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Retiring president helped La Sierra University forge identity


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10:00 PM PDT on Wednesday, June 13, 2007

By MARISA AGHA
The Press-Enterprise

Lawrence T. Geraty learned early in his presidential tenure at La Sierra University that forging relationships would be vital as he faced what he now recalls as "inventing a university."

In 1993, Geraty arrived at La Sierra, a Seventh-day Adventist institution in Riverside, with an unusual charge.

La Sierra had just split from Loma Linda University. The campus needed an identity. Geraty's immediate work included coming up with a university seal, motto and mission statement.

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Tyler Orsburn / The Press-Enterprise
La Sierra University President Lawrence T. Geraty strengthened fundraising efforts and changed the campus's look.

Additionally, the campus was in debt and faculty morale was poor, he said.

"It was a difficult time," Geraty said. "My job was to be a cheerleader for the campus."

Geraty's efforts over the years have established his reputation as a consensus builder who boosted the university's role in the community, strengthened fundraising efforts and changed the look of the campus by improving its buildings and constructing new ones. He recently celebrated with the school at the opening of the $23 million Thaine B. Price Science Complex, which houses mathematics, computer science and biology programs.

After 14 years at the helm of La Sierra, Geraty, 67, considers much of his work done. He presides over his last commencement Sunday and plans to retire at the end of the month.

Becoming a college president was never Geraty's career goal. The child of missionaries, Geraty spent much of his youth traveling around the world. He trained as an archaeologist and has long been regarded as an expert scholar on Old Testament archaeology and the history of antiquity.

After earning his bachelor's degree from Pacific Union College in Angwin, in Napa County, he went on to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, where he studied the Hebrew Bible and biblical archaeology.

On-the-Job Learning

Although he said he picked up some tips listening to his father, a former college president in China, at the dinner table, he learned how to navigate a new world when he became president of Atlantic Union College, a liberal arts Seventh-day Adventist school in South Lancaster, Mass.

Over the years, Geraty said he has learned to trust his instincts more.

"It's like a big dig," Geraty said. "I've chosen people to work for me. I've raised the money on what we've accomplished together."

At La Sierra, Geraty wanted to instill students with a sense of purpose with the motto, "To seek, to know, to serve."

"We want people to be uncomfortable unless they are giving back consistently," Geraty said.

Former Riverside City Councilwoman Laura Pearson Densmore said Geraty's "quiet strength" and "conviction" were important in ensuring the quality of the extensive RiverWalk development near the university.

"He took time to help build community and listen to what people said," Densmore said.

'On the Map'

A lasting legacy of Geraty's will be his efforts to raise the university's profile in the region, several business and civic leaders said.

"Now people know La Sierra is on the map," Densmore said. "Before, they didn't."

The approach was intentional.

"I felt like La Sierra was a hidden jewel in the community," Geraty said. "I said, 'We need to establish connections.' ... I wanted to bring the community and the university together."

For instance, if a community group needed singers to perform the national anthem or lead a prayer, Geraty said he wanted people to think about calling La Sierra.

The efforts paid off. Geraty often fields requests now. Recently, he got a call from Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge about the need for someone to serve on the city's mosquito-control board. Geraty suggested a biology professor who is knowledgeable about mosquitoes.

"If I hadn't been involved in the city, these individuals wouldn't think about La Sierra as a resource," Geraty said.

Geraty has become involved in the community in a variety of roles. He also is past chairman of the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce's board of directors.

He was known for bringing La Sierra musical groups to chamber events and promoting students' achievements. Geraty also was invited to become a member of the Monday Morning Group, an influential group of Inland-area civic and business leaders.

Geraty said doesn't intend to leave Riverside. He plans to stay active as a consultant, particularly on the university's $35 million capital campaign. About half has been raised so far, he said.

But he also wants to leave plenty of time for his archaeological digs, writings and visits with his five grandchildren.

"I'm very firm that I'm not going to be accepting any administrative responsibility," Geraty said. "No committee assignments."

Reach Marisa Agha at 951-368-9646 or magha@PE.com

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