Michael Adams: ‘I’ve broken one of the basic corporate rules’

Former UGA president discusses leadership, financial issues and the Dooley controversy.

The average tenure of a college president is about seven years today. Michael Adams went 16 at UGA before stepping down this summer after helping to turn the state’s flagship university into one of the nation’s top public colleges.

Adams, a skilled fundraiser who learned that trade in politics, helped UGA secure more than $1 billion for new construction and millions more for faculty endowments and student scholarships. Enrollment, which became significantly more selective during his watch, grew to about 35,000 students from 29,000.

His tenure also was marked with controversy, including a firestorm over his decision to replace UGA football legend Vince Dooley as athletic director.

Before leading UGA, Adams, 65, was president of Centre College in Kentucky and a vice president of Pepperdine University in California. At both schools, he raised a considerable amount of money, which did not come naturally to him. Adams discusses the acquired art of fundraising, as well as leadership, Dooley and the rising cost of college education.

Q: Who played a major role in your early life?

A: My dad, who died last year at age 87, was a great influence in my life. One of the things he taught me was to seize an opportunity. That’s what he did.

Our family moved a lot as he moved up the corporate ladder for a large food company. He started out as a salesman and ended up as a retail sales manager for the East Coast region from Washington, D.C., south.

I don’t think either my sister or I ever met a stranger. We were having to reintroduce and recreate ourselves every three or four years. It forced us to be outgoing and also accepting of different challenges. To finish my senior year of high school in Chattanooga, I lived with a family friend while my family moved to Raleigh.

Moving around also caused me to focus on people’s traits and abilities, and to spend a lot of time asking about them.

Q: You went on to get a Ph.D. in political communications from Ohio State, where you got a faculty job. But you left to work for Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, the Republican minority chair of the Watergate scandal hearings who became Senate Minority Leader. You were his speechwriter and then chief of staff. What did you learn?

A: I told my wife when I took the job with Sen. Baker, “I think I can get a teaching position. I’m not certain I will get another opportunity like this again.”

I learned a lot about how the world works while working for Sen. Baker. At 31, when I was on the way out of the senate to help run his re-election campaign, Sen. Baker said to me, “by the way, you have to raise $5 million dollars.” I had never asked anyone for a cup of coffee before.

Had I not had the fundraising experience from the Baker campaign in 1978, I do not believe I would be sitting here today. The typical college president spends about a third of his or her time either raising money or making friends toward that end.

I learned that people like to give to success stories. People don’t always give to need. A person who can paint a vision of a political leader or an institution on the upbeat can attract other people.

I also learned that a lot of things in life are hard work and shoe leather. Even my detractors will tell you that I worked very hard. Today, fundraising requires building genuine relationships. It takes nights away from your family. It takes dinners and luncheons and get-down sessions about where the institution is headed.

If you can paint a vision for somebody that they can buy into, and are willing to work long hours to draw them into that mainstream, you’re going to be pretty successful.

Q: Speaking of raising money, students and parents are finding it tougher to pay for college today for several reasons, including that the HOPE scholarship pays a smaller portion of the cost than it used to. What’s your best advice for people struggling with the higher cost and for policymakers dealing with the issue?

A: Everybody is going to be called on to do more. In a world-centric, knowledge-based economy, higher ed is the ticket in all but the rarest of cases.

It means the state has to change course. It can’t continue to cut like it has.

Parents are going to have to start saving for college sooner.

Students are going to have to understand that they’re likely to have to rely more on work-study and loans.

And universities and university presidents are going to have to do more to raise money for scholarships. We’re going to have to grow endowments to take pressure off of middle-class families.

It’s going to take incremental give on the part of everyone to deal with these financial challenges. Financially, we’re going back to the way things were in the 1950s and ’60s when we cobbled together multiple sources (of money) to make sure we got through.

Q: One of the most controversial decisions you made was to replace former football coach Vince Dooley as athletic director. In response, some in the UGA community called for your head to be put on the chopping block. Please discuss.

A: Assuming my head was on the chopping block, I really never let that worry me. I never lost a night’s sleep. People don’t believe that, but it’s true. I always felt if things went down hill, I could get a job.

For me, it was a personnel matter. People in leadership positions will tell you those are the toughest things they deal with. You have to make a judgment call — is this the best person at this point in time to go forward with? I’ve had to make some of those hard calls.

I’ve also said — it’s gotten lost in all the verbiage along the way — that Coach Dooley made many positive contributions to the University of Georgia, both as a head coach and as an AD.

But there is a time for everybody, including me. I felt that the university and the athletic department needed a fresh approach and we got one. I made that decision without animus. It became more heated than I wish it had.

Q: What did you look for when you hired key people?

A: You can’t put a place like this on your back like you can a small, liberal arts college. You have to hire a lot of strong administrators and faculty who can buy into the vision you paint and work collectively to take it to the next level.

I always ask what people do when they’re not working. It reveals their priorities, their ethics, their family.

I think a person’s EQ — emotional quotient — is at least as important as a person’s IQ. So I pay a lot of attention to one’s values, loyalty and basic ethics through the years.

I’ve broken one of the basic corporate rules. Many of the people who were vice presidents and deans might have reported to me on an organizational chart, but many of them became close friends. A lot of people say don’t get close to people who report to you. But I have not found it to be a negative in this profession, where we do try to view each other as colleagues.

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Adams’ remarks were edited for length and clarity.

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