An Urban University Emerges
Under Noah Langdale, Georgia State grew academically and physically and achieved university status
A good half-century before it would start a football team, the Georgia State College of Business Administration needed a president who could defend the ground it had already gained. This leader needed boldness and savvy to compete politically against University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, the pedigreed siblings in the university system.
The right man would navigate with a vision sensitive to urgent social issues such as civil rights, integration and a swelling campus movement against the war.
Enter Noah Langdale Jr. A burly orator and surprise choice for the presidency, the 37-year-old emerged from a far-off corner of the university system — the Social Studies Department at Valdosta State. Langdale had family connections to local politics and had starred at tackle for the Alabama Crimson Tide. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and chose the Navy over the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers. He would stay at Georgia State 31 years until his retirement in 1988.
Langdale dug in and brought attention, support and respect to a two-building business college. He would lead massive growth in curricula, faculty and the physical campus. Under his watch, the institution would shorten its title to Georgia State College in 1961 and then become Georgia State University in 1969. He was a big man, in body and presence, for an era of big growth.
“He was the size of a door, a huge man with a shock of white hair and an extraordinary vocabulary,” said John Hanson (B.A. ’77). Langdale was a walking, talking force for what his school aspired to: a source of intelligence, connections and drive for lasting change in downtown Atlanta. He literally made the community stop for Georgia State by campaigning for the Georgia State MARTA station that opened in 1979.
A few months after Langdale’s hiring, Georgia State grabbed the attention of prospective students and local media when the regents approved new majors in arts and sciences, including biology and mathematics.
“Mr. Langdale is showing his fellow school presidents … a thing or two about how to get results from the regents,” the Atlanta Journal noted. The expanded curriculum created more common ground for a student body divided into those who went to day classes or attended at night.
Langdale arrived when the administration was debating whether to admit black students and risk state funding, and his charisma, intellect and energy made him equal to the challenges of moving past segregation and student unrest. One big sticking point was a state law imposing age limits on college students, a legislative tactic intended to keep out non-white students. Even in the 1950s, the campus attracted older, working students with nontraditional backgrounds. Their options beyond Georgia State were limited.
Langdale fought the unfair law and created pathways to change. In 1962, the college admitted its first black student, in 1966 its first black faculty member. Multiplicity of races would become one element of the diversity that today distinguishes Georgia State.
Amid the conflict of the Vietnam War and the growth of the Cold War, “Noah Langdale was very, very supportive of foreign students,” recalls Barbara Winship Turner, who served as their campus liaison in the late 1960s. “It was a big deal for them to go to the president’s home, and have the door opened to them … It was very safe and warm to be there. He made them feel welcome, and that was a big thing then.”
Langdale’s management style of delegation and firm expectations gave him room to hold court around the city and country on behalf of Georgia State. These were not short speeches. He would extemporize for several hours at a time.
“He would almost paralyze an audience with his abilities to communicate remarkable messages, and translate his feelings to the extent that people paid a lot of attention, which helped build the school from a nothing institution initially to a really fine university,” said William S. “Bill” Patrick (B.B.A. ’56, Ph.D. ’75), who served in several administrative roles.
After Langdale won the Georgian of the Year award in 1962, there was talk of him running for office.
“He was considered a strong candidate for governor [but] he dedicated his energies to education,” the Rampway reported in its retrospective on Langdale’s career.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Educational Exchange, and President John F. Kennedy approved a second term on the same panel. His service marked Georgia State’s growing reputation as a leader in urban public affairs.
Under Langdale, Georgia State revolutionized the status quo of the era in which he was raised (an all-white, all-male student body) to the one that he envisioned (the most diverse institution in the University System of Georgia.) He helped Georgia State grow up by appealing to and accommodating grownups: at his retirement, 78 percent of the student body was working, 53 percent were employed full time and the average age was 27.
“A community of learning has created a place for itself in the heart of Atlanta,” reported the Rampway.
When asked what was the most important thing about his tenure, Langdale sighed and replied, “Over the years, we’ve been able to educate a great number of people who would otherwise never have been able to go to college. In the history of our successes, there is glory for all and no one person had a monopoly on the claim of achievement.”
Langdale’s presidency, remarked current Georgia State President Mark P. Becker, provides a benchmark for a campus that continues to dream big: “As the leadership of Georgia State focuses on the future, the profound legacy of our longest-serving president sustains our efforts and guides our progress.”
Michelle Hiskey is a former writer for the Georgia State University Foundation.