The Thrill is Going, Going, Gone

Well, that didn’t take long. Saturday morning was my first Uber drive and here we are on Monday and having my Uber Driver’s app buzz me no longer brings a major thrill. I have come to quickly realize that whether someone needs a ride or not at the time my car happens to be close to their location has nothing to do with whether I am a worthy person. It’s all about logistics. Now that the thrill is gone, my attention has shifted back to my original purpose or at least to something akin to that purpose. As you will recall, I had wanted to gain a hands-on feel for how many workers in our new economy are trying to make a go of it. That remains the case, but a new purpose has revealed itself.

Today’s venture was trip five and a pattern is beginning to emerge. I had assumed most Uber riders were like me, out for a night’s event where alcohol was being served or needing a quick ride in another city from the airport to a business meeting. I’m certain riders of those types do make up a reasonably large percent of Uber users. What I have found though, in my admittedly very small sample, is that the nature of the riders are at least as interesting as the drivers (and in my case, far more so). Four of my five rides – all my rides have been during daylight hours — have been with very ordinary folk just trying to get to where they need to get quickly and not spend a significant part of their daily income in doing so. Three of them have included stops at a local train/subway station. I have no idea what they did B.U. (that’s Before Uber). I can’t imagine they used a taxi. A one mile taxi ride from my local train stop to my house, just one mile away, recently cost me $12. And that’s without any tip. I don’t know yet if there is a minimum Uber fee. As a driver, I sure hope there is. My fare for a two or three mile trip has been on the order of $6. But $12? At minimum wage, that’s nearly two hours’ worth of work. Again, I can’t imagine any of the four riders I took could have or would have paid that much. Would they have had to resort to taking a bus or two? That’s possible I imagine, even likely. But I know that instead of a five minute ride with maybe a five minute wait, door to door, a bus route would take five or ten times as long. Not a wonderful option for sure.

So here’s my take on day three. While the students at my university love the option of taking Uber home from a late night downtown and that’s an entirely worthy cause, an even more valuable purpose is to serve regular ole’ folks who need to do regular ole’ things (like get to and from work) and not empty their wallets. I am becoming an even bigger fan of my new employer – or should I say the company for whom I work as an independent contractor? More on that to follow.

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Well, that first date didn’t go so well

For those of you who missed my initial post on my new venture, here’s a brief recap. I signed up to be an Uber driver on Thursday afternoon. By Friday morning, my application was approved. For some reason, I was not required to take the 70 question test before I was licensed to drive. Maybe they saw my two doctoral degrees and figured I’d never pass the darn thing. Who knows, but from what I could tell, my app was in order and I was set to go.

July 4 in Atlanta is the day of the Peachtree Road Race, the world’s largest 10k race (not the longest, the largest) with some 70,000 runners/walkers. It’s been an Atlanta tradition since 1970. I ran the race the year I got to Atlanta. The crowd is so massive it took me 48 minutes to get to the starting line and less time to run the thing. This year I decided to head downtown in my Uber X vehicle, now clean as a whistle, and see if I could pick up my first ride – someone who had run the race in the pouring down rain who needed a ride back home. I even brought some towels to make their ride home more comfortable (and keep my leather seats intact). I made it downtown quite quickly, but that’s where the problems began. The police and roadblocks were out in force and I couldn’t get closer than six blocks to where the runners finished. Who in their right mind was going to want to walk another quarter mile after running six?

I pulled over on the side of the road and told myself I’d wait 15 minutes for a call. And then it came. My Uber app began to beep wildly. I accepted the ride, and saw that Gabe was indeed about six blocks away. I found the place on the app (it is an amazing application) where I could call Gabe. When he answered, I told him I was his Uber driver and explained my predicament. Gabe sounded really nice. I was really looking forward to meeting him. I started to imagine what he looked like and how fast he ran the Road Race. I will give it to Gabe. He let me down easy. It was just too far to walk; he’d look for a ride on the other side of the Park and wished me a happy Fourth. My first Uber ride gone south. Maybe we will meet again.

