A Lobster Fixes the Pickle Farm

How David Horner Rebuilt North Park

by Bruce Carlson

A few years ago (well, 46 to be exact), as an undergraduate reporter I wrote an article for the North Park College News supporting the candidacy of Karl Olsson for the Presidency of North Park College. I wrote that Olsson had “the words and the music” to lead the school. One afternoon, shortly after the College News came out, Dr. Olsson spoke to me on the street near Loree’s Malt Shop and remarked that this endorsement, written from the student’s point of view, might be helpful. There were apparently some earnest Covenanters out in the weeds who were nervous about this clever Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Olsson’s candidacy prevailed. He was elected in 1959 and brilliantly led the school for eleven years. We were all proud of Karl Olsson, his wit and superior skills. Why, he could be the President of Harvard, we thought. He was our Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, rolled into one great man.

The 1970s and 80s at North Park were marked by weaker leadership. In 1979, after long debate, the proper decision was made not to flee and relocate the campus in the northern suburbs. And Old Main was nicely restored in 1986.

But enrollment was declining precipitously, as much as thirty percent between 1985 and 1987. Soon there were fewer than 1000 students on campus. The resulting tuition loss caused severe budget troubles that led to ten to fifteen percent annual draw-downs from the school’s weakening—just seven million dollars in 1987—Endowment Fund. This Fund was over-invested in high yield fixed-income instruments as opposed to growth equities, a deadly short-term strategy. Management practices and general morale were not good. Fortunately at this point, David Horner, wearing a white hat and sporting an MBA and Ph.D. from Stanford University, galloped in, ready and very well-equipped, to put North Park’s house back in order. What he accomplished in the seventeen years before his retirement in December, 2004 was remarkable. He saved the school. Enrollment tripled. The faculty doubled. The Endowment Fund currently has nearly 100 million in hand and committed through its pipeline. Horner turned the school around as only a very skillful businessman can when he takes over a floundering corporation and reverses all of its charts. Imagine, perhaps, how a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs with their business skills could ignite a dismal computer shop, or vitalize any organization, on some sleepy corner of any street in America. That’s David Horner at Foster and Kedzie.

Sophisticated business tactics are what Horner had used earlier in his career in combining two small colleges in Rhode Island. At North Park he enlarged the scope of the degree program creating North Park University. When this “University” idea was first announced some of us old North Park College guys thought it was a bunch of hokum. Now we see the practical wisdom. As an example of this wisdom consider the Graduate School of Business, started by David Horner, which currently generates over one million dollars of excess income each year helping the overall bottom line. Horner’s graduate schools now help pay for the more expensive undergraduate majors such as English, philosophy, and history, which should be at the core of a liberal arts college curriculum developing a commitment to the intellectually liberating role of learning.

The current president of St. Olaf College in Minnesota recently sold the College’s 82-year-old distinguished classical music radio station, ostensibly to raise money for the school’s endowment. This is the exact opposite of the way a good manager, like David Horner, would work. What flawed business judgment it is to sell off assets instead of creating new sources of funds. St. Olaf alumni, incidentally, are furious, and it looks as if the school could lose more in missed future contributions than it gained from the ill-considered sale.

(Non-baseball nuts please feel free to skip the next paragraph)

On the other hand, an example of superior, Hornerian management would be John Henry’s brilliant turn-around of the Boston Red Sox (a team close to David Horner’s heart). Henry’s discipline and great business skills in the global futures market enabled him to buy the Red Sox a few years ago. Then, because of the application of his management savvy, last year his team sold out all 81 home games and won the World Series. One of Henry’s effective new techniques is sabermetrics, where, with complex mathematical models, he mines baseball stats to find undervalued players. (Might there be an application in recruiting students? faculty?)

Besides working very successfully on building up the important Endowment Fund and developing new revenue sources, David Horner launched a highly visible program to improve the landscape architecture and the look of the campus. He sees this as having intrinsic aesthetic value and as an important element in generating enrollment. Potential students who visit Chicago are impressed by this attractive campus.

To further encourage enrollment, Horner decided to cut tuition by 30 per cent and make the traditional, arcane system of financial aid more transparent and rational. Tuition is now advertised at $14,000. This new method is similar to buying a car and seeing right up front the realistic price of the car, not some inflated advertised price followed by weird haggling and discounts. These business tactics of transparency and seeking market share are working as enrollment continues to climb.

David Horner sees North Park University as a unique church school that is informed by two major factors: its deep and strong Covenant Church heritage and values and its inextricable urban setting in a major city. These elements were crucial to the ethos when I was there years ago and they are still central. I appreciated chapel (compulsory) and taking required classes in the Hebrew Prophets and the Journeys of Paul. And four years in this great city with the mighty Chicago Symphony easily accessible by hopping on the “El” and going down to the “Loop” was also just my cup of tea. We shopped for shoes and shirts on Maxwell Street, saw the Chicago Cubs in their beautiful Wrigley Field, enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald at Ravinia, Dave Brubeck at the Blue Note on Rush Street, heard eminent guest speakers such as Paul Tillich at Rockefeller Chapel, and participated in the “cultural diversity” of the North Park neighborhood. What gifts this rich city had for us!

The College’s Christian teachings stressed the Bible and what our gifted history professor Zenos Hawkinson called “the double-sided proposition” that Pietism brought into the modern world. First, God’s glory, “this inexpressible sense of the glory, the majesty, and the grace of God without which the soul simply cannot live.” And, Hawkinson added, “because of God’s glory, and as a conclusion from it, neighbor’s good.” Helping and serving others is a natural outcome. These precepts have motivated many North Park graduates, including myself, into very satisfying non-profit endeavors.

Some may wonder if North Park still has lots of Covenant kids on campus. It has. Currently there are over 400 Covenant undergraduates. The Seminary, too, has never been stronger with 600 talented students enrolled. I recently inquired about the music program and was delighted to hear there are 250 students involved in music organizations on campus including 50 music majors. The Biblical Studies course requirements are still in place. So everything seems to be in good shape.

President Horner submitted a letter of resignation to the Board of Directors three years ago at age 52. The Board at that time, hoping to retain him, set up a six month sabbatical resulting in Horner coming back from the refreshing beaches of Florida ready to stay on until age 65. But two years later—after reflecting once again that he had served as a college president since he was 29—Dr. Horner felt, if he ever wanted to try something different, now would be the time to pursue other career goals.

So off he goes, probably into the world of academic consulting. But he leaves a thriving and strong institution behind. We should be deeply grateful for his brilliant services. In my mind he is of the same sterling caliber as his distinguished predecessor Karl Olsson. Who knows…maybe Horner will be back. David Nyvall, another illustrious leader, once left the North Park Presidency only to return to it, recharged, five years later.

(Explaining the title: David Horner, our heroic lobster, has great interests in the state of Maine, and the North Park campus in 1894 replaced a pickle farm.)