When Gen. Charles C. Krulak became president of Birmingham-Southern College, in 2011, there were serious questions about whether the college could bounce back from years of financial problems. Birmingham-Southern had been placed on warning by its regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges, and bond-rating agencies had downgraded the liberal-arts college to junk-bond status.
But the picture has brightened under the leadership of General Krulak, who has announced plans to step down in May. The accreditor has removed the college from warning status, and Moody’s Investors Service has upgraded Birmingham-Southern, while still stressing that financial challenges continue.
In a recent conversation with The Chronicle, General Krulak talked about the symbolic and substantive steps that he and the college took to restore stability to the institution … including why he thought it was important to live in a dormitory.
JACK STRIPLING: I'm here with Gen. Charles Krulak, who's president of Birmingham-Southern College, at least for a couple of more months. And we wanted to talk a little bit about your journey, if we can.
You came into the college in 2011. And as you know, circumstances were difficult. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools issued a warning not long before about the college's financial picture. There had been some bond-rating downgrades. And I think there were a lot of questions about, Is this place going to make it?
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GENERAL KRULAK: OK, they announced my presidency in March to be effective, interestingly, on 1 July. Well, I got there, and I never left. We moved—my wife and I moved into a dorm. And we didn't leave because this situation was dire.
You're right, we were on warning. We'd been downgraded to junk-bond status. There was no CFO. There was no vice president of institutional effectiveness. There was no vice president of institutional advancement. There's no director of basically the financial side of the house from the standpoint of scholarships, etc.
I mean it was a decapitation attack. And so we got in there and started assessing the problem and building a great team, which a lot of people say, hey, Chuck Krulak did this. I had a great team. And we brought individuals from all over the United States and sold it as saying, Do you want to raise Lazarus from the dead?, because that's kind of where we were.
We had a huge board—72 people on the board. We've pared that down to about 30, all of them on a one-year rolling time. So you can, if need be, you can take off 10 at the time. Right now, we're not about ready to do that. But we've got that.
We've restructured our loan twice. We raised over $40-million in the last couple of years. We've had our bond rating raised twice in two years. Very few colleges can say that.
We've had our visit from the 10-year reaccrediting body. We went through that with no recommendations, which is remarkable. The school has been able to reduce its debt and increase its endowment significantly. And so, although we're like any other college or university today, we're still always wondering when the next shoe's going to drop.
When I got here, wondering when the next shoe was going to drop, I felt like I was a centipede. I mean, they were just dropping like mad. Now, it's a lot better.
JACK STRIPLING: When did you feel it was the turning point, where you felt like we haven't just backed away from the abyss, we may really be—
GENERAL KRULAK: It was when we raised—the SACS COC needed to see a healthy institution. And they basically said, you need to raise $15,000 to $17,000.
JACK STRIPLING: Million probably.
GENERAL KRULAK: I mean million in the next year. And through the great auspices of a very philanthropic town, which is Birmingham, plus the Alumni Association that just—
JACK STRIPLING: And some of your own friends from the military, right?
GENERAL KRULAK: And I was about to say, and when I got there, over $1-million was given by friends that I had made both in the military and in the civilian sector. The church pitched in. Some people from the sports world that I know pitched in. And we were able to raise about $17-million, which got us off warning and gave us a base to work from, to some of the other things we wanted to do, to start bringing back majors we had to cut.
JACK STRIPLING: So you took some symbolic steps as well. When you came in, you didn't take a salary—
GENERAL KRULAK: Still don't.
JACK STRIPLING: Yeah, I know. This is crazy—still no salary, no car still, and lived in the dorm. You kind of talked over that. What did you learn about the hygiene habits of college kids?
GENERAL KRULAK: We lived in the dorm. We were in there for 14 months. And the initial intent was I wanted to get my feet on the ground, and there wasn't no place to live. But it turned out to be a phenomenal idea.
We had 300 square feet, one closet. And what I did in the very first couple of days was I started sending to our facilities people problems. I wouldn't say who it was. I said I was in 1037H. So I said, OK, we have a stuffed toilet 1037H and just waited to see how long it took for the facilities to fix it.
Well, the first time we did it, it took too long. So I got everybody together and said, listen, this is unsatisfactory. This isn't how we're going to operate. Once it rings three times, somebody better pick up that phone.
And at the end of the, the sense of urgency from everybody on the campus to make something of ourselves, to really be something special became infectious.
JACK STRIPLING: So should more college presidents live in the dorm for a little while?
GENERAL KRULAK: Not a bad idea, not a bad idea. You can learn a lot. You can learn a lot.
I had the captain and the co-captain of the football team right across the hall. I had two women up above us. And they were very devout Christians.
So on Saturday we partied after the game and then on Sunday go up for devotions. So I mean, it was good. It was good.
JACK STRIPLING: Fair enough. So you wrap this up in a few months. When is it?
GENERAL KRULAK: In June, end of May.
JACK STRIPLING: Is this the last challenge presidency for you? There's a lot of people who would want a turnaround artist.
GENERAL KRULAK: I think my wife would probably cut my head off. But being a college president—the days of being this academician, who sits there and manages the provosts—those days are over. I mean, it's hard. It's hard. You've got a lot of things you got to balance.
Before becoming the president of college, I was the chairman and CEO of an international bank. I've used more of my banking expertise than I have my academic background. I think the college president has got to get himself a great provost or chief academic officer. Kind of let them, make sure that that train is on the right track, because that college president's got to be very sharp in a lot of different areas. He's pulling a lot of levers.
JACK STRIPLING: Well, I know people are really grateful for what you've done with the college. So thanks for telling us a little bit about it.
GENERAL KRULAK: OK, great to be here with you.