By then I figured it had been enough excitement for the day, so I headed back north to my office to get a few things done. I did decide, though, to leave the Uber app online, indicating I was available for business. And then, literally a few yards from my office, it went off again. They say if you fall off the horse, you need to get back on again. This time the gentleman would be waiting for me outside an establishment called Lucky’s. I promise I’m not making this up. He got into the back seat and gave the address of his destination. I typed it into my iphone and saw the word Duluth come up. For those of you who don’t know the city, for someone who lives inside the perimeter, Duluth might as well be Minneapolis. I never travel that far outside the city. But to Duluth we were headed.

My ride was very quiet for the first ten or fifteen minutes and then he got on his cell phone. It sounded like he had taken a new job selling car financing and it also sounded like he was making a fortune. No wonder he could afford a ride all the way to Minneapolis. As we were arriving at his destination, he asked me what I was doing the rest of the day. I thought that was quite nice of him. I explained my tennis match was rained out, but that my wife and I were going to dinner later with friends. I asked him if he was from Duluth and that’s when the bomb dropped. No, he was from another small town. He had come to Oglethorpe to study business, but was now transferring to Georgia State. We talked about his favorite professors (it was clear by then he knew who I was) and he wished me a great day. I left the parking lot and started to laugh so hard that I had to pull the car over. Just my luck, my first ride and I picked up not just a student of mine, but one that was leaving to go to another institution. It’s a small damn town.

On the way back home, I picked up two more riders. Both women, both less well-off than my Oglethorpe friend, one headed to Quick Trip and the other to the Marta Station to go to work. The fares here were six and seven dollars respectively.

Day one is over and done with. Time to celebrate our Country’s birthday. Oglethorpe’s scholarship fund is now $31 richer. It was a good day.

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Uber from the driver’s seat

Back in the early 1970’s when I was in college, John Coleman was the President of Haverford College, a close neighbor of my alma mater, Swarthmore College. During his vacations, President Coleman often worked as a laborer, short order cook, or dishwasher. My favorite stories were about his service as a garbageman. This college CEO and President of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank fancied himself a pretty fair collector of garbage. Of course he never suggested he would give up his day job for one of these part time gigs, but I admired him for just being open to experiencing a different side of working life.

Whether being an Uber driver today is the equivalent of a garbageman in the 70’s is a point I won’t argue, but from my first ride with Uber six months ago, the urge to try this out from the driver’s seat appealed to me. It seemed like an opportunity to experience how a growing number of Americans experience work. And to be fully transparent, I love to drive and with a very creaky back these days, I’m not a huge fan of manual labor.

I’ve got to hand it to Uber. They are really good at what they do. Really good. Five minutes after starting the on-line registration, my cell phone rang and the voice on the other end of the phone asked “Am I ready to have my car inspected?” Ridiculously efficient. Within a few more minutes, a very nice man in a very clean car pulled into the entrance of my university. Had I really not washed and vacuumed my car in a couple weeks? Nice start to a new job. Despite these shortcomings, after a ten minute very organized and regimented inspection, I passed (or I should say my near-new, but slightly dirty Volvo passed).

My inspector had been driving with Uber for 17 months. His customer rating was 4.85 on a scale of one to five. He clearly was not someone to be ignored and so I listened very carefully to the driving tips he began to impart. It will take me a while, he suggested, to figure out how best to catch rides. Stay away from large events. They are a pain to get into and out of. I can drop people at the airport but I’m not allowed not to pick them up. Sometimes, he advises, it’s best just to sit near a hot neighborhood. The bars in Buckhead or the Marta stations in North Atlanta are a good bet. The gentleman’s clubs on Cheshire Bridge Road late at night are also lucrative. That ought to make my wife happy. Other times, just try roaming a bit. On a good Saturday night, I ought to be able to clear $300 to $400. Since I’m donating my earnings to Oglethorpe’s scholarship fund, that has the potential of being a night well spent. I’ve certainly been to plenty of alumni events where I didn’t take that much in for my school.

Here’s what else I now know about the inside workings of Uber. If someone throws up in my car, just take a picture, e-mail it in, get my car cleaned, and I’ll get reimbursed. And as an Uber driver, I’m eligible for all sorts of discounts at tire stores, oil lube outlets, cell phone companies and even gas stations. This was getting better every minute.

