The job of Georgia Tech president is part educator, part administrator, part researcher, part fundraiser, part economic development leader and much, much more.
Last week’s announcement that G.P. “Bud” Peterson plans to retire later this year marks the beginning of one of the most important job searches in the state. Georgia Tech has nearly 33,000 students, is consistently ranked among the nation’s top research schools, has a $1.5 billion annual budget, conducts top-secret government research and is a vital cog in the city of Atlanta’s economic development.
“It’s a big challenge. Tough job,” said Fran Millar, outgoing chairman of the Georgia Senate’s higher education committee. “You are going to have to be one multitalented individual.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Millar and others what type of person and qualifications the University System of Georgia and state Board of Regents must look for in Peterson’s replacement. Frequent answers included someone who can think innovatively about higher education and easily adapt to industry changes; develop and maintain strong relationships with students, faculty, business leaders, politicians and trustees; has experience leading a major institution and is a prodigious fundraiser.
“They will want someone who can walk across the Chattahoochee River without getting wet,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. ACE’s membership includes more than 2,000 college presidents. Peterson is a board member.
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Internal candidates might have slim chances. Peterson, who’s been president nearly a decade, was criticized last year for lax management of several ethics abuses by several former top administrators. If someone currently at Tech is hired, likely candidates include Rafael Bras, Tech’s provost since 2010, or Chaouki Abdallah, hired last year as executive vice president for research.
Millar believes the next president will conduct a review of operational issues.
Peterson’s current compensation package, more than $1.1 million this fiscal year, is the highest of any public college president in Georgia. Some interviewed insisted Georgia Tech can lure someone who will want to lead the prestigious school at a modest salary. Others believe the University System will have to crack open the piggy bank. At least 20 college presidents across the nation have annual compensation packages surpassing $1.5 million a year, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Peterson, a mechanical engineer, said he wants to teach at Georgia Tech. One subject that intrigues him is interfacial transport phenomena, which involves energy, mass and thermodynamics. Does Peterson’s replacement need to be someone as versed in engineering? Opinions varied.
“Last time I checked, we have people who are CEOs who don’t have engineering backgrounds,” Millar said.
Hartle said the search will likely take six to nine months and the search committee hired will initially identify about 150 candidates. It won’t be like the recent search for Tech’s new football coach, which took nine days.
“Because there are so many constituencies and the cost of making a bad decision is so great, campuses tend to take a long period of time and they tend to be careful about that choice,” he said.
Several people used the phrase “transformational” to describe the person who should succeed Peterson. For Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, transformational means someone who’ll be more transparent about contracts and finances, a person who keeps attendance costs low, someone who will do robust work to help students dealing with anxiety and academic stress and allow greater freedom of expression on campus.
“This is a moment where the University System needs to do some broad thinking. Where are we now? Where should we be in five years? Where should we be in 10 years? What kind of leader is going to take us there?,” he said. “This is not a time to maintain the status quo in higher education.”
POTENTIAL CANDIDATES? TECH STUDENTS SAY...
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked several higher education leaders, state insiders and others about potential candidates. We spotted a few names discussed by students online. Here are a few of those names and some information about them.
Catharine Bond Hill, former Vassar College president. She lead Vassar from 2006 to 2016, earning recognition for efforts to improve college access for low-income students and military veterans. She’s managing director at Ithaka S+R, the innovative research and strategy arm at the higher education nonprofit ITHAKA. She has worked for the World Bank and U.S. Congressional Budget Office.
Michael Crow, Arizona State University president. ASU has tripled its budget for research and attracted twice as many National Merit Scholars and low-income students under Crow. He also made a list of Time magazine’s 10 Best College Presidents.
Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president. Jackson has raised more funds than anyone else in the school’s history. She serves on multiple boards, including IBM and FedEx. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for contributions in science and engineering. She may be a tough get. Last month her contract was extended to 2022.
Gary May, University of California, Davis chancellor. His name came up more frequently than anyone else’s. He was dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering and executive assistant to Peterson’s predecessor, Wayne Clough. He became chancellor in August 2017.
Michael McRobbie, Indiana University president. The Australian-born computer scientist established six new schools — including the School of Philanthropy. Indiana has been at the forefront of improving student financial literacy, University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley said in a recent AJC interview on the topic. It could help boost his prospects.
Mark Schlissel, University of Michigan president. He’s been president since 2014. Michigan is consistently ranked as one of the top research universities. In 2017, he announced the Go Blue Guarantee, a new financial-aid program that provides up to four years of free undergraduate tuition to in-state students from families in Michigan making $65,000 or less.
David Tirrell, Caltech provost. Several people interviewed said the provost or president of a school such as Caltech must be under consideration for Georgia Tech. Tirrell has an engineering background, serving 10 years there as chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.