End of an era

Michael F. Adams steps down from the presidency after ushering UGA into a new era of growth and prestige

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End of an era

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

Sixteen years,” says President Michael F. Adams. “Where did it go?”

At the start of a long interview in February, Adams is almost wistful. Soon, however, he is ticking off his career’s proudest accomplishments: the creation of five new colleges and schools including a College of Engineering, which opened just last year; a partnership with the Medical College of Georgia (now Georgia Regents University at Augusta), housed on UGA’s Health Sciences Campus; a significant increase in fundraising; and “acres of asphalt we have removed, and the acres of green space we’ve created.”

Accompanied by press, Michael F. Adams walks through the Arch on his first visit to campus after being named the 21st president of UGA in 1997. Photo by Peter Frey.

Still, the buildings and campus improvements compete in his memory with the narrative and relationships Adams has forged over the years. At 65, he is stepping down from the job he has held since 1997. He’ll take a year off, “just to clear my head,” he says, before returning to campus to teach and do research.

“My love will always be deep for the University of Georgia,” he told a campus crowd in an occasionally tearful speech when he announced his retirement last year.

“Our hearts are here,” he says today, explaining his and wife Mary’s decision to stay in Athens.

In these last few months in office, the president is on something of a victory lap, collecting one honor after another. In February he received the Chief Executive Leadership Award from District III of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Former Braves pitcher and Kings Ridge Christian School board member John Smoltz presented the award, telling him, “You are my hero.” Adams’ tenure has marked an impressive era of both prosperity and academic growth for the University of Georgia. The student body is significantly larger, incoming students have higher SAT scores and the student population is more racially and ethnically diverse.

Adams and Mikhail Gorbachev (center), who visited campus to receive the 2001 Delta Prize for Global Understanding. Photo by Peter Frey.

Despite an economic downturn in 2008, which forced state lawmakers to significantly reduce state funding to its college campuses, the UGA campus is greener and dotted with such new buildings as the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries, an addition to the Tate Student Center and the 200,000-square-foot Miller Learning Center. The endowment has tripled. Academically, UGA’s reach is deeper and wider, stretching across the globe through study abroad programs on each of the seven continents. It is now ranked among the top five in the nation for student participation in short-term study abroad programs.

Adams has also overseen the opening of the School of Public and International Affairs (2001), the College of Public Health (2005), the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology (2007) and the College of Engineering (2012), and worked through the University System of Georgia Board of Regents to establish a partnership with the Georgia Regents University medical school on the UGA campus. In 2012, that program, as well as the College of Public Health, moved to the former campus of the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School, a 56-acre tract in west Athens, now known as the UGA Health Sciences Campus.

Herty Field is a prominent example of Adams’ emphasis on creating campus green space. Originally the site of UGA’s first home football game against Mercer University in 1892, the field later was used as a parking lot. In 1999 it was converted to green space and in 2001, wireless Internet access was added. Photo by Nancy Evelyn.

Beyond those achievements, Adams seems to cherish his relationships with colleagues, some lasting over a decade, and perhaps especially his rapport with students. He has taught a course in political communications throughout his term and invites students from his class to the president’s house on Prince Avenue to watch returns come in on election nights in November.

“He was an inspiration,” says former Student Government Association President Mallory Davis (AB ’13), who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. “I consider it an honor to have worked by his side.”

One of Adams’ early and biggest supporters is former Gov. Zell Miller, who was governor when the board of regents selected Adams as president.

“I don’t know that there’s another Mike Adams out there,” Miller said in early January, as the official search for a new president was underway.

Adams teaches a freshman seminar in 2002. He has taught a course in political communications throughout his term. Photo by Paul Efland.

Like Miller, Adams hails from a modest background and credits education (and the parents who encouraged it) as the key to his success. Like Adams, Miller’s legacy includes one transformative factor that has undeniably enriched the state, students, employers, parents and the university: The lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship, that covers tuition and some fees for students who graduate from high school with a B average and maintain that GPA while in college.

HOPE is credited with keeping more of the state’s top students in Georgia for their post-secondary education. However, as the scholarship’s architect and champion, Miller insists most of the credit for the university’s progress under HOPE belongs to Adams.

“Oh, I disagree,” he says from his home in Young Harris, his crisp North Georgia accent sharpening when asked if any UGA president might have benefited from HOPE’s introduction. “It was Mike Adams that made UGA the prestigious university it is today.

“I’m his biggest fan. What he has done is historic.”

Though he has spent his career in academia, Adams’ first love was politics. Chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, and advisor to then-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, now a U.S. senator, his experience proved invaluable in working with Georgia legislators, who determine how much state money the university system will receive each year.

Loch Johnson, Regents Professor and Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, says Adams’ ability to befriend and bend ears served him well with lawmakers. His experience with Baker and Alexander gave him credibility, Johnson says.

