AJC On Campus: Kennesaw State diversity chief, NCAA move, career help

A biweekly roundup of news and happenings from Georgia colleges and universities
After a national search, Kennesaw State University named its vice president and chief diversity officer. (Jason Getz / AJC FILE PHOTO)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

After a national search, Kennesaw State University named its vice president and chief diversity officer. (Jason Getz / AJC FILE PHOTO)

College spring break is in sight but still a few weeks away.

So please, put down your borg (that plastic gallon jug that holds your drink of choice) and instead dig into this edition of AJC On Campus. We bring you a Q&A with Kennesaw State University’s newly appointed chief diversity officer, the latest from lawmakers and introduce you to a few “Jeopardy!” contestants with local school ties. We’ll also explain why one Georgia university wants to move its athletic teams to the NCAA.

Financial aid bills

About $25 million could be freed up to support other student financial aid programs by abolishing a state entity that no longer serves a purpose, officials said.

The House higher education committee voted last week in favor of House Bill 319, which would abolish the Georgia Higher Education Assistance Corporation.

The corporation is one of three entities overseen by the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which also administers the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship program. The public corporation was founded in 1965 to support a federal student loan program that no longer exists, said Lynne Riley, the commission’s president.

Riley told lawmakers that in 2013 the Georgia General Assembly agreed to sell off the corporation’s portfolio of loans to Pennsylvania’s financial aid agency. Georgia had a revenue sharing agreement that allowed it to receive interest, but the agreement is now terminated.

Riley said abolishing the corporation will save staff time, reduce accounting paperwork and free up roughly $25 million in revenue for other uses. The abolishment is not expected to lead to job cuts, as staff also perform other duties within the larger commission, according to a spokeswoman.

Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, is sponsoring the bill to abolish the entity. He hinted to higher education committee members that the state could find another use for that pot of money: To expand need-based financial aid for low-income college students.

Martin has another proposal, House Bill 249, that would allow students to qualify earlier in their college careers for so-called “completion grants.” That program, approved last year, has a budget of $10 million. Martin has suggested raising maximum award amount, which is currently set at $2,500 per student.

Career planning help

Students at Georgia’s 26 public colleges and universities now have access to an online tool to help them plan their careers.

The University System of Georgia said the platform allows students to learn more about specific jobs held by alumni. Students can research which companies hire alumni, find average salaries and see what majors might help them with their own job search.

Chancellor Sonny Perdue, in a written statement, called the service “the most comprehensive career tool USG has ever offered.”

Morehouse College partnership

Morehouse College help create ‘safe spaces’ for students amid video of officers beating Tyre Nichols

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A network of metro Atlanta charter schools unveiled a partnership to boost the number of its graduates who attend Morehouse College.

KIPP Metro Atlanta expects the effort to more than double the number of its students who enroll at the historically Black college in Atlanta. KIPP enrolls more than 5,000 students in 11 schools in Atlanta and East Point.

The Morehouse and KIPP program will include mentoring, help with college applications and summer programming for high school students on the college campus.

Fourteen KIPP Metro Atlanta alumni currently attend Morehouse.

College students battle on “Jeopardy!”

Maya Wright, a senior at Emory University, will appear in the JEOPARDY! High School Reunion Tournament that airs Monday, Feb. 20.

Credit: Tyler Golden/Sony Pictures Telev

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Credit: Tyler Golden/Sony Pictures Telev

Which Atlanta university will have a student on one of America’s top game shows and what is her name?

Answer: Who is Emory University’s Maya Wright?

Wright will test her trivia chops in the “Jeopardy! High School Reunion Tournament” which airs today. Back in 2018, Wright won third place and $25,000 in the “Jeopardy! Teen Tournament” while she was a student at East Coweta High School.

This year, the game show brought back former teen contestants to compete again. Wright is among 27 former contestants who will battle over 14 days for a $100,000 grand prize.

Other competitors with ties to metro Atlanta include Sreekar Madabushi, a Georgia Tech junior from New Jersey who will appear Wednesday, . Thursday’s show will feature Justin Bolsen, who attends Brown University and is from Canton, Georgia.

A move to the NCAA

Middle Georgia State University is poised to leave the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for a new home in the NCAA Division II.

The Georgia Board of Regents gave the OK on Feb. 14 for the university to pursue the switch.

“The NAIA has been a good home… but it is primarily designed for small institutions,” Middle Georgia State President Christopher Blake told the board.