By the close of day one, my driving record has been checked and my license, insurance and registration reviewed and approved. I think we are awaiting my criminal background check before they allow me to take the Uber test. Seventy questions and I need to score a seventy percent passing grade before my credentials will be issued. My inspector commented that I seemed like a smart enough guy to get a seventy. Clearly, he have not discovered that I have flunked my first driver’s test 45 years ago. I plan to study up over the holiday weekend.

I’ll share more after my virgin ride. I haven’t been this nervous in a long time.

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Again?

Jon Stewart said it far better last night than I can. The mass murder in Charleston will prove to be one more horrific event in our country’s history that captures our attention for a moment and then we will choose to ignore. Like so many other tragedies we have witnessed, this is not an isolated event disconnected from our history. This is our history, our ugly racial history and our history on the mis-appropriation of the Second Amendment, which continues to this very day. We need to own that history and not ignore it. But I know we won’t. It’s a very sad day for America for so many reasons.

Sent from my iPad

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Thankful a decade later

I was back in Philadelphia last weekend at an event at the University of Pennsylvania. While walking from the University City train stop to the Inn at Penn, I passed a Swarthmore professor on the street heading in the other direction. She was someone I knew from my days at the College, although not well enough to recall her name right then and there. In any event, we both stopped to say hello and she asked me how my new job was going. “It’s been a ten years,” I noted, ”so not so new, but things are going very well. And we love Atlanta. It’s home.”

As I approach the tenth year anniversary of my decision to leave Swarthmore and the Northeast, my primary emotion is thankfulness. Thankful I was able to return to my alma mater to work for fifteen years and to build so many wonderful friendships there. Thankful to President Bloom for encouraging me to consider doing something beyond Swarthmore. Thankful to my wife Betty for making the move to Atlanta so graciously. And thankful to the community that is Oglethorpe for first accepting me to lead their institution and, more especially, for being my partner in building Oglethorpe into a stronger and more vibrant institution. Today is the start of our Scholarship Weekend at Oglethorpe, where we invite the most qualified prospective students and their families to spend a couple days getting to know us. I’ll have the chance in just an hour to welcome almost 800 guests to our campus. And after that, three straight hours of receptions designed for me to meet and talk to as many parents and students as I can.

I remember my interview with the search committee almost exactly ten years ago this month. Fresh off my dissertation that explored, among other things, the length of tenure of college presidencies, I told the committee that if I didn’t make it ten years, I thought we would likely both consider my hire a failure. It would take that long, I thought, to make the kind of changes and the progress that would last.

Well, it’s a decade later now and I am incredibly thankful for both the opportunity to have served this extraordinary institution and for the chance to continue to work with others to make us even better.

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The Rest of the Story

Growing up, I was a huge fan of talk radio. One of the voices I remember quite fondly from my childhood was that of Paul Harvey, whose well-known program The Rest of the Story would present the little-known facts of an otherwise well-known story. As the president of a small, private university, I pay close attention to media reports of the rising cost of college and recognize there is so much of the story that remains untold, particularly for institutions like mine.

The College Board recently published a new report, Trends in College Pricing. Most of the data presented throughout the report focuses on published tuition and fee trends. While dramatic increases in the sticker price of college makes for exciting sound bites and compelling headlines, the published tuition price of a university is a relatively meaningless number. These increases in published costs are most dramatic for 4-year private nonprofit colleges. Among the priciest private institutions in the country, published costs well exceed $60,000 per year, and many of those same institutions are supported by endowments in the hundreds of million to several billion dollars. Add to this the fact that for all but the highest income families, the average income was lower in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2013 than it had been in 2003. Based on these figures alone, it’s no wonder that the media, legislators, parents and students believe that a college education, particularly at a private institution, is becoming more and more out of reach.

But there is more to this story than meets the eye. In 2004-05, while the average published tuition and fee price of 4-year private nonprofit colleges was $25,000, the net price (what the average student actually paid after institutional scholarships, grants and discounts) was less than $15,000. Ten years later, in academic year 2014-15, while the sticker price had risen to $31,000 (an increase of 24% over ten years), the net cost had decreased to $12,000. Yes, you read that right. The actual cost the average student paid to attend a private nonprofit college has actually gone down over the last decade –by 21%!

