-night experience than a college president dutifully showing up at yet another student event. I had traveled to the slums of India since the first time I saw Slumdog, and that experience made seeing the movie, which I love, more compelling to me.

The next day, on Friday, after hours of meetings, phone calls, and e-mails, I wandered out for a few minutes to our campus's beautiful quadrangle to watch our students celebrate a Holi festival, an Indian-style welcoming of spring, by throwing thousands of water balloons filled with bright-colored dye. I knew most of the kids who had arrived early, and they teased me about wearing a suit and tie to the event. I had no intention whatsoever of joining their water-balloon fight and had, in fact, deliberately worn a suit for the specific purpose of avoiding any involvement. It's still a bit chilly in Atlanta in early March, and I hate getting drenched with cold water.

But as I watched the students get ready for their "spring bath," the thought crossed my mind: Didn't I have some shorts and a T-shirt in the trunk of my car? I considered my next scheduled meeting for that day and how impractical it would be to get soaked and dyed—then I sprinted off to the parking lot to change anyway. Ten minutes later, barefoot and dressed for the gym, I was leading a charge across the lawn, armed with a half-dozen balloons of my own. The color war lasted about a half-hour, until most of the balloons had burst and our collective energy had subsided. Once again, for a brief moment, I was transported back 40 years to my college days. (Although, to be honest, I'm not sure I ever had that much fun in college—at least that I can remember.)

The day didn't end there. Dinner at the cafeteria, too, was Indian-themed, and I thought it would be fun to see what the chefs had come up with. After a trip home to shower and warm up, I headed back to the campus with my wife. On our way into the building, a young student we know and like very much asked us if we were planning to attend The Vagina Monologues that night: It was to be her first theatrical performance at the college. And though we weren't really planning to go, plans can change. We ended up eating with her and her delightful group of friends. The food was interesting, but the conversation and camaraderie were captivating, and we promised we would go to the show.

That night, 15 or so young women—all students—performed in the basement of what used to be a fraternity house. About 150 folks filled the room, and as we took our seats, my wife told me I needed to make sure the fire exits were all working. I replied that tonight I was just there to watch, not to perform my presidential duties. (That wasn't what she wanted to hear, so she did the door check herself before the show began.)

I've seen the play before, and have always come away impressed, but that night I was mesmerized. One young woman after another got up on that stage and knocked it out of the park, and the student who had invited us hit a grand slam. These dynamic, fearless, impassioned young women were spectacular: Another 90 minutes of pure joy in a day that had started like every other business day for me.

It was early Saturday morning when I started this essay by jotting down my thoughts and recollections, before making time to prepare remarks for a VIP gala dinner directly afterward. The previous day had reminded me of how much fun it is to be on a campus among smart, lively, engaged, passionate young people. It reminded me of what a great job I've got. And it reminded me that sometimes the most important thing you can do is to just go with the flow.

Lawrence M. Schall is president of Oglethorpe University.