Campus News

The status of the vision

Michael F. Adams reflects on his 10 years as president of UGA

Columns: When you began your tenure, you used the theme “A place of hope and vision” as your creed for the university. Is that vision the same or has it changed?

Adams: That vision remains important to me. I want this to be a place where a reasonably bright kid from Albany, as I was, can still come.

In some respects, that vision is broader now than it was 10 years ago. My general view in 1997 was that for a research university, UGA’s research was focused fairly narrowly in four or five areas. UGA needed medical education, which I first mentioned in ’98 or ’99, and now we’re on the cusp of it. It needed broadened engineering offerings; and now we’ve got some of that, although not all I’d like to see. It needed to improve on its strengths and expand into new areas of expertise. I don’t know that you ever do that completely, but I think we’ve made progress over the past 10 years.

Columns: You talked early on about moving beyond regional confines toward thinking and acting in a national context. To what extent has UGA accomplished that?

Adams: I think the university’s national reputation and presence have grown substantially in 10 years. The content of the media clip file every morning is dramatically different than it was 10 years ago. I don’t want to leave the impression that I’ve done that—it’s been done by an active and engaged faculty and staff. But I think I have played some role in that through the national leadership positions I’ve held in the American Council on Education, NASULGC and the
National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Columns: In addition to being elected to a two-year term as chairman of the NCAA’s executive committee earlier this year, you have chaired several other national organizations. How does your service with these organizations benefit UGA?

Adams: That was one of the things that the board of regents asked me to do when they hired me. (Former UGA Presidents) Chuck Knapp, Fred Davison, Henry King Stanford and a whole host of people had built a sound base, and they deserve the credit for making this a good, strong, sound institution well before I got here. But I think we have greatly expanded our visibility nationally and internationally over the past years.

My experience in Washington, D.C., has helped in dealing with the folks at the American Council on Education and various Washington alphabet groups as well as dealing with the House and the Senate there, and I think it benefits UGA financially. If you look just at the campus, the amount of money it’s taken to do what we’ve done. . . we’ve gone to every source we know, including federal sources.

But even more important is the visibility level that comes with that. I know most of the major university presidents and they know me, and that does give us a higher level of visibility and opportunities.

The way that translates into faculty recruitment is when people see an institution moving forward, making progress, hiring people, building buildings, recruiting students, it draws the best minds in the country. So it’s not too much of a leap to say that because of a higher visibility level, we’re able to recruit and retain better people. We have great vice presidents, great deans and a terrific, committed faculty and staff. All of that matters. People are the essence of the place.

Columns: Throughout its history, UGA has hosted a number of prominent leaders, including U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. What does having such distinguished visitors interacting with faculty, students and administrators mean for a national institution?

Adams: Again, it raises the visibility. It means that we’re engaging with people who are impacting the most important national issues. We now have so much of that, that we almost take it for granted. One day last year John Edwards and George H.W. Bush were on campus on the same day. There are very few presidential candidates who don’t pass through here now. Naming a major Georgia business leader—not to mention a major Georgia political leader—who has not spoken here would be hard to do. The visibility level is important, but so is engaging in the most important national issues.

Columns: In a speech to the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta earlier this year, you said the university’s mission as a land-grant institution is changing from its original focus on agriculture. What do you see as the university’s new mission? What factors contributed to the change in focus? How is your administration planning to address the change?

Adams: I don’t think the university is walking away from our agricultural mission; I think we’re redefining it. We’re defining it in a 21st-century way for a state that has not only considerable agricultural production, but also food safety and food research. A considerably smaller percentage of the state’s population lives on farms than did 50 years ago. Many of those are part-timers who may work at the local hardware store in the day and go home and farm at night or on weekends.

I think the mission also has changed to the point where we have to be more engaged with solving urban problems and general state problems. Let me mention four that are key:

First, clearly, is the education of our young people. The lack of academic development of black males in this state is a ticking social time bomb that I’m very concerned about.