In his 1998 State of the University address, Adams emphasized the importance of expanding and strengthening international education. UGA now offers more than 170 study abroad and exchange programs, with year-round residential sites in Costa Rica (above); Oxford, England; and Cortona, Italy. Photo by Peter Frey.

“That helped us,” Johnson says. “They thought, ‘He’s one of us.’”

“These [university president] jobs are in some ways a public official job, like being mayor,” says Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “Those skills getting people together to get things done were unquestionably of great value. He’s smart. Politically sensitive. He had a vision of what he needed to get done.”

Intangibles, like “pleasant places to study,” were important when it came to planning the Miller Learning Center, says Steve Jones (BBA ’78, JD ’87), U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Georgia and outgoing president of the UGA Alumni Association. “The learning experience involves all that space. It makes you a full person. He’s made the students the number one priority. The students’ life at the university is one they will remember for 50 years.”

Adams slips the official collar on Russ, who served two terms as interim mascot for the Bulldogs before being named Uga IX in September 2012. Photo by Dot Paul.

Adams’ affability can be deceiving—his flinty determination comes to the fore when required. Colleagues cite his ability to “play chess three moves ahead” and his skill in seeking input from and finding consensus among a diverse community, as well as his singular focus on goals, doggedly clicking off priorities until he achieves them.

“He always came with ideas,” Miller remembers of their meetings. “Three months later he would ask about them. It gave me time to think.”

“He runs a great meeting,” says Cader Cox Jr., CEO of Riverview Plantation and UGA Research Foundation member. “He doesn’t let people chase rabbits too far.”

“He does have an appreciation for how you connect the dots to make things work,” says Board of Regents Chair Dink NeSmith (ABJ ’70).

On this February day, Adams is looking back.

Born in Montgomery, Ala., and educated at public schools in Tennessee and Georgia, Adams grew up in a loving environment that was also highly religious and conservative. Still, he says, his parents would never have dreamed of trying to tell his teachers how or what to instruct him.

“The teacher was always right,” he says.

Adams reads to 3- and 4-year-old children at the McPhaul Child Development Laboratory on campus in January 2010. When one of the children announced that he was going to kindergarten, Adams assured them that they all would be in kindergarten soon. “And before your parents know it,” he said, “you’ll be here with us at the University of Georgia.” Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker.

His father, a manager with Kraft Foods, moved the family often as he took on company challenges. Adams believes the experience of having to introduce himself to new schoolmates and neighbors so often helped him learn how to make new friends quickly. “My mother said because of that, I never knew a stranger,” he says.

Even as a kid he loved politics, sitting transfixed in front of day-long TV convention coverage as delegates argued seating rules and procedures. As an undergraduate student at Lipscomb University in Nashville, he launched the studies that would later take him to The Ohio State University, where he earned a Ph.D. in communications. His major professor there, Jim Golden, remained an advisor to Adams until his death in 2003.

“He was the whole package,” Adams says of Golden. “He reeked of integrity. His whole bearing had a kind of gravitas. He could talk about Cicero as easily as he could talk about John Kennedy, and he talked a lot about both.”

By then Adams had met his wife Mary, who sat next to him in a history class at Lipscomb. They have two grown sons, both married, and three grandchildren.

“She’s pretty cagey,” he says of Mary Adams’ intelligence and skill at landing jobs and forging on, even in the days when they moved often and “didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

“She has an innate sixth sense about people and about what is important, and what is not,” Adams said of her in his last State of the University address in January. “It is an invaluable skill in a partner.”

Adams met his wife, Mary, at Lipscomb University, where she sat next to him in a history class. As UGA’s first lady, she had a strong impact on campus renovation and restoration. Photo by Peter Frey.

“One of the great parts of life for Mary and me is that we’ve lived north, east, west and south, we’ve been all over the world, and we’ve had the opportunity to listen to a lot of pretty smart people along the way,” he says. “And we tried to soak up as much of that as we could.

“It’s amazing, looking back, how all these threads come together.”

After his political work, Adams returned to Ohio State as an associate professor and later went to Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., where he was vice president for university affairs. He was named president of Centre College, a private liberal arts school in Danville, Ky., in 1988.

“It’s been the best school in Kentucky for over 100 years,” he says. At 39, he had received several offers to be a college president, he says, but felt he could do the most at Centre. His achievements there rivaled those he would mark at UGA: Tripling the endowment while raising the school’s academic and institutional profile and strengthening its commitment to the liberal arts.

Lured by a headhunter to apply for the presidency at UGA on the last day possible, Adams says the search moved very quickly, and he knew this was a prime opportunity.