For most private institutions, this decrease in net tuition isn’t made up for by endowment income. The College Board noted that just ten private doctoral universities hold 45% of the total endowment assets of all private nonprofit four-year institutions combined. That leaves 900 other institutions sharing the remaining 55% of endowment assets. Of those institutions with a billion dollars or more in endowment, the average spending rate is 4.8% compared to 4.1% for institutions whose endowment is less than $25 million. If you do the math, you’ll see that for an institution with a $25 million endowment, just over $1 million a year is generated to support the overall operating budget. For a rich institution with a billion dollar endowment, that annual supplement is a whopping $48 million.

I’ve been president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta for almost a decade. Despite the narrative of rich private colleges getting richer at the expense of middle class families, the reality is that most private colleges in America look a lot more like Oglethorpe than Columbia or NYU (two of the highest sticker prices in the nation, and endowments of $9.2 billion and $3.5 billion respectively). In 2014, our net tuition was just over $12,500 per student, close to the national average. A decade before, we were hovering right at $10,000. In that regard, we have been counter-cyclical; where most small privates have faced a declining net tuition trend of over 20%, we have experienced an increase in that same range. Yet either way, up or down, most private colleges and universities whose organizations operate close to the $12,000 net tuition number have struggled mightily over the last decade to continue to provide the kind of quality education we are known for across the globe.

Just consider the 20% increase in the CPI in the last ten years. With close to half of most colleges’ budgets devoted to payroll, just keeping pace with inflation for faculty and staff has been nearly impossible. This doesn’t take into account, of course, concurrent increases in utility costs, technology expenses, insurance rates and so on. As I have said many times to anyone who will listen, higher education is as tough and competitive a business as it gets, and there are and will increasingly be winners and losers.

I don’t worry much about the top fifty or one hundred institutions; ten years from now, they will all still be among the top fifty or one hundred. Collectively, however, they educate a very small slice of this country’s students. The real question concerns the economic survival of the rest of us who together educate many, many more times the number of students (and often students who come from less privileged circumstances).

The question I pose is this: are there solutions to this conundrum of falling net tuition, rising costs, and declining family income? One solution (that I have no hope of becoming a reality) is recognition by federal and state governments that higher education is an investment they ought to be making on behalf of young people and our society as a whole. Precisely that kind of investment is happening in almost every other country, but right here at home, we are dis-investing from education. It’s hard to imagine this strategy will turn out very well, but we certainly seem committed to it. So, if that’s not in the cards, what other positive solutions can I offer? I know some heartening stories from other colleagues who lead institutions like ours, but I know our story the best and I think within it lie some universally applicable lessons.

At Oglethorpe, we are addressing these challenges in two ways. The first is focusing on our core enterprise and unique value proposition, learning to make our curriculum both rigorous and relevant. Most institutions that stand a chance of thriving over the next decade bring something unique to the table. Those that don’t will need to come up with something, and fast. It might be a set of programs that are in high demand –Warren Wilson’s focus on integrated work and service is a good example. It might be a location or setting that naturally attracts young people (Oglethorpe is blessed with a beautiful campus in the dynamic and growing city of Atlanta, which is a hotbed of experiential learning opportunities). It could be a religious affiliation that provides a unique value proposition, like at Hillsdale College. It might be a signature curriculum like the Great Books program at St. John’s College that is widely recognized as providing great value. It might even be signature athletic programs, such as Kenyon College’s swimming programs. Whatever their value proposition, every school must be clear and precise about what their value is, and how they will deliver and expand on that unique promise.

All that said, even an excellent manifestation of your differentiating principle is not likely to provide sufficient ballast for institutions lacking a large endowment. In order to survive and hopefully thrive, I believe most schools will need to create alternative or additional routes to supplement their core business, which is the second way we are addressing today’s challenges—through partnerships.

At Oglethorpe, we have pursued three such strategies. Two of our new ventures are directly tied to our strategic vision of becoming a more global community and the third to our plans to grow enrollment. All three have rapidly achieved significant scale through the formation of partnerships with outside companies.