Second: water. I don’t know at what point we’ll reach the water tipping point, but we’re considerably closer with nine and a half million people in Georgia than we were even 10 or 15 years ago.

Third: urban blight and transportation. The university has considerable expertise in land-use planning, and it’s going to serve the state well, going forward.

Fourth:  a lot of our state functions and infrastructure were put in place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are some fundamental questions about how we do business in Georgia and whether or not we are really prepared for the 21st century. How much government do we need? How do we streamline? How do you deal with regional pollution, regional transportation, regional needs when you’ve got 159 counties and a multitude of small municipalities? There are some basic structural issues that places like the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, the Fanning Institute and others can make contributions toward solving.

Columns: In 2000, you said the work of the University of Georgia in the next decade would be to put a new focus on its ­traditional mission of teaching, research and public ­service. Talk about that new focus and how it has evolved over the past seven years.

Adams: The focus that has changed the least is the teaching. For our constituency, that’s going to be true going forward. Our constituency still values the interaction between the professor and the students. Public service has changed dramatically. The four areas I was just talking about are, in many ways, both public service and research functions.

The area that will probably change as much this decade as any is what we’ve done to strengthen research. Several new facilities including the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, the Coverdell Center, the Animal Health Research Center, all have been dedicated recently. They aren’t necessarily important for their physical facilities, but for the people they’ve attracted. Of our 16 Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholars, we’ve hired 13 in the past decade and there are a couple more in the pipeline. Research and public service have changed more than teaching.

Columns: In your 1998 State of the University address, you said, “Every president, new or old, brings not only certain stylistic qualities to an institution but also certain deeply rooted beliefs or themes around which he or she feels an institution can be developed.” Looking back over the past 10 years, what are the qualities, beliefs and themes that have been the cornerstones of your administration?

Adams: Let’s start with style: Whether you like it or not, the president of every academic institution is pretty much the embodiment of that place. I changed the administrative structure here my first year, and I’ve stayed with that structure. We went to a three senior vice president model and reinstated the provost. I said I was probably going to spend about half my time off campus, and I’ve done that. And the whole nature of the place, as far as development, fundraising, intergovernmental relations and government assistance has, I believe, reflected my own style and approach in various ways.

The core values have not changed. Each person has value. Every person ought to be treated as we would have ourselves be treated. I have preached the whole business of treating students properly with every meeting I’ve ever had with faculty and staff. That’s a core value for me.

Basically, it sounds trite to a lot of people, but the old “faith, family and friends” standard is true for me. I have some deeply held faith-based beliefs. I’ve had a very supportive family at times when things were not always placid around here.

And I have 10 or 12 friends who, if I were stranded on a desert island somewhere, would come get me or at least I believe they would. So I have those kind of support bases in very good standing.

Columns: The past few years have been some of the most politically divisive in memory. How has UGA managed to weather the storms of reversed political parties on the state and national levels?

Adams: First of all, just by instinct and by belief system, I’m a political moderate. That gives me entrée to both parties, and we’ve been successful by working across the aisle. We’ve also been helped greatly by six or eight key people who have been in there with us. I’ve been fortunate to work with three governors, all of whom have been alumni: two Democrats and one Republican, and all three have helped greatly.

I became very close to (former Georgia House Speaker) Tom Murphy, and I miss him. I think he trusted me, and I think that helped us considerably. I’ve had good relations with current Speaker (Glenn) Richardson, (with former Lt. Gov.) Mark Taylor and (Lt. Gov.) Casey Cagle. All of those people have been committed to the health of this university.

