2022 State of the University Address

February 4, 2022
by Cathy Cox, President
Russell Auditorium

Dear colleagues, fellow Bobcats, alumni, foundation and alumni board members, and friends of Georgia College here today or watching online, good afternoon and welcome to my inaugural state of the university address. I got a chuckle last week when I was visiting the Colonnade newsroom and saw this listed as the “state of the union” address on their pitch board – it’s definitely not that formal of an occasion, but I’m glad we have this tradition of coming together at least annually to focus on where the University is and where the year ahead might lead.

Although it has only been four months since I became Georgia College’s 12th president, it has certainly been eventful, and I feel fortunate to have gotten to know so many of you. Many of you have gotten to meet my dog Ellie (picture), but not as many have met my husband Mark Dehler because he's been working -- doing mediation and arbitration as a lawyer and teaching as a Lecturer in Mercer University's Political Science department. Mark is here today and is just as excited as I have been about joining the Georgia College community -- and I hope you'll get to know him soon.

I am especially pleased that many of our Foundation and Alumni Board members are with us today. Would you stand and let us thank you for your service to Georgia College? (applause) Some of our Board members are watching online, and we send our thanks to you as well. I also appreciate the leadership provided by our Student Government Association, and they are here, too. Would our SGA members please stand and be recognized?

When I first came to campus, I wanted to make sure I had ample opportunities to meet with students, faculty and staff to gather your ideas, thoughts and observations about this special place. After 23 listening sessions, I can say you were not shy about sharing your thoughts and perspectives! I am pleased to share a few highlights from those listening sessions with you today along with some of my initial thoughts on where we’re heading.

But first, let me say ‘thank you’. Georgia College is clearly a place where preeminence can be seen across campus in so many ways – big and small.

My first thank-you is to Susan Kerr and all the members of the Presidential Transition Committee who made my first three months on campus so comfortable and welcoming. They all spent time attending the listening sessions with me and helping me make lots of other adjustments to campus. I am so grateful for your help! Thank you!

To all of you, I know that living with the pandemic over the past two years has not been easy.  Although we will undoubtedly face additional challenges along the way, I greatly appreciate your hard work, creativity, diligence and perseverance. I appreciate the pride you have in your work – from your celebrations of student achievements, to our building services staff who told me in the listening sessions how hard they work to make sure our campus environment is clean, safe and ready for learning. And there’s no way to describe the Herculean efforts of our Student Life and Student Health Center staff members during the pandemic – and continuing even now. You have all made GC students and their education your priority during the pandemic and it shows. I have been impressed with your dedication to teaching, student well-being and success, and excellence in all that you do – every day during the pandemic and far beyond. Thank you!

I appreciate those of you who participated in the listening sessions we held throughout the fall. I learned about our strengths, challenges and opportunities and have considered the many suggestions that you have offered. Much of the feedback I received speaks to the longer-term trajectory of Georgia College, and I can tell that you have a great deal of optimism and excitement about our future. I’m so thankful for that perspective! There were a few suggestions that I was able to act on rather quickly and I will mention a few of them.

For example, I asked the question of “what do you need to do your jobs better.” Dr. Robert Blumenthal recounted how Georgia College took steps to reduce our consumption of energy across campus a few years back -- important progress we would want to continue. But he experienced one important drawback: the light bulbs used in some of our classrooms to save energy did not produce sufficient brightness, and coming from a math professor, I think we can appreciate the need for great clarity on a chalkboard or white board! I asked our physical plant to look into this, and as it turned out, there was a relatively easy fix. Dr. Blumenthal’s classroom is now brighter and we’re working on other classrooms and hallways, too.

Another example from the listening sessions: With respect to institutional branding, I heard feedback on the way we use the abbreviated name “Georgia College” versus the full name “Georgia College & State University”.  I know there is a much longer and nuanced history behind our name, and while I certainly don’t want to unwind the progress we have made in expanding our brand equity across the state of Georgia, I do feel there is an opportunity to emphasize the “University” aspect of our full name for certain important uses. For example, our efforts to expand international education and recruit international students and faculty would benefit greatly by emphasizing the fact that we are indeed a university. So would our marketing and outreach for graduate students in general.

Georgia College & State University

So I asked our team in University Communications to explore ways of emphasizing the university aspect of our full name and develop ways we can visually represent this when needed. We’re not going to redesign our logo, but we can be more intentional about how we present the full name of Georgia College & State University when opportunities present themselves.

Some of the feedback I received during the listening sessions revolved around the role Georgia College plays in and around Milledgeville. Specifically, that Georgia College ought to be more actively engaged in our community and participate in local programs and activities that would make our campus more welcoming to our neighbors. One of the unfortunate effects that COVID has had was to put certain strains on our ability to connect with important community stakeholders, and I hope to renew the relationships we have historically enjoyed.

This past December, for example, we participated in the Milledgeville Christmas Parade for the first time in quite a while. I’ve accepted invitations to join local civic organizations – and I encourage all of you to do the same. When our community sees you and me taking an interest in them – and in programs that address the needs of our community – they see the benefit of having a state university in their midst. I am personally looking forward to the many opportunities to further engage our extended neighborhood and build more bridges with the many communities that we serve in and around Baldwin County.

Many of you raised the issue of compensation in the listening sessions, and I heard you. More importantly, the Acting Chancellor of the University System made your case to the Governor, knowing what you’ve been through over the past two years and knowing that it has been too long since you had pay raises. And, as most of you hopefully know, Governor Kemp has recommended $5,000 pay raises for every full-time USG employee, and the Speaker of the House has indicated his support for that. It’s still early in the legislative budgeting process, but the signs are good that well-deserved pay raises may indeed be coming our way.

