Doubling Down: WC’s Board Chair Larry Culp on the Future of Washington College and Chestertown

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It isn’t all that shocking that Larry Culp, Washington College’s chair of the school’s Board of Visitors and Governors, would talk enthusiastically about the long-term future of the liberal arts college or the town where it has resided for 238 years.  Governing board leaders, particularly those who are graduates of those institutions like Larry at WC (class of 1985)  are instinctively optimistic about the institutions they lead as well as the municipalities where they are located. It is almost a part of the job description for such positions.

But what is not in the job description, particularly in the case of Washington College and Chestertown, is how much Culp has not only “talked the talk” but made substantial investments in both the school and the town to show his confidence in both; a “doubling down” on the two places he loves the most as well as a conviction that they can not only successfully recover from Great Recession but be in a real position to thrive in the years ahead.

Culp has the background to support those aspirations through a career that eventually led him to become president of Danaher Corporation at the age of 38, ranked 144 on the Fortune 500 and be listed on the Harvard Business Review’s top 50 best-performing CEOs list. Now a visiting lecturer at Harvard Business School (HBS), a board member of General Electric, T. Rowe Price, and Wake Forest University, Culp continues to maintain his interest in leadership and the ultimate question of what makes good companies and good schools.

And all of these experiences, including the use of HBS’s famed “case method” (Culp is an alum of HBS) and Danaher’s acquisitions of dozens of companies during his twenty-year tenure, has led Culp to a unique understanding and appreciation of what he calls “high performing” institutions, whether they be high tech corporations or small liberal arts colleges.

It is this familiarity with what makes a company/school successful that has turned Culp into a significant philanthropist for Washington College and Chestertown.  Larry and his family have made numerous million-dollar contributions to WC since joining the College’s board, with such diverse donations as the school’s scholarship endowment, the establishment a chair in WC’s psychology department, or more recently, the funding of the school’s “Food Lab” in downtown Chestertown.

These investments, however, have not stopped at the property lines of the College. In recent years, the Culp family has quietly made significant commitments to the Sultana Education Foundation and other nonprofit organizations in Kent County.

This faith in Chestertown has also included the purchase of the building occupied by the now-closed Lemon Leaf restaurant and JR’s Tavern on High Street as well as the beloved Stam’s pharmacy and ice cream fountain a few blocks down the street.

In all three cases, Culp is now making ambitious plans to reactivate those venues over the next two years with “best in class” dining, an unpretentious neighborhood bar, as well as, to relief of hundreds of sweltering Chestertownians during the summer months, a unique homemade ice cream establishment with such an unusual twist which is so hush-hush the owner would not describe the master plan on camera.

In Larry’s first interview with the Spy, which also served to inaugurate the Chestertown Spy’s new “Head’s Quarters” and studio on South Queen Street, he talks candidly about the serious challenges that face both Washington College and Chestertown still face, but also of the extraordinary opportunities that exist that could very well make WC a “top 50” liberal arts college but also move Chestertown into being one of the best known East Coast destinations over the next decade.

This video is approximately fifteen minutes in length.

About Dave Wheelan

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Letters to Editor

  1. This is a fantastic interview. We appreciate and applaud the Culp’s efforts to support the economic vitality of our community! Their investments will help ensure the economic stability of our businesses – current and future. These investments continue to solidify Chestertown’s place as a go-to destination for art, entertainment, shopping, and food for Kent County residents and guests. When coupled with the marina, our new businesses that continue to open, and our public art master plan – we have an amazing opportunity to become not only a resident and tourist destination, but a desirable place for employers to locate, entrepreneurs to take a risk, and the at-home worker to enjoy a better quality of life.

    With thanks and appreciation,
    Jennifer Laucik-Baker, Downtown Chestertown Association

  2. Huzzah!!! to Larry and Wendy for investing in the town they love, in the same way they have invested in the college they love. These new food venues will bring lots of new energy to downtown. Thanks for the interview, Dave. So glad The Spy has a new home base here.

  3. As a representative of a large group of alumni called WC Voices, many actually from Kent County, we’ve pulled back from donating to the college due to increased demand in fundraising against both, sky high tuition and declining programs, opaque practices from the board, and more. A few hundred strong and growing, we see, and hear in speaking to community members, that the tax base of the town is shrinking due to acquisitions. We see the local high schools and former community and state colleges taking more of a role in the Shore and rural communities on both sides. Personally, I’ve not known how much real estate has been acquired in Chestertown by any board members, but we’d heard that one board member was actually ousted for a conflict due to real estate what was being considered by the college. This article this week, and this interview raises so many more questions related to conflict of interest than we originally considered.

    Questions we’ve asked to what is now the 5th administration in 7 years, questions that have gone unanswered by the board, in a formal document, with an alumni committee that has met formally with the current admin and the Board:

    1- Turnover and Related Expense
    2- Board Accountability to Budget
    3- Earmarking of Special Endowments and Success of same
    4- Success/Failure/Existence of Diversity Programs
    5- Communication with Community, Graduate Placement and Incubation Programs within the Community
    6- Sports Programs / Centennial Conference – Alumni Recruiting and long term success planning
    7- Tuition Prices vs ‘competitive’ schools

    Almost 300 alumni from all walks of life have held back communication and funds while seeking answers from quesions asked almost 1 year ago from this admin, and more importantly and much more complicit, the Board. In the abscence of answers, and seemingly, accountability, it appears the College has been managed like a very large corporation, and has possibly decayed and eroded from within, like an old wedding cake from a Dickens novel.

    We see promise in some programs that seem to be happening in the upcoming months. However, we do not see a good track record coming from the school’s past various administrations, we don’t hear it from local business owners, and as alumni, many are vexed being ask to fund more of the same. When faculty alike is not brought into the direction of the program, it appears Rome is burning under this Board’s direction. Past results can very well be indicative of future performance. We will continue to withhold donations until the transparency and direction is more in line with the fate of one of this nation’s oldest educational institutions that is inseparably linked with this beloved community on the Eastern Shore that many of us call, or have called, home.

    To refer back to the video, regarding the capability of the school, its place in the community, and in history, and the future of a Liberal Arts education, we do agree with Culp about what this education can, has and will mean. We know, and are very comfortable, that a Liberal Arts school, and degree, have very long legs and can thrive in today’s world. Culp is an example of this, as are many successful alumni from the Oscar winners, to the authors, to the business owners, lawyers, teachers and leaders we number among us. The school’s future, however, we feel, is questionable.

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