UGA insider sole finalist to be next president

The next president of the University of Georgia will be an insider with extensive knowledge of the state’s flagship university.

Jere Morehead, the university’s current provost, was named the sole finalist Monday following a national search. He will replace Michael Adams, who is stepping down June 30 after leading the college for 16 years.

Morehead will take the helm of an institution consistently ranked as stellar, but which, nonetheless, faces financial challenges related to the state’s economic struggles.

The UGA search committee interviewed nine candidates earlier this month, including five presidents. Morehead blew the others away because of strong interviews and his deep familiarity with the Athens campus and community, members of the search committee said. He has moved up the college’s ranks since starting as a business professor in 1986.

“He knows how UGA works and it’ll be an easy transition because he won’t miss a beat,” said Will Burgess, a member of the search committee and president of the student government association. “He’s also a brilliant academic and a really good person.”

Adams cheered the choice and said the regents could not have have found anyone more committed to the university’s future. He tapped Morehead to serve as provost in 2010 following a national search.

“He is someone who has given the overwhelming majority of his life to the University of Georgia, and he will be a great and respected leader here for many years to come,” Adams said in a statement.

The State Board of Regents has a habit of naming just one finalist for key positions. Chancellor Hank Huckaby was the sole finalist to lead the University System of Georgia.

And it’s not unusual for colleges to select presidents from in-house. About one-third of college presidents were already working for the institutions, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella group for higher education.

The university’s influence and that of its president extend far beyond the Athens campus. The college’s research supports farmers and other businesses across the state and country. Its graduates fill Georgia’s boardrooms. And its reputation attracts new employers, making it a crucial economic driver for the state.

Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, has known Morehead for more than decade and said the regents were correct in selecting him over candidates from Nebraska and Ohio.

“I like the idea that the man has years of experience with the university and has a lot of love for that campus and love for the people and state of Georgia,” said Ehrhart, chairman of the House Higher Education budget subcommittee. “That’s not transferable from state to state.”

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, saw Morehead’s selection as a testament to his talent and less about his ties to the university.

Ralston has known Morehead since they attended law school at UGA and were on the same team in the moot court competition, in which students participate in simulated court proceedings — everything from drafting a brief to oral arguments.

“I’m very pleased that we’ve gone through a national search, we’ve vetted and compared candidates from all across the country and the committee has come back to one of our own,” he said.

While the hire still needs to be approved by the full State Board of Regents, that step is considered a formality because Morehead is the only one up for the position. The regents next meet Feb. 13, although under state law the board could vote as soon as Monday.

Morehead, 56, said he is “honored and humbled to have been selected” and will make additional statements after the regents vote.

He stands to inherit a university that is consistently ranked among the top 25 public colleges in the nation. The quality of students and faculty has increased annually and the college is rolling out new health and engineering programs.

But challenges — especially financial ones — remain as the state continues to rebound from the weak economy. Fundraising has become more important as UGA seeks money for student aid and for campus improvements. Also, the next president must work to raise the university’s national research profile.

Morehead is known for working hard.

The Florida native moved to Atlanta as teenager and enrolled at Georgia State University when he was just 16.

He graduated four years later in 1977 and then entered the University of Georgia Law School. He had a law degree by the time he was 23.

As provost, Morehead oversees instruction, research, public service and outreach, as well as student affairs. The deans of all the schools and colleges report to him.

He also serves as vice chairman of the UGA Research Foundation and the Georgia Athletic Association.

Nelson Hilton, an English professor who is chairman of the University Council Executive Committee, said he was delighted with the selection and said the college has “no better friend than Jere Morehead.”

Burgess, the student government association president, described Morehead as a “great advocate for students” who has an open-door policy for all of their concerns. He is confident that Morehead will fight for the college.

“As students we just want UGA to continue to rise so that our degrees keep being valuable,” Burgess said. “He will protect everything UGA stands for.”

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Staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this report.