So you’re in your administrative position at Tulane. How did UGA come onto your horizon?
Well, I had been at Tulane about five years and had decided, and really had had a great experience. I was learning from a very wise university president, Eamon Kelly, who is still a great friend of mine and lives in New Orleans and is doing wonderful things. He ended up serving 17 years as president of Tulane and really changed the institution. Watching Eamon and learning from him on the kind of panoply of the issues you’ve got to face and the tasks you need to undertake, particularly as a research university president, was a great experience, and I think it made me better prepared, but it also frankly gave me a kind of a thirst for doing it. So I had begun to respond positively to the invitations that I would get occasionally to put my name in the hat for a college presidency. The contact with Georgia was actually Eamon to Elridge MacMillan. We’re now in 2009 and that was 22 or 23 years ago and Elridge is still on the Board of Regents of the University System in Georgia. I think the longest serving regent in history, and Eamon had known Elridge was coming to New Orleans for a meeting, and I had been contacted, I guess, by the search firm about the opening, but hadn’t really responded to it. Eamon set up a meeting at one of the downtown hotels with Elridge, and we had a good talk. He reaffirmed a lot of the things that were forming in my mind about Georgia, and it was shortly after that that I applied.
So that influenced you to take the job when the offer came? Or what were the things that influenced you to take the job?
Well, I thought that a couple of things about the University. One was it had just gone through a traumatic period with the Jan Kemp affair, and I think it’s important when you see an institution that does something like that to kind of look through the fog of what had gone on and a lot of people were still looking at the fog and they weren’t paying attention to the underlying strengths of the University. I thought the University of Georgia was a lot better institution than it was perceived as being. I mean to this day, there is still a kind of snobbery in higher education about southern universities. It’ll take a long time longer to get that done. But I knew from having been at Tulane, that there were really distinguished faculty at Georgia, that for a university without an engineering school or a medical school, that they were very strong in the basic sciences and had a lot of sponsored research. I also had a sense that turned out to be correct that the University was really in the orbit of Atlanta in that Atlanta was going to be an engine that would move a lot of things forward in the coming years. So when you took all that together, it just seemed like a really good opportunity, and then as I began to meet the people that were involved, I became even more convinced that that assessment was correct.
What do you recall about your first physical visit to the campus? What did you see? What did you expect?
Well, it was interesting because the end of the search took a kind of a twist that none of us really could have anticipated. I had been for a couple of interviews, maybe three interviews, and Lynne had been at least in on one of those interviews. We actually interviewed in the old C&S Bank Building downtown here in Atlanta, which is now the Georgia State Business School, but irony being what it is, that’s all right. I had kind of thought we were, given the rhythm of a search and knowing what I knew about it, maybe another interview away or maybe a phone call away from saying now we’re going to do a beauty pageant on the campus, or the way these things usually conclude, particularly at public universities. I had been involved in a search at another university that was a little bit ahead of that, and I’m told by folks that were involved in that, that the search committee and the chancellor, who was Dean Propst at the time, became aware of that, and decided that they needed to strike fast, so I was sitting in my office…I had never been to Athens. I had been to Atlanta many times, but I was sitting in my office at Tulane one morning and the chancellor called me and offered me the job subject to the Board of Regent’s approval. You know, Lynne and I had talked about it enough to know that was really our first choice, so why…and you don’t want to seem like you’re plagued by self-doubt at a moment like that, so I just swallowed hard and said, “Yes, I’m sure we’ll be able to work out the details.” So we did and we flew to…early morning flight, maybe 6:00 out of New Orleans, flew to Atlanta. I remember unfortunately I got to the…Eamon Kelly was aware of it, but nobody else at Tulane was, and I got to the airport and three of my direct reports were right there on the same flight, wondering why Lynne and I were headed to Atlanta. We got here and were secreted in the back passage to Governor Joe Frank Harris’ office and we spent some time with the governor and his staff, which at that point included Gracie Phillips, who is a great friend of ours, Gracie and Barry have been great friends of ours ever since. I did a press conference with the Board of Regents, which included Elridge was there, and Dean Propst was there and Art Gignilliat, who ran Savannah Light and Power for years was there. Then we went to Athens. By this time I’m pretty well committed. I’ve already done the press conference, met the governor, and so on, and we drove on over to Athens. We, you know, of course, fell in love with the town immediately, but I guess it was a little bit of a risky thing to take the job sight unseen. I was comfortable with the research I had done about the University and the number of people I had talked to, so I believed there weren’t any great surprises, and there weren’t…
Do you remember what you thought when you toured the campus among those first times? What was your impression of the physical campus?
