Underwood's Inaugural Year Includes Hard Decisions, New Initiatives
July 20, 2007

Richard L. Cameron
(478) 301-5500

(The following article was published Friday, July 20, 2007 in the Macon Telegraph.)

By JENNIFER BURK
jburk@macon.com

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what Bill Underwood has accomplished in his first year as president of Mercer University. Not because he hasn't done anything, but because he hardly ever keeps any of the credit for himself.

He praises his admissions staff for recruiting a strong freshman class.

He thanks the university community for cutting back during tough budget times.

He commends the campus minister for getting a new mission project off the ground.

"He believes in the university and its faculty and staff and trusts their own leadership and decision making and puts a lot of accountability back on everyone working at the university," said Peter Brown, senior vice provost. "It's not that he doesn't have ideas of his own, but he really does trust that the best decisions are going to come from the people here."

This month marks Underwood's one-year anniversary as Mercer's president. During the year, the university announced the creation of a new medical school, launched a new doctoral program in education, and revised an honors-program curriculum to require study abroad and at least one service-learning course.

But the year was not without its hardships, and Underwood faced some tough decisions early on when an ailing budget forced him to make cuts and layoffs.

"Even though it's been a painful process to go through, I think we're coming through in a much more stronger position," Underwood said.

BUDGET HURDLES

Mercer's financial hardships were one of the biggest challenges Underwood faced during his first year.

In October, Underwood announced that due to lower-than-expected tuition revenues, the university had a $7 million budget shortfall, causing him to cut $8.5 million across campus. By the end of February, the university experienced 34 job layoffs, 10 percent budget reductions and a reorganization of the Mercer Center for Community Engagement.

Since then, Underwood has been able to shift several million dollars back into academic units, and he said he is confident the recently closed fiscal year will finish in the black.

"The campus community as a whole has helped us pull together and address the financial issues we had," Underwood said.

Despite some grumbling at limits placed on copies, supplies and travel, many students, faculty and staff members acknowledged the need for such cuts and lauded Underwood for tightening the purse strings.

"I really do appreciate the fact that he's fiscally responsible," said Susan Broome, associate director for technical services at the Tarver Library and chairwoman of the House of Delegates, a faculty group.

Underwood made the "difficult but necessary" choices to set Mercer back on course, she said.

"I think it was something that needed to be done," said Janika Haywood, a Mercer senior majoring in English.

Underwood tackled a near 200-student decrease in fall 2006 enrollment from the previous year's total by hiring Terry Whittum as the new vice president for enrollment management. Whittum's job was to consolidate the admissions, retention and financial-aid departments in an effort to increase the university's enrollment, retention and academic profile.

As part of that, the university targeted more high school sophomores and juniors, recruited from a larger geographic area and launched a new admissions Web site, www.gomercer.com.

The impact can be seen in the numbers, Underwood said.

For the fall 2007 school year, about 18,000 prospective students requested information about Mercer. For fall 2008, that number has jumped to 32,000, and for fall 2009, the university already has received more than 33,000 inquiries, Underwood said.

"That tells me that what Terry and John (Cole, vice president for admissions) and the people in admissions are doing ... is being effective," he said.

Underwood said he expects 610 freshmen to enroll in Mercer this fall, a near 8 percent increase over last year.

ACCESSIBLE TO FACULTY, STUDENTS

On average, Underwood makes four to five public appearances a week that involve speaking. Usually he talks about Mercer, but occasionally he speaks on larger higher-education issues or gives sermons at the Baptist churches he visits.

Another large part of his time is spent fundraising and recruiting new talent, such as new Mercer head women's basketball coach Janell Jones.

This year, Mercer received $10.5 million in new endowment gifts and $14.1 million in new endowment pledges, according to an e-mail from Emily Myers, senior vice president for university advancement. The current endowment sits at about $200 million, an increase from $174 million last year. An additional $300 million already has been committed to the university through planned gifts to be received at a future date, according to the e-mail.

Despite Underwood's packed schedule, students say his presence on campus is known.

"He's probably more involved in student activities than Dr. (Kirby) Godsey was," Kimberly Johnson, who graduated from Mercer in May, said, referring to the former president. "You see him on campus more often."

Johnson said she has seen Underwood in the University Center, cafeteria and at basketball games.

"He's more approachable to the students," she said, adding that it makes them feel that they have a greater voice in what goes on with the university.

Sarah Gardner, an associate professor of history and director of the honors program in the College of Liberal Arts, echoed those sentiments.

"He's very much a visible presence on campus," she said. "He seems involved, and he seems concerned."

When it comes to answering questions, Broome said Underwood is candid in his responses.

"He has seemed to be very open, honest (and) willing to answer questions and willing to be put on the spot," she said.

Many Mercer employees appreciated Underwood's openness with the university's budget situation, Broome said.

"The information that he shared in the fall was not information that people had heard in the past," she said. "There's more about the administration of the university that we know now."

Broome said some faculty and staff still are holding out their judgments on Underwood.

"There's still some wait-and-see," she said. "I feel that people want to give him a fair shot. I think they have hopes that some issues will be resolved in the next year, especially with budgeting."

One of those issues is employee salaries. It's been about two years since they've received raises, she said.

Broome said Underwood did offer two extra paid days off as staff appreciation days, for which employees are thankful. One of Broome's co-workers wrote, "Underwood really rocks!" on a white board after learning about the second day off, she said.

Underwood said one of his goals in the next two years is to increase faculty salaries.

COMMITTED TO STAYING BAPTIST

In November, the Georgia Baptist Convention officially voted to end its 173-year relationship with Mercer.

Since coming on board at the university, Underwood has said he is committed to keeping Mercer a Baptist university. In his time there, Underwood has worked aggressively to strengthen Mercer's ties with Baptist organizations across the country.

In September, the American Baptist Historical Society announced it was relocating its collection to Mercer's Atlanta campus. The Baptist History and Heritage Society also has said it would relocate its office to that campus.

In January, Underwood stood side-by-side with former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter at the announcement of a Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. The celebration would engage Mercer with at least 40 other Baptist organizations, which are all members of the North American Baptist Fellowship, a group some people see as at odds with the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention.

Brown, Mercer's senior vice provost, said although he is excited about being involved with the New Baptist Covenant, Underwood's proactive involvement could potentially alienate some people who may otherwise support Mercer, such as pastors, churches and parents who side with the Southern Baptist Convention.

"I think people are a little cautious to see where it's all going to go," Brown said.

Underwood said Mercer's new Baptist connections have allowed the university to create more opportunities for students, such as participation in the creation of a new Baptist hymnal.

A LOOK AHEAD

Over the past year, Underwood has held sessions with students, faculty, alumni and community leaders focusing on the creation of a 10-year strategic plan for the university.

So far, they've come up with a preliminary vision statement.

"We're going to spend some time this year really fine tuning a strategic plan," Underwood said.

He also hopes to continue to build a strong financial base, work on initiatives to retain and recruit faculty and continue to focus on student recruitment.

Larry Brumley, Underwood's chief of staff, suggested the university hasn't yet seen everything the president has to offer.

"A lot of what happens the first year you don't see because you're working on it," he said, referring to academic appointments, new academic programs and acquisitions of property. "Those take a fair amount of lead time."

Jim Bishop, one of the trustees who hired Underwood, said he has been pleased with Underwood's first year in office.

"He has worked tirelessly in an effort to make absolutely certain that all the momentum that had been in place over a period of years has not lessened at all," he said. "Mercer is blessed to have him at the helm.

"Kirby Godsey was not an easy act to follow, but he's doing it."


To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.

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