Vaughn Williams, a senior executive at Kennesaw State University, has a strong sense of purpose about his campus and his role in trying to make it a great place.
“My job is to emphasize at least three elements of growth among the students I touch at Kennesaw,” he said in a recent interview. “I call them three C’s: Classroom achievement, Community involvement and a Commitment to compete.”
You might hear that charge from the dean of students, but Williams is the athletic director at the huge, public university in north Georgia. His main job is supervising a department with nearly 300 athletes, some 40 coaches and overseeing a budget of more than $8 million. But his perspective is bigger than sports.
“We operate an athletic program, but, foremost, we want to see our students as achievers and as leaders,” said Vaughn.
That perspective closely reflects the goals of Kennesaw’s president, Daniel S. Papp, which is to nourish and grow well-rounded and purposeful students. With 24,000 graduate and undergraduate students, Kennesaw State, which was founded in 1963, is the third-largest university in Georgia and is situated northwest of Atlanta in Cobb County.
President Papp, in his sixth year at Kennesaw, borrows a phrase from the military, saying, “We aim to help students be all that they can be.”
This unified thrust, other administrators say, is all the doing of Papp, who is guiding the growing regional university into a role as a national leader as a unified modern university. Papp graduated from Dartmouth College with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs in 1969 and earned a Ph.D. in international affairs from the University of Miami in 1973.
The Cleveland-born college president sees Kennesaw as a place of values. “I want to see Kennesaw be known as diverse, inclusionary and a welcoming environment,” Papp said.
Among the 11 members of the president’s inner leadership cabinet, five are African-American and one is Hispanic-American. Besides Williams, the athletic director, they include: Arlethia Perry-Johnson, vice president for external affairs, who deals principally with governmental relations, as well as a state program that she launched to improve retention of Black males in college; Dr. Flora Devine, university attorney, who handles various legal tasks; Dr. Jorge Perez, faculty executive assistant to the president and a specialist in information systems; Linda Lyons, interim chief diversity officer; and Dr. Jerome Ratchford, vice president for student success.
All the officers of color have mainline, hands-on jobs with important assignments. For instance, Williams, the athletic director, comes with a wealth of experience in intercollegiate athletics, including six years on the staff of the University of Connecticut, a powerhouse in both men’s and women’s sports. His primary assignment is to move the university along the path to establishing a full-fledged football program for the first time.
“We have facilities, and now we have to put together the program,” said Williams. “We are a Division I school, but students, parents, alumni and the public do not see you as a full Division I program unless you play football, especially in Georgia … especially in Georgia.”
Putting Experience to Work
Flora Devine, the college legal counsel, is highly experienced in employment issues, dating to her first big job as an assistant to pioneer Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. He was the first African-American to hold the post, and it was during his tenure that Atlanta strode toward status as an international city, culminating with the Olympics in 1996. For her part, Devine helped put together personnel policies that helped Atlanta expand Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport into what is now the world’s busiest. Her work included expanding the workforce at the airport and helping to draft city contracts of various kinds. She is more than ready to deal with campus growth at Kennesaw.
“I think that the practical advantage of my kind of background is that I learned to emphasize outcomes, not just the policies,” she said.
Perry-Johnson, the external affairs director, gained valuable experience working with senior executives, first with the Georgia Board of Regents, where she had to deal with college presidents and legislators. Now she works as a liaison between the university and the demanding, budget-minded Georgia elected officials, explaining budgets and policies. And she keeps President Papp on his toes in negotiating with that all-important outside world.
Asked what is the secret to success, Perry-Johnson said, “The secret—if that’s what you call it—is to know the details in the budgets.” she said. “You work hard to anticipate every conceivable question and plan to have the answers at your fingertips. That’s how we operate.”
Government relations, however, is only part of Perry-Johnson’s job. She also tends to university relations, the delicate balance of keeping the public informed about the school, its programs and its activities. She has a staff of 20, including writers, editors and communications specialists. Her department also has to maintain relations with such partners as education groups and school superintendents, among others.
As if all that was not enough, Perry-Johnson, at her request, has kept in her portfolio a program she had when she was with the regents: the African American Males Initiative. The program manages and supports various activities on campuses around the state in an effort to address the high Black male dropout rate. The program, among other things, organizes Black males on a voluntary basis into support groups. These groups meet regularly so the young men can encourage one another and establish an esprit aimed at succeeding, doing well and graduating. The program is about 10 years old and is operating on more than 20 campuses in the Georgia system.
The Georgia colleges also use a similar concept to mobilize other “interest groups,” including women, to take up special challenges such as getting more women into science, technology and other fields where they are underrepresented. Separately, Vice President Ratchford, a veteran college administrator, has instituted many efforts at Kennesaw to integrate students into university programs. One singular accomplishment has been Kennesaw’s success in stoking dramatic growth in the number of African-American students enrolled on campus, from 231 in 1987 to 1,800 in just 15 years.
The success of these initiatives and other ongoing programs underline President Papp’s overall effort to be a diverse university and to help students, faculty and staff feel happy and fulfilled in their work.
Before coming to Kennesaw, Papp was senior vice chancellor for academics and fiscal affairs for the University System of Georgia. An international affairs expert, he was the founding director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, from 1990 to 1993. At Georgia Tech, he worked with Wayne Clough, then the president, to increase the number of minority students in natural science, mathematics and engineering, areas where they were underrepresented. One initiative was to bring high school students and teachers onto campus to explore the sciences, learn the fun of them, and become attracted to an area that had been neglected in their experience.
Kennesaw also offers summer programs for high school youngsters, encouraging interest in the sciences and introducing students to the demands of college life, Perry-Johnson said. Underlining Papp’s interest in race relations and diversity in the broadest sense, he has encouraged his staff to discuss race and diversity, as well as to work to advance race relations, thereby making diversity a self-sustaining part of campus life
“As humans, we are all in this learning endeavor together,” Papp said. “I genuinely want to see us do all we can do to learn together and succeed together,” he said.
In keeping with Papp’s interest in international affairs, Kennesaw is continuously expanding opportunities for international learning. For example, each year the university selects a particular country to study—through coursework, trips, seminars and other activities.
The nation of choice this year is Peru. In the past, the school has focused on Korea, Kenya and Romania. “We are emphasizing global learning and awareness through many programs,” said Barry Morris, vice provost for global engagement. “Our aim is to expose students individually and, as an institution, to cultures around the world.”
— Ernest Holsendolph is a retired journalist living in Stone Mountain, Ga.