I don’t get involved in a lot of things that don’t impact UGA. Even fundraising. The only time I ever broke this rule was when I chaired the United Way (campaign) in central Kentucky (while president of Centre College). But I have not done that sort of thing here, even though I’ve been asked to. When people see me coming, I want them thinking “UGA,” not wondering if I’m going to be talking to them about some other cause or giving opportunity. So I have turned down social, civic and business opportunities because of my primary responsibility here.
Columns: A few years back, UGA embarked upon a major fundraising initiative and reached its goal well ahead of schedule. What is your assessment of the impact of the $500 million Archway to Excellence Campaign?

Adams: A big challenge at UGA 10 years ago was the endowment level. We had about $240 million. With expanded fundraising efforts and help with the market, we’ve tripled that in 10 years, and that doesn’t count land assets that have probably added multiple millions on top of that. The culture has changed with respect to fundraising; for many years, going back decades, if we needed something we would go up to the state with our hand out and we expected them to help out.

But those days are long over. So we have put in place—with the help of just scores of people out there—a new way of doing things. When the decision was made, almost seven years ago, to do a $500 million campaign, there was real debate about whether we could do that much. And now we’re going to end up in the $650 million plus range, and we met our original goal 15 months ahead of schedule. That, too, has changed the way we do things. The next campaign will have to be $1 billion or more.

The really great universities, public or private, are raising lots of outside money. We haven’t yet done what we should be doing, but the potential for future fundraising success remains strong.

Columns: Demand for admission to UGA is high and the academic caliber of students continues to rise. What sort of challenges and opportunities does this scenario present for UGA and students who want to study here?

Adams: It’s both our biggest asset and our biggest political problem. We had to deny admission to almost 9,000 Georgians this year. Some of the letters I get every April are really heart-wrenching. We have people who literally would give their right arm to be here, but we have structural limits on how many students we can serve. It is heart rending to write letters to grandparents and great-grandparents about students who would’ve been fourth or fifth generation alums. But I always hold out the possibility of transfer. And some students do. It is important to note that the UGA student body, almost exactly like a mirror, reflects the college preparatory students in the state. If you are going through a college preparatory program in Dougherty or Lowndes counties or Fitzgerald, you have just as much chance of getting into UGA as you do if you live in north Atlanta. There are a lot of myths out there about that process, but we just did a study two years ago, and UGA reflects the college-prepared population of the state, and that’s what we want to do.

Columns: One mandate of your administration has been to increase the diversity of the student body. How successful do you believe the university has been in improving minority recruitment and retention?

Adams: Overall we’ve been successful. The university’s total minority number is in the 17 percent range, about 7 percent African American, 5 percent Asian American, 2 percent Hispanic—but to be fair about it, it has not been a steady climb. There have been ups and downs along the way. And my gut instincts are that given the lack of preparation in the state—in some African-American communities especially—that trend is going to continue. Some years are going to be better than others until we see the benefit of the kind of K-12 reform that is still going on in this state.

There was an article in the paper recently saying that eighth grade students in Clarke County were near the top of the state in algebra scores. That’s a really encouraging sign. As those kinds of trends continue, we will be able to attract and admit more African Americans.

I do think the culture here for minorities has improved over the past 10 years. We’ve been very overt about saying, “We want you here” and recruiting. We’ve set up recruiting offices in several counties to better recruit African-American students, but it has not been an always-smooth trajectory. It has had, and probably always will have, some ups and downs. The thing I don’t think most people question today is our commitment.

Columns: One of your goals has been to increase the number of and opportunities for students studying abroad. In 1999, UGA began its first year-round residential study-abroad program in Oxford, England. Since then, students have been able to study and conduct research around the globe and at UGA facilities in Cortona and Costa Rica. What’s the next step for UGA’s global efforts? Why is the study-abroad experience important for students?

Adams: This is one of our very best success areas. We’ve gone from about 5 percent to about 30 percent of the undergraduate student body doing residential study-abroad programs.

I believe that students mature in that environment, that they are better students when they come back here than when they went. And I want to see more and more sophomore-level students take a semester for study abroad.

