Expanding — Locally and Globally
The past 25 years have seen the transformation of student life and campus
Asked how Georgia State has most changed over the past quarter century, the average alumnus is likely to note the university’s transformation from an evening commuter school to a 24/7 campus with all the traditional collegiate trappings — dorms, Greek housing and, most staggering of all, football.
A graduate of Georgia State’s class of 1988 accompanying a prospective class of 2016 grad on a campus tour would be surprised as much by the swanky Aderhold classroom building (a far cry from trudging up and down those Kell Hall ramps) as the campus shuttles zipping between University Commons and the Student Recreation Center.
Asked the same question, the average Atlantan would point to Georgia State’s growing visibility as a civic citizen, from the thousands of students now living downtown to notable additions to the cityscape such as the Parker H. Petit Science Center or the University Lofts. Again, football might be mentioned.
Ask the two men who helmed the university for most of this period, and they both point to an internal change — less obvious to the outside observer — that served as a catalyst to fuel this change: Georgia State’s 1995 designation by the University System as a full research university.
“It’s hard to separate the physical expansion from being classified as a research university,” says Carl V. Patton, university president from 1992 to 2008. “There’s a very symbiotic relationship between research and physical space. We joke that university presidents have ‘edifice complexes.’ But it’s not really a joke. If we don’t have the right buildings, the right space, we can’t recruit the right people.”
President Emeritus Carl Patton says the major catalyst in becoming a more residential campus was the 1995 designation of Georgia State as a research university.
Between 1988 and 2013, Georgia State University underwent the most rapid expansion in its history.
“A hundred years seems like a lot of time. But if you consider at the start this was the Evening School of Commerce of Georgia Tech in rented space downtown, it’s remarkable how we’ve evolved,” says Mark P. Becker, who succeeded Patton as president in 2009.
The rate of change accelerated over the past decade. Georgia State wrapped up 2012 with 4,000 beds, Greek housing, a football team slated to play in the Football Bowl Subdivision, tens of millions of dollars in research grants and a student body of 32,000 representing every county in Georgia, every state in the country and 150 countries in the world.
“Literally, the slope and pace of the rise and growth and recognition has been astounding,” says Becker.
Changes at the Top
The seeds of this growth were planted in the proverbially rocky soil of transition. Patton’s 16-year tenure followed a series of quick successions in the president’s office. After the 1988 retirement of Noah Langdale, William M. Suttles, whose nearly half-century with the university included stints as executive vice president and provost, served as acting president from 1988-89. He was followed by John Michael Palms (1989-91), who came to Georgia State after more than two decades at Emory University, where he had been dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and vice president for academic affairs. Finally, Sherman Day, whose two-and-a-half decades at the university included serving as dean of the College of Education, filled in as acting president from 1991-92.
Shortly after he took office, Patton made two personal moves that carried symbolic weight and signified both his intention to stick around and his vision for reinvigorating Georgia State’s relationship to its home city. First, he enrolled in the Teachers Retirement System, with a 10-year vesting schedule. Then, he asked the school to sell the president’s residence and moved into a loft in the Muse Building overlooking Woodruff Park. He wasn’t just banking his retirement fund on being at Georgia State for a while. He also planned to live in the heart of the campus.
Patton, whose background is in urban planning, oversaw a dramatic period of growth, including the renovation of the Rialto Theater, construction of a student center and recreation facility (complete with climbing wall and swimming pool) and the Aderhold Learning Center. After the 1996 Olympic Games, Georgia State students moved into the athletes’ village and the era of students-as-residents began.
Georgia State now is “one of the bright anchors” of downtown Atlanta, says A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, the downtown business and development organization. The growth, he says, has had a “real positive effect on Georgia State itself, and thus on the community. It’s a more visible, dynamic institution.”
- Alumni Hall (expanded 1991)
- Natural Science Center (1992)
- One Park Place (1992)
- Business Administration Building becomes Classroom South (1993)
- NationsBank Building becomes School of Business Administration (1993)
- Haas Howell Building, Rialto Center for the Arts and the Standard Building (1996)
- University Village (1996-2007)
- Student Center (1998)
- Alpharetta Center (2000)
- Student Recreation Center (2001)
- Helen M. Aderhold Learning Center (2002)
- University Lofts (2002)
- Brookhaven Center (2005)
- SunTrust Office Building (2006)
- 75 Piedmont (2007)
- Buckhead Center (2007)
- University Commons (2007)
- Freshman Hall (2009)
- Football practice facility (2010)
- Greek Housing (2010)
- Parker H. Petit Science Center (2010)
- Piedmont North A (2010) and B (2011)
Plan of Action
If Patton’s experience as a city planner shaped the university’s connection to the city, the next president arrived with a background ready to accelerate its commitment to globalization. Becker, who was executive vice president and provost for academic affairs at the University of South Carolina before joining Georgia State, is internationally acclaimed for his research in public health sciences and biostatistics.