Middle Georgia’s enrollment last fall was 7,689 students. It has 10 athletic teams and 180 student athletes.

Blake said joining the NCAA would elevate the school’s sports programs. The school also plans to add women’s track “to make sure that we have strong compliance with Title IX requirements.”

Joining the NCAA’s Peach Belt Conference would reduce travel time to games, he said. Other Georgia schools in that conference include University of North Georgia, Augusta University and Clayton State University.

The next step is for Middle Georgia to apply for admission to the conference.

Blake said there will be several opportunities for the university to reconsider the move to the NCAA if the plan isn’t proceeding as desired, but the idea is to begin competing in the NCAA in fall 2025 under a provisional basis.

UGA graduation speaker

Former UGA All-America gymnast Leah Brown. (Video screenshot from SEC Network)

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The University of Georgia announced one of its own, alumna and two-time NCAA national gymnastics champion Leah Brown, will give the May 12 commencement address to undergraduates.

Brown is an orthopedic surgeon. She graduated from UGA in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in genetics.

Three questions (and a bonus) with...

Sonia Toson has been named vice president and chief diversity officer at Kennesaw State University. Photo courtesy of Kennesaw State University

Credit: Kennesaw State University

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Credit: Kennesaw State University

Sonia Toson is taking the reins as Kennesaw State University’s chief diversity officer as the school becomes larger and more diverse.

Enrollment now tops 43,000. Black students make up a quarter of the enrollment, 14% are Hispanic and 7% are Asian.

In 2018, the school had about 8,000 fewer students and 55% of its students were white.

An associate professor of law, Toson served as interim chief diversity officer before a national search led to her appointment, effective Feb. 15.

Just a few weeks before, a Black student said he was beaten up and called a racist slur in an attack at an off-campus apartment complex. The victim told police his attackers ran into a nearby fraternity house. Two men face criminal charges, and the university released a statement condemning the attack.

We asked Toson about the response to that situation plus a couple other job questions. (And we couldn’t help but sneak in one bonus question to get to know her a little more.) Her answers have been edited slightly for length.

Q: What’s your top priority as the university’s chief diversity officer?

A: My top priority for the campus is for us to create an inclusive environment where each student, staff, and faculty member feels an authentic sense of belonging and is excited about the opportunities for individual and collective success. This goal requires all of us to work together as fellow Owls; each of us doing our part to create a strong community where no one is excluded.

Q: What are the most significant changes you’ve seen at KSU during your 14 years there?

A: I think the most significant would have to be the explosive growth over the years. From our enrollment of such a diverse student body to the increase in our research and athletics profiles to the increase in physical space on campus, the changes have been truly remarkable. The thing that strikes me about the growth, however, is that we’ve been able to maintain the core of who we are, which is a caring, student-centric environment where you will always find excellent teaching in the classroom.

Q: What kind of conversations have you had in response to the recent attack in which a student was allegedly called a racial slur?

A: Certainly, the attack is deeply disturbing to our campus community. We have engaged in a number of conversations in recent weeks, all centered around caring for our students during an incredibly difficult time. We recently hosted a campuswide conversation to provide support and resources for our students, but that is just the first of a series of ongoing conversations that will take place.

Q: What’s your favorite place to spend time on Kennesaw State University’s campus?

A: My favorite place to spend time is actually anywhere on our Marietta campus, the campus of the former Southern Polytechnic State University (SPSU). Its where I began my career in academia and fell in love with this institution and its students. I have so many fond memories of teaching and serving on that campus. The feeling I have when I’m there is so special! It always feels like home.

Worried about ChatGPT?

The computer program ChatGPT can write essays, explain complicated concepts and even tell jokes.

Some students are using it to write papers and do their homework. Professors are sorting out how to respond: Should they embrace the technology? Or try to somehow curb its use?

You can hear from two expert educators as they discuss how they’re handling ChatGPT during an upcoming Atlanta Journal-Constitution live event.

We’ll be joined by Susan Barber, an Advanced Placement English Literature teacher at Atlanta’s Midtown High School, and Cynthia Alby, a professor of teacher education at Georgia College and State University, for this AJC discussion at 6 p.m. March 9. Register online here.

We’d like to feature people from Georgia’s colleges and universities in upcoming editions of AJC On Campus. If you have a story idea or other suggestions, email higher education reporter Vanessa McCray at vanessa.mccray@ajc.com.