We bought property in Costa Rica. We bought property in Cortona, Italy. We bought property and now are doing our second iteration in Oxford, England. We have about 60 bilateral arrangements around the world with different universities. UGA is ninth in the nation in the number of students having a study-abroad experience.

We’re also doing better as far as students here taking foreign languages as a major or minor. I think we offer 20 foreign languages.

We’re welcoming students from 140 different countries. The whole role of internationalization is much stronger than it was 10 years ago. That is a known and a proven success. We, at some point, need to go to Asia. We need to go to Africa. We also need a German-speaking and a French-speaking site.

Columns: How has your tenure changed the individual experience for each student?

Adams: I hope it’s made it better, but it’s never perfect. We have the first new residence halls in 30 years. We have the top food service program in the country. We’re the whole package from soup to nuts. A student can do here anything he or she wants to do—Greek, non-Greek, the hiking club, the bicycling club,  club  or intramural sports, spend time in Atlanta with big-time entertainment or become part of the Athens music scene. There’s just not much that you can do at another major university that you can’t do here.

But the real progress is the students here get more for their money given the cost or lack of cost as any place I know. Particularly in the third- and fourth-year courses and in the professional courses, we’re probably the best bargain in America.

 The one area where I still want to see us do better is in the number of full-time faculty and the quality of our first- and second-year courses. And we’re working on that pretty hard. You’ll see considerable improvement this fall in that. But it may be the one service area for students that we’ve not done as well as we’ve got to.

Columns: The most visible part of your legacy at UGA could very well be the implementation of the physical campus master plan. As you observe your 10th anniversary as president, how do you view the  evolution and execution of this plan?

Adams: First of all, I hope I’m known for more than that. We’ve frankly spent more time improving academics than we have improving the physical part of campus, but the campus is something that people can see. You can see it, feel it and touch it, and render a judgment on whether or not you like the architecture, the cooling system or the kind of tile on the floor.
We’ve done almost $1 billion in campus improvements.

I think the most important part of that plan is the move to a more pedestrian-friendly campus with parking on the periphery, more internal green space. I love Herty Field,

 I love North Campus, I love D.W. Brooks Mall, and I love the space that’s going to exist between the new Lamar Dodd School of Art, the bridge across the ravine and the green space up toward the Ramsey Student Center.

My political friends are surprised at what a tree hugger I have become. I really am an advocate for green space. I think I will be somewhat remembered for the change in the campus, but I hope it’s deeper than that.

Columns: What do you still want to accomplish as ­president?

Adams: There are three or four things. Although we’ve made great progress with the endowment, it’s still one of our biggest challenges. We’ll work on that some more.

I want to get the health sciences campus up and running. Nobody will ever know the hours of thought, work and effort that have gone into that.

I want to see our academic reputation rise to the level that it deserves. You’re going to see us pay even more attention to research and graduate and professional education than we have, because that’s what great universities do. There’s still some work to be done, and whoever comes after me will have some strengths I didn’t have. Hopefully, I’ll have done a thing or two to make it easier for him or her.

Columns: When historians look back at your tenure as president of the University of Georgia, how do you think they will describe your legacy?

Adams: I hope they would say two things. In 1997, I was pitched as sort of a transitional president to take the university into the 21st century, and I don’t think that’s all bad. There’s been a lot of change since I came here, and I think there is a legitimate question of whether it was too much change.

I laid out plans that included a more active interest toward life sciences research and improvement in the creation of biomedical and health sciences. We created the College of Public Health, the Odum School of Ecology, the School of Public and International Affairs.

Transitionally, that prompted us into the 21st century.

 I hope they look back and really see the vision and the virtue of the place around this time.

The second thing I hope is that the faculty, students and staff know I care about them. I care about how much they’re paid if they’re faculty or staff, and I worry that the students are treated right and are getting the right kind of education. I don’t think you can con students.

I know they won’t always agree with me on everything, but I like to think they know I care about them and their time here.