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When the results of the 1964 freshman class officer election arrived, Jake Schrum was devastated. Despite his best efforts campaigning to become Southwestern University’s freshman class president, he had lost.
He plopped down on the sidewalk curb, crestfallen, and stared at the ground. What had gone wrong? He’d been elected student body president of his high school. Why didn’t the Southwestern student body want him as well?
“Are you okay, Jake?” A voice cut through his trance.
Jake squinted into the sunlight to see Durwood Fleming, Southwestern president and longtime family friend, peering down at him. Rising to his feet, the young psychology major filled the president in on what had happened.
“Walk with me a bit,” said Durwood, and the two made their way back to the president’s office.
Jake felt much better by the time they arrived. Later, walking back to his dorm room, he thought, “That guy has a good job. He really enjoys it; he’s doing something for young people; and he lives in the big house.”
Years later, with his wife, Jane, at his side, Jake would become the fourteenth person to serve as president of Southwestern and live in the Turner-Fleming house. But at that point in his life, he aspired to become a counselor to ministers and their families.
Jake earned a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, but life pulled him in another direction. After graduation, he was offered a full-time job working in administration at Yale—first with the Association of Yale Alumni and later as a fundraiser with the Yale Alumni Fund.
At the time, the Alumni Fund was running a $370 million fundraising campaign—until then, the largest campaign ever attempted by a college or university—a job that prepared him for the many fundraising efforts he’d preside over as president of Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth and, later, of Southwestern University in Georgetown.
Now, after serving nearly forty years as a college and university administrator, Jake plans to retire from Southwestern University at the end of June. Georgetown View caught up with this busy man in April to learn why he decided to leave now, and what’s in store for him after leaving Southwestern.
View: You’ve presided over Southwestern University—the oldest university in Texas—for thirteen years. Why leave now?
Jake: The natural tenure of a president is six and a half years. This is my second presidency. I was president nine years before this at Texas Wesleyan. When I came to Southwestern, I promised the trustees I’d be here ten years. So it just made a lot of sense to say, “The campaign is coming to a close.” Some of the things I’ve wanted to initiate the last two or three years while I’m here—like making Paideia a program for everyone here, starting Division III intercollegiate football, looking at a relationship with the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston for a new master’s degree in translational medicine, finishing the campaign, raising the money for the first phase of the new science building—I saw all of those things coming to a close here by the end of this academic year.
View: You’ve led an impressive career. What comes next?
Jake: I’m not retiring. I’m just retiring from Southwestern. So I’ve looked at a lot of things: I’ve looked at the possibility of another college presidency. I’ve looked at working for a foundation. I’ve been raising money for years and years; it would be nice to work for an organization that gives away money. I’ve looked at spending a lot more time writing. I’ve thought about spending more time speaking. I’ve explored being a consultant to presidents, who are under a lot of stress and pressure and feel like they need to act like they know everything. Maybe doing something related to the United Methodist Church—locally or statewide, but I’ve also been looking at doing something for the church worldwide. And spending more time with my two daughters—one is in Atlanta and is a fundraiser for Agnes Scott College; the other is a furniture maker and designer in Maine. So those are all ideas that have crossed my mind in terms of what’s next.
View: You’ve announced that you’ll retire June 30, 2013, to be succeeded by Edward Burger, a former math professor from Williams College.
Jake: I want to be as welcoming and as helpful to the new president as he wants me to be. Right now, what’s good for Southwestern is not about me. It’s about him and his vision moving forward. To use a track and field metaphor, it’s very helpful if you don’t drop the baton between the people who are going to make the race successful. So, as carefully as I can, I’m going to hand the baton to him and try to put it securely in his hands. I think we’re turning over a very strong institution to Dr. Burger.
View: You’re an active proponent of the liberal arts education. What do you think is the future of liberal arts?
Jake: Right now, people are questioning the importance of a liberal arts education. People are questioning the cost of a liberal arts education. People are questioning the benefit of a liberal arts education, once you get it. And people are wondering how they’re going to pay for it. It’s a model of education that absolutely works, and presidents of colleges like this are going to have to figure out how to repackage the liberal arts, put a brand new bow on it, and sell it again with courage, conviction, and enthusiasm.
I truly believe that if we don’t give the people in this country enough of a liberal arts-based orientation to education, they won’t be able to make connections between ideas, see how those ideas integrate with each other, and connect the dots. If we’re talking past each other and not having the connecting-the-dots conversation, I don’t think this democracy will last. That’s why I wrote Democracy’s Last Stand. We’re desperate for liberal arts majors. It’s taken me a long time to say that. But people shouldn’t be lamenting the liberal arts right now. We should be selling it like we’ve never sold it before.
View: You were once a psychology major at Southwestern. What was it like to return as president of the university?
Jake: It’s been a special honor and privilege to lead my alma mater. Jane and I will be forever grateful for this opportunity. Southwestern has a great future ahead of it, and I look forward to watching its continued progress.
Jake Schrum’s book, Democracy’s Last Stand: The Role of the New Urban University, is available at Amazon.com.
In August, President Schrum will become president of Emory & Henry College, another Methodist-related liberal arts college in Emory, Virginia.
By Rachel Brownlow