UGA President Michael F. Adams is known as a man always working to fulfill a mission.
“If you don’t have a sense of mission in this job,” Adams said at a February news conference, “you’re probably not going to stay here long.”
That mission-minded nature has been a driving force behind the university’s advances in the past 16 years as it has completed the initiatives that Adams laid out in 1998 in his first State of the University address.
Adams’ overall mission has been, as he puts it, to help give Georgia the flagship university that it deserves. That commitment to the state stems, in part, from his roots as a Southerner and his childhood ties to Georgia growing up in Albany, Atlanta and Macon.
Adams will step down as president June 30 leaving UGA and its next president, current Provost Jere Morehead, with a highly rated and more diverse student body as well as a more accomplished faculty than when Adams arrived.
When Adams talks about why he is stepping down now, he tends to mention a few round numbers-like his age (65) and how long he has served as a university president (25) at UGA and Centre College. Add to that the completion of a number of goals that the president set out for himself and you’ll begin to see someone looking for a new mission.
“I have done most of what I said I was going to do,” he told student reporters at the Red & Black this year.
His record supports that claim. Look up the president’s listed goals in his first State of the University address-a modern student learning center, the expansion of campus residential life, a more simplified administrative structure, broadening the ways UGA serves the entire state and increasing the university’s global dimension-and you’ll find that it became a checklist of university accomplishments by his final address.
On top of that, UGA can take pride in doubling the number of endowed professorships in the last 16 years, recruiting a student body that’s winning prestigious scholarships and awards annually and making strides in increasing diversity in its student, faculty and administrative ranks.
UGA also is riding a wave of academic national rankings that puts the university among the most respected public institutions and still is undertaking new projects and buildings as the campus’s physical makeup shifts and expands. All of these achievements, Adams said, help the university fulfill its mission.
“At our core, everything we do here is about serving the people of Georgia, and I am proud of the impact we continue to have on the quality of life in this great state,” the president said in his final State of the University address in January.
Adams’ tenure at UGA will be remembered for a variety of reasons-perhaps most notably for the university’s rising national profile.
UGA’s glowing national reputation is becoming ubiquitous as it appears time and again in rankings for best value, best return on investment and newly on the list of Public Ivies. Several of the university’s graduate programs continue to rank among the best in the nation.
The reason for the university’s rising stock is owed, in part, to the contributions of faculty, staff, students and alumni.
Federal research expenditures at UGA have nearly tripled and numerous building projects such as the Miller Learning Center and restoration of historic North Campus spaces have made the campus more appealing to high-caliber students and faculty.
Private giving has more than doubled since Adams took office and was at $102.7 million last year.
What’s more, beyond the local and even national impacts, the university has expanded its reach. With year-round residential properties in England, Costa Rica and Italy, and with other opportunities across the globe, UGA ranks 12th among all institutions for study-abroad experiences.
The cherry on the top of all these other achievements is how well students at UGA are performing. One sign of that high-level performance is how common it is becoming for the university’s students to be named Rhodes, Gates Cambridge, Woodrow Wilson and Truman scholars.
These accomplished students only bolster an already impressive list of UGA alumni-including one of Adams’ sons and his two daughters-in-law.
“The way that our young alums are going out and being successful is, I believe, going to be one of the great stories in the next 20 years of this institution,” Adams said at a February Cabinet meeting, noting that successful alumni also contribute both financially and to the reputation of their university.
While better performance is one part of the equation, Adams said the reason that UGA has been at the top of so many lists is twofold.
“It’s partly because we are a lot better,” Adams said. “It’s also because we’re a lot better known.”
Adams routinely touts the accomplishments of faculty, students and the university as a whole at town-and-gown events, university governance meetings and gatherings with state and national political leaders.
In an interview with Columns in February, Adams said talking about what UGA does both on campus and beyond is a task he relishes. As he puts it, “I like preaching the UGA gospel.”
It’s not just out of a sense of pride.
The president’s background in political communications has served UGA well in effectively delivering the university’s message.
When Adams was hired in 1997, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents and then-Chancellor Stephen R. Portch charged him with raising UGA’s national profile.
“They thought (UGA) was already a better place than the world knew,” Adams said, “but we had not done as effective a job at the regional or national level in articulating the value of the University of Georgia.”
Now, it’s a priority.
In addition to Adams’ own speeches and meetings where he personally has delivered UGA’s message, Adams also bolstered a public relations apparatus that has carried the message to prospective students and their parents, alumni and the media as well as to public officials.
Tenacity of a bulldog
As effective as Adams is as a communicator, it’s arguably his vision that has best helped foster UGA’s climb. To grow its campus and reputation, UGA necessarily has been proactive.
“There has been competition for every dollar that has come this way,” said Adams, during his 2013 State of the University address. “Competition for state funds, competition for private money, competition for grant money, competition for tuition money.”
It’s been Adams who has led the charge in securing UGA’s future. The president acknowledges that his style has earned him a reputation for being “tenacious.” Adams compares that tenacity to Uga, the university’s bulldog mascot, who latches on and doesn’t let up until he wins.
“You have to believe in what you’re trying to do. You can’t do it by being passive.” he said. “You have to believe in the vision and sometimes you have to push to get people there.”
