Campus News

Q&A with UGA President Jere W. Morehead

UGA President Jere W. Morehead delivers the 2020 State of the University address in the Chapel. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

He discusses issues from the pandemic to challenges facing higher education

Let’s start with a topic that I know is dominating most of your attention right now, the pandemic. Tell me about any new developments on that front.

I have run out of adjectives to describe this moment in higher education—unprecedented, historic, tragic, sad, disruptive, challenging. It is all of those things and much, much more. But I think we need to accept that COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while. The question for higher education is not, do we remain open or do we close? Rather, the question is, in my view, how do we learn to carry out our mission as safely as possible while mitigating the spread and impact of the virus? We cannot shut our doors when the world needs us most. We cannot turn away from our students or the vital research and outreach that need to take place to support our communities in Georgia and across the nation. But at the same time, we need to be prudent, thoughtful, and careful as we move forward, and we are. We are guided by wonderful leaders with medical expertise like the members of the Medical Oversight Task Force and the members of the Preventative Measures Advisory Board. I am so proud of how our University community has responded to this crisis—with perseverance, fortitude, and flexibility. The overwhelming majority of our faculty, staff, and students are adhering to public health guidance, they are taking care of themselves and others, and they are working productively with the University to have a successful fall semester. I deeply appreciate all of their efforts.

UGA’s new weekly COVID data showed another week of significant decline in positive tests. Do you feel like UGA is beginning to turn the corner?

I certainly hope so, but there were still too many positive cases reported last week, and COVID-19 remains a serious threat to our community. We cannot let down our guard. We must redouble our efforts to ensure the downward trend continues. My fear is that the latest data may prompt some to relax their daily public health responsibilities, and that would be detrimental to all of us as we enter flu season. So while we should be encouraged by the data from the last two weeks, we should also remain focused on continuing to do all of those things that have led to the significant drop in cases—wearing a mask, washing hands repeatedly, maintaining distance, and avoiding social venues where appropriate distancing cannot be maintained. Otherwise, we could find ourselves heading in the wrong direction.

To turn away from the pandemic, the latest U.S News rankings were released earlier this month, and UGA landed once again in the top 20 among public universities. What’s behind UGA’s sustained success over the past several years?

It begins with our amazing faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends, and we also have an outstanding leadership team that has embraced a bold vision to reach new heights of excellence. I remain grateful to the many leaders on this campus, such as Vice President for Instruction Rahul Shrivastav, who continue to push the boundaries of excellence in undergraduate education. Am I excited about being #15? Yes, of course, but there is no ceiling to our greatness. Here’s the thing: I think the University of Georgia has the potential to be even greater than it is. I do. We have to remember, though, that success comes not from chance but from vision, planning, determination, and focus. Over the past several years, we have invested heavily and intentionally to enhance the educational experience of our students, and our growing national reputation is proving that those investments were the right ones to make. I would also point out that many of these investments—from the new Science Learning Center to the Business Learning Community to our Experiential Learning initiative—were made possible by state and private funding. In fact, our recent Commit to Georgia campaign, which ended in June, was the University’s most successful fundraising effort in our history, raising $1.45 billion under the leadership of Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Kelly Kerner. So the University of Georgia is very fortunate to have consistent and strong support from our alumni and friends as well as from the Chancellor and the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, the Georgia General Assembly, and the Governor. That support makes a big, big impact on our mission. I will also mention the UGA Foundation. The UGAF and its trustees have made significant contributions toward student emergency funds since the pandemic began in the spring. I continue to be inspired by the Foundation’s unyielding commitment to our students.

You mentioned the educational experience of our students, what we might refer to as the teaching mission. What about research? What’s happening in that area?

Well, that is another important area of our University that has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. In fact, our annual research and development expenditures have jumped a staggering 41 percent over the past seven years, up to more than $495 million in FY2020. That is truly remarkable growth. I would also point out that UGA is now consistently ranked in the top five nationally for new research-based products reaching the market. As our research productivity grows, so too does our impact on the quality of life for people in Georgia and around the world.

What do you think is driving this upward trend in research right now?

Well, again, it goes back to strategy, determination, and talented people, along with support from the state and our alumni and friends. I also have appreciated the steady hand of David Lee as Vice President for Research. UGA wants to become a global research powerhouse—plain and simple. That is one of our most important aspirations, and we are on the right path. We have added many Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholars in the past several years. We have added nearly 100 endowed faculty positions through the Commit to Georgia campaign. And we are investing in our faculty through capital projects, such as the I-STEM research complex, and new grant and training programs that incentivize and reward sponsored research. Our Innovation District is another significant initiative to support our efforts. We’ve also recruited strong senior leaders who understand what it takes to expand university research in a sustainable way. I am thinking about Provost Jack Hu, as one example, who joined us last year from the University of Michigan. I am also excited about our newest deans, Ron Walcott of the Graduate School and Nick Place, who will join us in January from the University of Florida to lead our College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Walcott and Dr. Place are both positioned well to contribute to our strategic plan for research growth.