In the fall of 2012, Oglethorpe partnered with the world’s largest language learning provider to open an English language institute on our campus, designed to attract college age students from across the world to Atlanta and to our university. The program has grown from seven students in October, 2012 to 260 in the fall of 2014. More than a dozen of these students are transitioning this year from the English program to full-time status as Oglethorpe freshmen. Thanks to this partnership, we are successfully growing our international student population, realizing a consistent revenue stream, and have renovated two academic spaces and a residence hall.

At the same time as this inbound program began, we opened a new outbound study abroad program through a second partnership. In the summer of 2014, over 200 students from more than thirty different universities enrolled in an Oglethorpe-branded study abroad program. These students are taking Oglethorpe-designed courses, taught by Oglethorpe faculty, for Oglethorpe credit in one of three cities: Cape Town, Rome and Athens, and we are on target to add a fourth site in the summer of 2016. Between these two programs, Oglethorpe’s identity as a global university has grown and our bottom line has improved by well over one million dollars.

The third partnership is of a different nature, but also with an external partner –a joint real estate development deal that has accomplished two goals of the university: endowment growth and expansion of our on-campus housing stock. The university has entered into a long-term land lease with a private developer who is building 340 distinctive apartments on a seven acre parcel which our Board of Trustees designated some years ago for this purpose. These apartments will be available for lease to upper-class students and will serve to satisfy our residential housing requirement. The partner we selected through this process not only paid the university an up-front fee that served to grow our endowment by more than 50%, but also made significant improvements to the campus, including a new classroom building being built as part of the complex.

Of course, there are as many different solutions to the problem of stagnant or even declining net tuition revenue as there are colleges and universities. But I’d suggest that one thing these solutions will have in common is an entrepreneurial approach that expands the definition of who we are as institutions and what we do. Net/net, it’s both an educational and a survival strategy.

To echo Paul Harvey, “and that’s the rest of the story.”

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The failure to indict

Along with many Americans, I was glued to my television set last night awaiting the decision of the grand jury in the killing of Michael Brown. When the announcement was made earlier in the day that the decision would be released hours later rather than immediately, I suspected the result would be no indictment. When the state’s attorney took the podium well after eight p.m. and launched into a prolonged speech, I was certain this was where we were headed.

I’ve been a conscientious consumer of the news around this killing for months now and that’s continued into this morning. One of the claims we make at colleges like Oglethorpe University where I serve as President and Swarthmore College, my alma mater, is that we educate students to sift through all the noise around events like these and make independent, informed judgements about the truth. It turns out that’s awful hard to do, I think, especially in cases as inflamed as this one and with consequences so monumental as they are here.

This morning, here’s the best I can do with my own informed and independent judgement. The decision to seek a grand jury indictment in this case, a decision which was a choice of the prosecutor, played a large role in the outcome. More than that, though, the decision about how the case was presented to the grand jury was largely determinative of the result. In my experience, in most cases that are brought before a grand jury, the prosecutor comes in with a plan and an outcome she desires. That’s the nature of the grand jury system. Exculpatory witnesses are rarely presented. It’s at the trial itself where the jurors hear all sides of the case, not in the grand jury room. The room belongs to the prosecutor and the prosecutor alone. It appears that this was not the case with this grand jury — the prosecutor painted himself almost as a neutral bystander in the process.

When the prosecutor concluded his speech last night, I was left with this impression. After a review of all the evidence in the case, he didn’t believe an indictment was appropriate and he used the grand jury process as a cover for that decision. Now, not being privy to all the evidence, I can’t say for certain whether I think his conclusion was legally incorrect. It’s possible the evidence supported this conclusion. I do believe, however, that our justice system in America is biased against citizens of color from start to finish. There’s lots of history and evidence to support that conclusion. The history of incarceration in America is one place to start that examination, but I’ll leave that broader subject for another day. What I will say today is that I found last night’s defense of the verdict to be suspect and that troubles me greatly. The verdict is consistent with the narrative that justice is still really hard to come by in this country for black Americans, even in 2014, and that ought to be of great concern to all Americans.

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