But it’s not just the changes during his tenure, of which Adams said he is proud.
‘Same at the core’
“A lot has changed, but a lot has remained the same at the core,” said Adams, including a commitment to UGA’s teaching, research and service missions as well as its curriculum and history.
While much of the campus has evolved, Adams is proud that North Campus’ changes mostly center on renovations, restorations and increasing green space.
There are other traditions Adams has helped maintain including much of the university’s fundamental values like a core curriculum that has been judged by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni among the top 8 percent in the country.
“We’ve had those kinds of strengths at Georgia for a long time,” he said. “We’re not a place where you come in and select from a cafeteria of courses. There is structure to what we do here. We hold lab sciences, foreign languages, mathematics, English, history, American civics and culture to be fundamental.
“This faculty has done a tremendous job in maintaining a core that allows students to leave here able to think critically, write legibly and speak articulately,” he said.
While many accomplishments have come on Adams’ watch, he credits administrators, faculty and staff for raising the bar at the university.
“This has been a team effort. The deans, the vice presidents-especially the role that the senior vice presidents have had,” said Adams, listing Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Jere Morehead, Senior Vice President for External Affairs Tom Landrum and Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Tim Burgess. “They have all made immense contributions to the betterment of this place.”
Adams said what he has done right is hire the right people and let them excel at their jobs.
That has been helped by organizational changes instituted by Adams-namely a model in which the provost oversaw the academic side of the university and senior vice presidents for administration and external affairs managed other key university functions. The model lets Adams set the agenda but avoids the kind of micromanagement that’s not efficient in a university of this size.
“I’m a big picture person,” he said. “I’ve painted a picture-a vision-of where I wanted us to go.”
Adams has a habit of calling individual senior administrators into his office around 4:30 p.m. before the day ends.
Sitting them down, he will ask what issues keep them awake at night. It’s a chance for Adams to listen to the biggest issues the university needs to address.
He keeps an ear to faculty and staff concerns, too. Added into the president’s remarkably long and busy schedule are opportunities to meet with the university’s stakeholders.
When meeting with UGA employees, Adams’ light blue eyes make contact with others as he hears their concerns and recommendations. He responds candidly without being blunt. He’s also known to sprinkle in occasional jokes-often self-deprecating ones.
During a recent scheduling meeting-one in which his staff helps the president squeeze new meetings and luncheons into every nook and cranny of his final months-Adams learned a university supporter had to cancel a meeting for a dental operation.
Adams raised his eyebrows in bemusement and said, “He’d rather get a root canal than see me.”
Joking aside, Adams understands the gravity of challenges facing faculty and staff-including the lack of pay increases since the financial crisis in 2008 altered how the state has been funding higher education.
The thing that Adams says he regrets the most in recent years is what he has not been able to do for faculty and staff.
Despite the setback, Adams said UGA’s employees admirably have forged ahead in performing their duties at a high level in the midst of budget cuts.
“There are hundreds of faculty and staff members who have contributed to this success,” he said.
One way he notes in which faculty increasingly have become accomplished is not just in their teaching, their research and the grant money they bring into the university, but also through interaction within the community through service-learning and outreach programs like Cooperative Extension and the research stations.
“I love it when professors are not just writing, publishing and speaking in the range of learned society, but when they are writing op-eds and giving Rotary Club speeches,” he said. “All of that goes into creating the image that we are not living in an ivory tower and that we are here to help. That’s very important in this state for the future.”
The next mission
Rather than taking a victory lap, Adams’ final year in office is proving just as hectic as it has been at any other point in his tenure.
Since his retirement announcement in May, the university’s College of Engineering officially began, as did the Health Sciences Campus. On top of handling the most recent budget cuts and proposing next fiscal year’s budget, Adams said he hasn’t had much time to reflect on his years at UGA yet.
“As the saying goes, ‘the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror,’ ” he said. “You live at such a pace in this job that you have to do what’s before you.”
While Adams isn’t taking much time for now to reflect on his presidential tenure, he is thinking ahead to what comes next.
That’s just part of his mission-minded makeup.
Since a big part of his career-long mission has been protecting higher education, he believes it will remain central to his work after June 30 as well. He has vowed to continue talking about the broader issues revolving around colleges and universities.
The president currently is considering opportunities in higher education consulting and also may teach a course in university administration when he returns as a UGA faculty member in 2014.
Given the national and statewide dialogue about the role of and public funding for higher education, Adams said there is a need for more voices defending what institutions like UGA bring to Georgia and beyond.
“I think in some ways, we have lost some of our higher ground,” he said about the public’s opinion of higher education. “We may not have done as good of a job in defending public education as a public good, instead of just a private good.”
Part of that includes promoting educational benefits beyond career preparation.
“Everything we do here is not all about job training,” he said. “I still believe in the value of education for education’s sake-to live a better, broader, fuller life.”
In other words, the man who said he always needs a mission will focus on one that has spanned 30 years. It’s a mission that’s personal, but speaks to his value to serve.
“I believe in this place; I believe in higher education; I believe in the power of education to change lives,” Adams said. “I’m exhibit A of that, and it has given me an opportunity to represent the institution and move it forward.”
For more information on President Adams’ legacy, see http://adams.uga.edu/.