ATHENS -- Walk across the University of Georgia campus and you see the legacy of Michael Adams' presidency.
The bustling students represent some of the most talented in the country, a testament to UGA routinely ranked as one of the nation's top 20 public research colleges.
The Zell Miller Learning Center and East Campus Village are just some of the new facilities built through more than $1 billion in new construction that has occurred since Adams took office.
But after nearly 16 years as UGA's president, Adams said Thursday it's time to retire. His last day will be June 30, 2013.
"There comes a time when it is appropriate to step aside to let others continue the work, and that time has come for me," Adams said in a speech to faculty, students and others. "My love will always be deep for the University of Georgia ... I will be invigorated in the coming year in working to assure that UGA remains well-positioned for the future."
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Adams said he decided to retire just in the last couple of weeks. He declined to provide further insight on how he arrived at the decision that next year is the right time to retire.
His retirement announcement surprised many throughout the UGA community who thought Adams might stay on while UGA works on its next capital campaign. Adams said one of his challenges for the next year will be to prepare for the large fund-raising effort that his successor would build on.
Adams will be 65 when he retires and plans to stay involved with the Athens community and teach and write at UGA.
"I want to go back to where I started in this business, and that's with you," Adams said during a sometimes tearful speech.
Students, staff and faculty greeted him with a standing ovation when he walked into the University Chapel and rose to their feet to applaud him when he finished speaking. After the speech the audience formed a line, with people taking turns hugging him and posing for pictures. Adams whispered warm wishes to many and joked they still had work to do.
For a generation of students, Adams and UGA are inseparable. Adams always found the time to talk with some the college's nearly 35,000 students, said UGA junior Marshall Mosher. Mosher said he got to know Adams while serving as a student ambassador for the college.
"He always took time to come up to us, thank us for working and shake our hands and see how our day was going," he said. "That's made a real impact on me, my personal relationship with him and I've always really respected that."
Others lauded Adams for bringing national prominence to the university and the state.
"He will leave behind a tremendous legacy, and his tenure will have long-lasting positive effects," Gov. Nathan Deal said in a statement. "President Adams led the university to new levels of excellence and prestige."
As a long-serving president Adams developed strong relationships with many decision-makers, giving him an advantage as he navigated internal politics. He first honed these skills as the chief of staff for former Tennessee U.S. Sen. Howard Baker and an adviser to former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, both Republicans.
Those strong ties helped Adams survive an attempt by the UGA Foundation to oust him after he forced beloved Athletic Director Vince Dooley into retirement in 2004.
That decision continues to upset many athletic fans to this day.
Adams' ambitions for UGA annoyed some, especially when he sought approval for a medical college and new engineering programs, despite opposition from other colleges and politicians that the programs were too expensive and duplicated offerings at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and Georgia Tech in Athens.
Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, was among those who didn't see eye-to-eye on UGA's admission standards or on Adams’ desire to add an engineering school. He urged the State Board of Regents to deny the engineering request.
"Michael Adams is always a professional," said Ehrhart, who chairs the subcommittee over state college budgets. "Did we have our differences? Many times. We still disagree on things."
But Adams always pushed ahead, saying UGA needed engineering, medicine and other programs to be competitive on a national level. A partnership program with the medical college opened in Athens in 2010. UGA ultimately received permission to offer the new engineering degrees and will open an engineering college in July.
"I continue to believe that the people of this state deserve a flagship university every bit as good as do the people of California or Michigan or North Carolina," he said Thursday.
Chancellor Hank Huckaby worked in Adams' administration at one point and saw first hand his work to make UGA a nationally recognized institution. Under Adams the university's endowment grew to $745.8 million in 2011 from $249.4 million in 1997.
"Georgia has been extremely fortunate to have brought Dr. Adams to UGA and his record is one that has put the university in a much stronger position than before he arrived," Huckaby said in a statement.
Regents Chairman Ben Tarbutton described the presidency of UGA as a "plum job" and expected the national search to begin this fall. Adams announcing his retirement this far in advance gives the regents enough time to search for a replacement.
Adams said he is "proud of where the university is" and shared UGA's achievements with administrators, faculty and staff.
"The people of this state and the people in this room make the presidency of the University of Georiga one of the very best jobs in America," Adams said. "I thank all of you for the opportunity to serve in this capacity."
Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this report.