“I came at a great time—a time with probably the best higher education governor ever in Zell Miller, who had a hand in my being here.” HOPE, he says, was a game-changer. “It has so many tangential benefits. It drives faculty quality, because good faculty want to teach good students. It takes pressure off of the need to raise huge amounts of scholarship money, which has allowed me, frankly, to raise more capital money and faculty support money. We’ve tripled the endowment, almost tripled the number of endowed faculty positions, and we spent about $1.2 billion on the campus. People probably don’t realize how much HOPE has helped all of those things.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault (left), Isabella Holmes (center) and Marilyn Holmes examine the marker at the renamed Holmes-Hunter Academic Building in January 2001 during UGA’s commemoration of the 40th anniversary of desegregation. Hunter-Gault (then Hunter) and the late Hamilton Holmes (Isabella’s son and Marilyn’s husband) enrolled in 1961 as UGA’s first African-American students. Photo by Paul Efland.

His tenure was not without controversy—the most significant following his refusal in 2002 to extend the athletic director’s contract beyond a previously agreed-upon date. In its wake, the UGA Foundation commissioned a report questioning actions in several areas—a report that the board of regents rejected, directing UGA to sever relations with the foundation. The newly formed Arch Foundation became the university’s recognized fundraising arm for six years, until Adams worked closely with leadership of both foundations to merge them in 2011. At the height of the controversy in 2004 came Adams’ biggest disappointment in office—a no-confidence vote by the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences faculty.

Since those early controversies, he notes, “there has been peace in the kingdom.” There may be fewer headlines, but his office remains a pressure cooker. “Every social issue in the state starts at UGA,” he says.

A crowd protesting the Board of Regent’s 2010 decision to ban undocumented students from the state’s top public universities gathered outside the president’s office in early spring. Adams says he still occasionally receives angry emails about naming UGA’s administration building after Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes, UGA’s first African-American undergraduate students. He’s also taken heat for hiring Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Cynthia Tucker to teach in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Some issues, it seems, may never fully disappear but only recede a bit more each year. Adams says one of the things of which he is most proud is that there is now the greatest inclusion of African Americans at all levels of the institution at any time in the history of the university.

His colleagues say he inspires long-term loyalty and has an easygoing side to his achievement-oriented personality: He’s open and engaging in off hours, talking about the Atlanta Braves games and comparing notes on new movies. Like the rest of them, he passes around witty cartoons.

Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush speaks at the dedication of the Paul D. Coverdell Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences in April 2006. Named for the late senator, the center is one of many new buildings added during Adams’ administration. Photo by Peter Frey.

Meg Amstutz, who has been his chief of staff since 2007, first met Adams as an undergraduate while working as a caterer at Centre College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English. After graduation, she worked as an assistant to Adams at Centre for two years and later joined him at UGA, first working as an assistant in the president’s office. She says he has been more than a boss, mentoring her to pursue her love of academia and allowing her to thrive professionally, even as she completed a Ph.D. in American and English literature from Washington University in St. Louis.

In her 16 years in the goldfish bowl, Amstutz has watched as Adams put in 60- to 70-hour, six-day weeks, and she believes he’s ready for some time off. Like every person interviewed for this story, Amstutz acknowledges that the incoming president, Jere Morehead, now provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, will face the most daunting challenge in “doing more with less.” As state education budgets are cut, Adams’ last speeches waved the flag ever higher for old-school liberal arts education and the value of the fine arts.

“Look at the great private [universities] today,” he says. “Too many have become collections of professional schools. And their cores are not as strong as ours. Go and look at English and classics and religion and philosophy and all of those things that don’t draw great government grants and sometimes not as much public support. I’ve heard all the arguments about, ‘Well, you know we’ve got these great museums where you can do that.’ I’m still a firm believer in a strong liberal arts core and a strong first two years of exposure to those offerings before one gets into his or her major.”

Tom Lauth (left), dean of UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs, speaks with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and student Balaji Narain at a panel discussion during “The Carter Presidency: Lessons for the 21st Century,” a three-day symposium held at UGA in January 2007. Photo by Paul Efland.

He points proudly to a recent American Council on Trustees and Alumni survey of curricula that gives UGA an A rating—the only one in the state.

“The faculty at Georgia did this—I didn’t do this. I encouraged a little along the way,” he says.

He warns that more private money will not be enough. “Those things don’t pay the light bills,” he says. “I’ve made the speech a thousand times. We have to view higher education as a public good, not just a private good. The whole state will rise or fall on a knowledge economy with a well-educated workforce.”

He’s tired, he says, “of budget battles… of what we’ve not been able to do for the faculty.”

It’s too soon to know how the Mike Adams era will look to generations ahead—but the key indicators rose dramatically under his leadership in many areas: academic achievement, faculty strength, student quality, enrollment, fundraising and the physical environment. He acknowledges that the university has been blessed with strong leaders over its long history, each building on the accomplishments and successes of his predecessors.

Student Deep Shah (right) and Kate Vyborny (AB/AB ’05) earned Rhodes Scholarships in 2007. UGA was the only public university to have two Rhodes recipients that year. Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker.

Betty Jean Craige, university professor of comparative literature emerita and former director of the Center for Humanities and Arts, sees Adams’ tenure as the time of UGA’s emergence as an internationally visible research university.

“We are now a university of the world,” she says, “not just of the South.”