During his tenure, Clough learned students were not leaving because they flunked out. The majority were, in fact, doing fine; they just didn’t like Georgia Tech. An attitude remained at Tech, he said, that “it should be intentionally hard to graduate from this school, even if the difficulty has nothing to do with academics.”
In his 14 years as president, Clough oversaw an expansion of academic endeavors, a resetting of institutional priorities and a new focus on bioscience and biotech. He also witnessed the transformation of the student body and the bleak stretch of Midtown surrounding Tech’s campus.
“Many parents don’t recognize the changing demographic in the state of Georgia. We used to keep track of student names, and the most common in freshman class were Jones and Smith. It later became Lee and Singh,” said Clough. “Every now and then, a parent would come up after graduation and said they really loved it, but how come you have all these foreign students? I told them they weren’t foreign students. They were born in Chamblee.”
(Clough also said Tech’s commitment to admit some international students benefits the campus. “It is good for a kid like me who grew up in Douglas, Georgia, to meet a kid who grew up in Thailand.”)
All those innovations, which Clough details in a new book, “The Technological University Reimagined,” propelled Tech from a respected regional engineering school to an elite campus routinely ranked in the top 10 public universities. The student population increased from 13,000 to 19,000, and funding for external research more than doubled. Clough promoted study abroad, uplifted the humanities, public policy and the social sciences and offered up his own expertise and that of faculty to mayors, governors and presidents, enhancing Georgia Tech’s stature and its role in policy decisions.
With stints at Duke, Stanford, Virginia Tech and the University of Washington, Clough arrived two years before Georgia Tech would serve as the Olympic Village and the site of boxing, swimming and diving competitions. Agreements were already in place to build new buildings and venues. “We thought we were going to get funded, but were never quite sure,” said Clough. (Out of the $233 million spent on Tech for the Olympics, Clough said Tech put up $160 million of it, nearly 70%.)
The Olympic agreement included athlete housing that would then become seven new residence halls, enabling Tech to be more of a residential university than a commuter one, said Clough. The Olympics spurred the end of the troubled and crime-plagued Techwood Homes and the construction of Centennial Place, a mixed-income community for which Clough credits federal housing grants and the vision of Renee Glover, then executive director of the Atlanta Housing Authority.
During his time teaching civil engineering at Stanford, Clough saw firsthand the role the campus played in the rise of Silicon Valley. “I saw what a university could really do to connect to the community, if it puts its mind to it,” he said.
Road detours caused by the Summer Olympic Games forced Clough to find a new route to Tech each morning, exposing him to the languishing stretches around Fifth and Spring streets, marooned from Tech by the construction of the Downtown Connector. “I saw the possibilities. Atlanta had a technology community, but there was no heart to it, no identifiable place like Silicon Valley or Kendall Square. It was the right idea at the right time,” he said.
The Midtown Alliance and Central Atlanta Progress had long been looking at ways to revitalize the industrial wasteland around Tech, said Clough. When he met with those organizations, Clough said, “They trotted out their maps and said here is our footprint. Neither one of them had Georgia Tech in their footprint. Georgia Tech hadn’t done its part to reach out to the community.”
Tech could no longer be a citadel, walled off from the community by both highways and a lack of civic engagement, said Clough. In 2007, the 5th Street Pedestrian Plaza Bridge linked the Georgia Tech campus on the west side of the Downtown Connector to Technology Square on the east, a bustling center of research, innovation labs, high-tech firms, hotel complex, apartments and restaurants.
Along with addressing how Tech looked, Clough concentrated on how it felt, tackling a culture he recalled as “merciless” as an undergraduate there. “When I walked in the door, we had a 67% graduation rate, which was ridiculous, especially since our students were among the brightest in the country.” (Tech’s current graduation rate is 91%.)
Clough resolved that Tech had to provide a more fulfilling and enriching education experience by exposing them to art, music and poetry. He sought out faculty who prioritized teaching and interacting with students.
Clough’s efforts to grow the footprint and scope of Georgia Tech aligned with the ethos of then-Gov. Zell Miller, a former college professor whose lasting legacy is the HOPE Scholarship. The two leaders shared a belief that the success of Georgia owes to and depends on quality higher education.
Clough sympathizes with current college presidents amid this highly politicized pandemic. “I have no idea how a mask becomes a political football. We don’t allow people to drive drunk because that is a limitation of our liberty ... because the person drinking and driving will run into a family with kids and kill them. My 8-year-old grandchild can’t get a shot. You can talk about personal liberty, but if you spread COVID to my grandchild, that is a violation of my liberty and my kids’ and my grandchildren’s right to exist.”
The debates raging around education issues, including critical race theory and the teaching of history, worry Clough. “What makes Georgia tick, what makes Georgia look good in the world and in the nation is higher education. You need to be careful you don’t mess that equation up. Because you can lose it, and the state will regret it forever.”