How about Public Service and Outreach? What’s going on in that area that our readers should know about?

Well, I believe we have one of the strongest—if not the strongest—public service and outreach divisions in the country, and our great strength in this area has been on full display during the pandemic. The Small Business Development Center is a case in point. From March through August, our SBDC consultants across the state have helped more than 3,300 small businesses secure $88 million in grants and loans through the federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. That is the land-grant mission in action, and I could not be more proud of all that our outreach units, under the leadership of Vice President for Public Service and Outreach Jennifer Frum, are doing to support Georgians right now.

The University made headlines last week for some hateful and offensive comments made by a Greek organization. What are your thoughts on that incident?

I was disgusted to read about those posts. None of our students—or any member of our community, for that matter—should have to deal with racist or demeaning comments being directed at them. That’s not who we are as a university, and we must reinforce that point every day. Incidents of this nature do, however, reveal to me that we still have much work to do in battling racism, and I am pleased to say that we are doing that work. We recently established the Task Force on Race, Ethnicity, and Community as well as the Planning Committee on Diversity and Inclusive Excellence. Great campus leaders like Vice Provost Michelle Cook and Vice President for Student Affairs Victor Wilson are guiding these efforts. Both of these groups are developing concrete, constructive goals and initiatives to make our campus community stronger and more welcoming and inclusive for all. These are the types of positive steps that will make a difference on our campus, and I am excited to see both of them moving forward in earnest. We also are organizing a series of campus conversations to bring together members of our community to engage in constructive dialogue on difficult issues, such as race and injustice. These new initiatives follow other important steps the University has taken in recent years. Just before the pandemic hit, in February, we celebrated the naming of the College of Education in honor of the first Black graduate from UGA, Mary Frances Early. That was a significant milestone for our institution and one of my proudest moments as President. Ms. Early is a role model for all of us.

Outside of the major issues facing higher education right now—the pandemic, diversity and inclusion, financial challenges, etc.—what issues are you discussing with your fellow university presidents?

Over the years, I have been fortunate to make many friends among college presidents across the nation through my involvement with organizations such as the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Council on Competitiveness, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the Southeastern Conference. All of us are focused on doing everything we can do to safely carry out our missions during these very challenging times. That effort is front and center right now. But the issue of restoring civility also comes up regularly in our conversations. Every college president deals with a small set of individuals on campus and in the local community who thrive on creating discontent, disharmony, and controversy. That seems to be very typical across institutions. We all cherish everyone’s First Amendment rights, but we have noticed in some cases that the tone of the rhetoric has changed during the pandemic. It has become more personal, vitriolic, and demeaning. You might say that some of the discourse—particularly on social media—lacks the basic civility and good intention that we should expect in our academic communities. I’ll tell you that as a long-time educator, the type of hateful comments we are now seeing on social media really troubles me, and I think it should be concerning to everyone with a stake in higher education and in the future of our state and nation. I know we all are weary from the pandemic, but we have to remain united in our resolve to serve our students and carry out our missions as effectively as possible. We also have to respect each other, recognize we can have different points of view on solving issues, and acknowledge that there are no easy answers to our pressing challenges in higher education and society in general.

You just mentioned several organizations that you are involved in. You co-chair the Council on Competitiveness’ University Leadership Forum. I believe you previously served on APLU’s Committee of Research Intensive Public Universities. You also are very engaged in collegiate athletics, serving as Vice President of the SEC and serving as a member of the NCAA Board of Governors and the Division I Board of Directors. How does your involvement in these organizations support your role as President of UGA?

Serving in leadership roles in these organizations has allowed me to influence decisions that will ultimately affect our University—our faculty, staff, and students. Name, Likeness, and Image is a great example. This is an important topic in collegiate athletics right now, at the conference and national levels, and it is a topic that will have an impact on the future of UGA’s student-athletes. That’s just one example. I could also talk about my work with the University Leadership Forum, which is focused on building robust research enterprises in higher education to foster economic development. The other benefit of serving in these roles is that I am able to highlight the many great things happening at UGA and bring positive attention to the work of our faculty, staff, and students. I have spent so much of my adult life at UGA, and I cherish this institution and its people. I continue to enjoy serving in leadership positions where I can advocate for the best interests of our great University while contributing to discussions on issues that impact all of American higher education.