Absolutely. I remember being overwhelmed by the number…the scale of the facilities and, yeah, it was kind of one those epiphany moments that…all right, now you’ve asked for it, and now you’re responsible for all this.
The dog who caught the car.
Yeah, exactly. You know, I’m not a person that again looks backward too often, but I guess we all have kind of moments like that where you think, wow. That was kind of one of those “wow” moments for me, was that first tour of the campus. I don’t think it was the first time we were there. It may have been in the next visit, or whatever, that we did a kind of a comprehensive tour of the campus. Now Tom, we can’t let this pass without the story of that first night, which you may remember.
The first interview on Atlanta television?
The first interview and there was this brash reporter, who was following me all day from channel 11, WXIA TV, named Tom Jackson. You were kind of with us all day and as we moved from place to place and had a press conference at Lustrat House with the indomitable Henry King Stanford and others, and had a big dinner at the president’s home that Henry and Ruth Stanford hosted for us, a lot of what turned out to be good friends there. And at the end of it, I think it may have been Larry Dendy who said, “Tom Jackson is just being relentless about getting you on the 11:00 news live from Athens.” At that point XIA had a studio in a little building downtown to look out over the arch. I’m sure you remember it. So I finally said…Lynne said, “I’m going to bed!” and she did. At 11:00 we’re over there in the studio and you were with me and we’re looking into a camera and John Pruitt and who was the other anchor, I can’t remember.
I remember John.
In fact John and I are now neighbors in terms of where we live in north Georgia, so I see him all the time and we laugh about this. But anyway, it’s 11:00 at night and I’ve been up remember, since…you know I got a 6:00 flight out of New Orleans, so this has been a pretty long kind of intense day with a lot of questions and interviews, and I’m starting to fade a little bit. So anyway, we’re talking, I’m talking to John as we do the countdown to 11:00 and they’re going to lead with me from Athens with the arch in the background, and I remember right before we went on, John said something like, “Don’t worry Dr. Knapp, there’s only X hundreds of thousands of people that are watching this.” And at that point I did not wear glasses. I wore contact lenses and at the very strike of the hour at 11:00 one of my contacts went off center and we’re live, and I’m sitting there the whole interview with John Pruitt going like this, twitching and trying to rub the contact back on, and so I could see everybody down in Clayton County saying, “Look Martha, they hired a guy with a twitch!” I mean it was bizarre! John and I still laugh about that moment, but that was the first time I met you.
Do you remember what happened? I came to pick you up in the news car and I took you back over to the president’s house. Do you remember what happened?
Yeah, they wouldn’t let us in.
They didn’t know who these two people were.
They said, “Who are you?” And we had to…
The young university police officer being introduced to the new president.
Yeah, we had to talk our way past security, particularly the fact I was going in the house and everybody else was asleep. I can’t remember if we had to wake Henry up or not, but he probably would not have minded.
I think he finally came to the door and saved us from the police officer.
I think that’s right, yeah.
Also, on one of those early tours, you went through the Fine Arts building, and had an immediate impression of it.
Well, you know, now I think as we speak, it is under renovation, now finally, and I’m sure when it was built, it was built as a WPA project during the Depression, and I’m sure at one point it was a fine facility. But by the late 1980s, it had…it was not satisfactory. I already had begun to think about how you balance different strengths of the University, and what was becoming clear to me as I looked at the Fine Arts building, which…I mean there were “practice rooms” in the basement that were really just kind of cubicles where even I’m smart enough about music to know that you couldn’t really have a serious practice session down there. The main auditorium itself had been renovated so many times, I think it bore little resemblance to the original construction.
Done in the black box style.
Yeah, it was not a pretty place, and I began to think about the fact that to balance the University, that a performing a visual arts center complex would be something we ought to do, and you know, began talking about that immediately. There were a lot of wonderful facilities at the University, but that facility in particular was just inadequate for a great university.
And that led to the development of the full east campus complex.
Yeah, we kept working and working on that, and that was where…that along with the Ramsey Center were the initial buildings on East Campus.