In his first year, Becker worked with a team across the university to craft a five-point strategic plan. Announced in 2010, this template guides decisions at every level, and 100 years from now its blueprint will be visible. Indeed, the best way to encapsulate the university’s recent history is to look at how this fivefold plan already is in play.
The plan’s first goal is to “become a national model for undergraduate education by demonstrating that students from all backgrounds can achieve academic and career success at high rates.”
Toward this end, Georgia State, long known for a diverse student body — diversity, Patton says, is “in Georgia State’s DNA” — has deliberately and successfully implemented programs to support minority students, those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and those who are the first in their families to attend college. In 2011, Georgia State had more African-American bachelor’s degree graduates than any non-historically black college in the country. Georgia State consistently graduates a higher rate of African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos than any other college or university in Georgia.
Kwanza Hall, a member of Atlanta City Council who represents District 2, which includes downtown Atlanta and Georgia State, says: “When most people speak to me about Georgia State’s recent evolution, they remark on its rapid growth as a property owner. For me, the most significant evolution has been in its student body. If you have ever eaten lunch outside on Broad Street on a sunny day when school is in session, you know what I’m talking about. At lunchtime, Broad Street between Luckie and Marietta may be the most international, demographically diverse place anywhere in the city.”
The second goal of the strategic plan is to “significantly strengthen and grow the base of distinctive graduate and professional programs that assure development of the next generation of researchers and societal leaders.”
To this end, Georgia State has built on the reputations of its law, public policy and business schools.
The third goal is for Georgia State to build on its research status, “becoming a leading research university addressing the most pressing issues of the 21st century.” Becker says this means the university should be “not only good at research,” but also sure that “the research is having an impact.”
Strides toward this goal are exemplified in two grants awarded in 2012. A $10 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education will fund research in adult literacy and establish the Center for Adult Literacy. Another $10 million, five-year award for research by reading in children who are deaf or hard of hearing was made by the National Center of Special Education Research of the Institute for Education Sciences and funds the creation of the first national research center for this specialty.
The fourth goal of the strategic plan takes advantage of Georgia State’s urban campus by striving to “be a leader in understanding the complex challenges of cities and developing effective solutions.” The university’s location is distinctive. Few colleges are in the absolute center of the city. Even Chicago and Boston, known as university cities, don’t have campuses in their urban heart like Georgia State. The only truly comparable example is New York University in New York City, say both Patton and Becker.
Georgia State students and researchers are “dealing with the issues of an urbanizing planet,” says Becker. “For Georgia State to become a major player in this area means taking advantage of breadth of strength of faculty and students. Not only finding solutions, but using Atlanta as a place — working with partners — to implement solutions.”
City Council member Hall’s office has partnered with university students and faculty on several projects.
“I have been particularly impressed by the efforts of the Office of Civic Engagement to get Georgia State students involved,” he says. “My favorite activity is the August Freshman Community Plunge, when I get to walk with students through the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District on our way to a community cleanup in the neighborhood.”
The fifth and final strategic goal is stated succinctly but has the widest-reaching ambitions: “Achieve distinction in globalizing the university.” This means more than increasing enrollment of international students, but also engaging in research partnerships with global universities and creating degree programs that foster international exchange. For example, a partnership between Georgia State and Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia allows students to earn dual degrees in applied economics — a master of science degree from the Indonesian institution and a master of arts degree from Georgia State.
Becker sees the focus on supporting diverse undergraduates and fostering research as going “hand in hand,” saying that the best researchers are the best teachers, because being an excellent communicator is required for both.
Likewise, engaging with the university’s hometown while expanding its global connections works in tandem. Coca-Cola, he points out, is an internationally recognized brand. It happens to be headquartered in Atlanta.
“Ask people in Atlanta if Coca-Cola is a major citizen in Atlanta and the answer is absolutely yes,” says Becker. “Being engaged in your community and thinking and acting globally are not in conflict. What happens in Atlanta is part of what happens in the world.”
Georgia State’s fivefold strategic plan can be summarized even more concisely in President Becker’s response when asked where he’d like to see the university 10 years from now.
“I want us to be a destination of choice,” says Becker. “When people think of the premier university in a Southeastern city, they should think of Georgia State first.”
Rebecca Burns is an author and journalist. She is former editor of Atlanta Magazine and was a 2007 Georgia Author of the Year finalist for her first book, “Rage in the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot.”