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Steering the State’s Flagship

Steering the State’s Flagship

From raising the academic profile to improving diversity at the University of Georgia, President Michael F. Adams has his work cut out for him.

Dr. Michael F. Adams

Title: President, University of Georgia, 1997-Present

Previous title: President, Centre College, Danville, Ky.,

Education: B.A: Lipscomb College, 1970; M.A.:
The Ohio State University, 1971; Ph.D.,
The Ohio State University, 1973

How does one go about changing the culture of the country’s first state-chartered university? It takes more than determination and people skills to usher such an institution into the demographic realities of the 21st century, not to mention into the highest echelons of public postsecondary education. And when that institution has a historical reputation for being inhospitable to Blacks and other minorities, an already difficult task appears monumental.

However, the tide is beginning to turn. Last fall, the University of Georgia, for the second straight year, saw a 38 percent increase in Black applicants and a 36 percent increase in Hispanic applicants. UGA President Michael F. Adams recently spoke with Frank L. Matthews, Diverse’s publisher and editor in chief, about the example the state’s flagship university must set.

DI: Can the University of Georgia be considered a great university without improving its diversity profile?

MA: I don’t think you can fully serve the people of Georgia without improving your diversity profile. They will determine whether we’re a great university or not.

DI: How would you assess your progress to date?

MA: Both the numbers and the commitment demonstrate that we’ve gone a long way up that hill, but I still think there is some climbing to do. It would have been a stretch to talk about 20 percent diversity in the student body 10 years ago … [now] we’re in the top 10 or 12 in producing African-American doctorates. The list goes on. So there are some indications that we’ve come a long way, but when you’re in a state that has our demographics, you need to be scoring high in those areas.

DI: You’ve employed some pretty creative methods to fund your diversity campaign. I was particularly struck by your $2 million bookstore deal.

MA: When we did the new bookstore contract they guaranteed us more money. One of our greatest needs was financial aid for our socioeconomically disadvantaged students. That was a pot of money that wasn’t available before. But there were many other things we did, including hiring more minority admissions counselors and opening offices in DeKalb and Tifton [counties]. The University System of Georgia and our alumni have all contributed to our recent successes.

DI: But there were other symbolic moves that you made.

MA: Frankly, I think that when we named the first building that you come to when you go through the arch after Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter–Gault (the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building), it sent a message that wasn’t lost on a lot of people. Next month, Vernon Jordon and I are doing a fund-raiser to build a chair in honor of Atty. Donald Hollowell, who led the fight to get Charlayne and Hamilton (the first Black students to enroll at UGA, in 1961), into school here. So, you see, it has not been one thing that has led to our recent success, but a whole host of individual efforts and activities that are finally beginning to pay off.

DI: You’ve taken some pretty heavy public relations hits over the past few years on the racial front, especially with the small number of Black students who are being admitted and actually enrolling.

MA: You can do one or two things in those situations. You can sit around and curse the darkness, or you can say, “We’ve got to make some changes and do things differently.” We got a lot more aggressive. We moved the diversity focus out of admissions and into the provost’s office. Our provost, Dr. [Arnett] Mace, deserves a lot of credit for using his influence to let people know that at the highest levels we were serious about changing both that image and that reality. And as you can see, it took four or five years of really hard effort for that to happen.

DI: Can you continue to satisfy your football fans and raise the academic bar at the same time?

MA: We think we can be top 20 academically and athletically, but that balance gets harder every year. That’s why we have hired more academic tutors and have gotten more serious about recruiting students who have the level of preparation that will allow them to succeed here.

DI: What about key appointments outside of athletics?

MA: We have two African-American vice presidents, and we have a couple of African-American deans. We’ve got people at every level of the university who are representative of the state we live in. It’s not about showcasing a few people. When you put all that together, change, as slow as it sometimes can be, begins to occur.

DI: Your receipt of the $12.3 million Hispanic Scholarship Fund, to be split between you and the University of Texas at Austin, came as a surprise. How did you secure that grant?

MA: We feel very fortunate about that. We heard early on that they were looking for a state with a historic Hispanic presence and a large recent growth rate. We got Frank Ross, a Hispanic football player who played here in the ’80s and who is now a vice president at Coke, involved in helping us. About three years ago, we had received a substantial grant from Mrs. Olga Goizueta of the Goizueta Foundation, which they were also impressed by. Our Hispanic numbers are low, but we’re focusing this money and some of our own money on the kids who are now in the seventh and eighth grades.

DI: Does Georgia Tech’s well-known diversity record add urgency to your mission?

MA: We don’t pay much attention to Tech (laughs). I’m really glad that they’ve done as well as they have. But the situations are so different. We’ve got four times as many Georgia students as they do. If the academics and the appeal in the state of Georgia are going to change, it’s going to have to be at the state’s flagship. We are going to have to lead the change, and that is what we’ve decided to do.

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