Saturday, June 21, 2008

Raising metro Atlanta’s profile as a college town

University leaders in our region already recognize metro Atlanta’s potential as a college town.

Several believe we already have reached a critical mass when it comes to number of institutions, students, faculty, level of research and, with growing importance, an increasing level of cooperation between the region’s colleges and universities.

Still, this is a time of change as several longtime university presidents already have, or are soon to be, moving on.

What should this region do to promote itself as a college town? And what can this region do to take full advantage of the intellectual power that exists in our metro area?

Please let me hear from you.

For the full column….

Few people think of Atlanta as a college town, but Emory University President Jim Wagner hopes that’s beginning to change.

On July 1, Wagner will become chairman of the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education (ARCHE), which includes 19 public and private universities and colleges in metro Atlanta. He succeeds Lisa Rossbacher, president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta.

Others taking leadership positions at ARCHE are Beheruz Sethna, president of the University of West Georgia, as vice chair; and Dan Papp, president of Kennesaw State and College University, as treasurer.

“We are probably underrecognized as a college town,” Wagner said. “One of the great things ARCHE has done is explain the significance of higher education in different cities.”

ARCHE recently released a study that showed how the Atlanta region ranks among the 50 largest cities in the United States.

Among the highlights:

it’s seventh in the number of college students involved (176,171 full-time equivalent students);

it’s third in the number of African-American students (47,548 full-time equivalent students);

it’s seventh in degrees earned at the bachelor’s level or higher (35,802); and

it’s fifth in university research with $1.01 billion in higher education research spending.

But Wagner admitted he did not think of Atlanta as a college town when he took the job as Emory’s president nearly five years ago.

“I thought of it as having that potential,” Wagner said. “I confess sadly that I wasn’t aware (of the concentration of higher educational institutions in the region).”

Wagner, who believes that serving as chairman of ARCHE “is an important role at this moment in history,” hopes he will be able to help the public appreciate the value of colleges and universities in metro Atlanta.

Change in progress at important time

This is a critical juncture for the region’s universities.

Founded in 1938, ARCHE has gained a higher profile as the region’s major universities have grown in stature. But metro Atlanta is at a critical time as some of its top academic leaders have, or are about to, move on.

Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough left earlier this month to head the Smithsonian Institution. Georgia Tech Provost Gary Schuster has been named interim president.

Clark Atlanta University President Walter Broadnax has retired, and Clark Atlanta’s President-elect Carlton Brown (a former president of Savannah State University) attended his first meeting of the Georgia Research Alliance last week.

Georgia State University President Carl Patton, who has been in his role for 16 years, was supposed to retire this summer. But his departure date could be extended if the current search for a successor isn’t successful.

Patton told me earlier this week that to the extent he is wanted, he will stay on board until a new president is selected. “I think it should be in the near term, not the long term,” he said. “We are not talking about another year.”

In recent years, several other university presidents also have moved on: Morehouse College’s Walter Massey (a post now filled by Robert Franklin); Kennesaw’s Betty Siegel (now Papp); Mercer University’s Kirby Godsey (now Bill Underwood); Morehouse School of Medicine’s James Gavin (now John E. Maupin); and Agnes Scott’s Mary Brown Bullock (now Elizabeth Kiss).

But ARCHE President Mike Gerber said the region has always thrived with new academic leadership.

“Atlanta has a strong history of attracting extraordinarily qualified people to be presidents of its universities,” Gerber said. “We have lost some really great presidents due to retirement and other opportunities. But I think we have been successful in recruiting some really strong replacements.”

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