Prior to assuming the presidency, I was impressed with the momentum and trajectory that Georgia College currently enjoys. Its brand and reputation as the state’s designated public liberal arts university is strong and positive and continues to grow. I hope you have developed a comfort level with my commitment to our liberal arts mission – because it really is what drew me to pursue the presidency here. 

The deep commitment to using the tools of a broad liberal arts education to teach the essential skills of critical thinking, written and oral communication skills, leadership and teamwork – is evident here. It is a distinctive part of what we do and applies to every major we offer. As we know, employers tell us they want to hire graduates who have these skills, over and above the substantive knowledge in a particular discipline. This is a core strength we can build on as we go forward.

As we look to the future, I want to challenge all of you to raise your sights and think big …. Ask yourself:  “What do we aspire to be?” and  “Where do we go from here?”.  What qualities do preeminent liberal arts universities have – and how do we assure that we have those qualities as well? I want us to be ambitious with our goals and I challenge myself and all of you to identify what it’s going to take to get to that next level of excellence.

To do this, I’m going to ask our faculty and staff to identify and refine a list of our “aspirant schools” – universities that are similar to us in various ways and which we think are among the best of the best. I’d like for us to visit some of them this spring and glean the marks of quality that we might adapt or customize here to differentiate our university in strategic ways. We will be looking at these aspirational peers from a macro, institutional perspective, as well as by looking at best practices and differentiators on a unit and divisional level.

We are already doing outstanding work in many critical areas of preeminence. We have a growing pipeline of student applicants for national scholarships and honors. How can we enhance those opportunities? We recently established the Honors College. How can we take this college to the next level? What will student success look like at Georgia College and how do we assure it looks distinctive from other USG schools? What must we do to improve our already solid student retention and graduation rates? As we add new nursing cohorts, a data science degree, and are well on our way to adding a BS in finance, how can we be innovative – while continuing to be practical, and prepare our students for today’s best jobs? How do we assure that Georgia College is the destination that the top students from Georgia and across the nation want to pursue?

And what is the role of the liberal arts university and our research and service capabilities to expand upon the public good? Related to the public good, we are already a major contributor of economic growth to the communities we serve. We have seen success in key areas such as the Rural Studies Institute, the Andalusia Institute, our Center for Health and Social Issues, the Sandra Dunagan Deal Center for Early Language and Literacy, and Early College.  We have fulfilled many of the strategic needs identified by the state of Georgia – including producing the next generation of teachers, nurses, entrepreneurs and citizen-leaders through the success of our leadership programs. And we can do more in every one of these areas if we think through a lens of innovation and preeminence.

We now have a brand-new Integrated Science Complex to further advance our STEM programs and put science on display here in Milledgeville. We recently broke a new record in the levels of grants and sponsored research projects here at Georgia College. Undergraduate research is an important component of our GC Journeys Program, and the momentum we continue to see in this area is impressive. We’ve built a strong foundation with varied research opportunities and by publishing an undergraduate research journal that is growing in national recognition with each issue. Last year, as you know, we received the prestigious national Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishments (AURA), and a few months ago, the Board of Regents presented us with the 2021 Regents’ Momentum Year Award for Excellence in Teaching and Curricular Innovation for our emphasis on and success with high impact practices. In fact, over the past five years, we’ve won four of the USG’s Excellence in Teaching awards.

In another recognition of the excellence taking place all over campus, we also completed our five-year SACSCOC accreditation and several other important accreditations. Most recently, these include AACSB and ABET accreditations within the College of Business, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) for our College of Education, and the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) for our Department of Music. And just last week we learned that Georgia College and our Chemistry program were included on a list of institutions approved by the American Chemical Society. Our Nursing program is about to pursue certification of its simulation center – a unique accreditation that indicates how very special our training for nurses really is. Nationally prominent universities all earn and maintain these types of markers of quality – and we have to do the same.

I am thankful for the leadership of Provost Costas Spirou and his team within the Office of the Provost along with all our college deans and their faculty and staff for their work in maintaining the highest standards of excellence at Georgia College.

You can say the same for our athletics. We were recently awarded the NCAA Presidents’ Award for Academic Excellence – one of only 43 Division II schools in the country to be so honored. And we had the highest Academic Success Rate (which is essentially our graduation rate) of any D2 public university in the country!  Did you get that – the highest graduation rate of student athletes of any public university in the country! That is  a huge accomplishment for our student-athletes and for all our faculty and staff who teach and support them!

And speaking of sports, in the world of intramurals, I’d be hard pressed to find any institution that does it better than Georgia College. Both our women’s and men’s flag football teams won their state tournaments and finished in the top three in the national playoffs last month. Now that’s a great accomplishment by our students – several were named All-Americans. But the even more important statistic is that some 40% of our students participate in intramural programs, running most nights well beyond 10 p.m. That kind of student engagement plays directly into our success in student retention – and that in turn supports our strong graduation rates. I congratulate our staff members who make this happen. It does indeed take a village!

Step back a moment and think about these things. I think you’d agree that a preeminent liberal arts university must excel in all of these areas – and more. 

It is particularly gratifying to see this progress being made despite the fact that we have had to deal with the ongoing global pandemic.  When we step back and look at all of our accomplishments, it becomes pretty clear that we are steadily raising the profile of Georgia College. As we celebrate 25 years of Liberal Arts excellence at Georgia College, I am confident that we can continue and enhance this momentum. Just take a look at the many ways we will continue to celebrate this anniversary over the remainder of this semester.

Liberal Arts Events for Spring 2022

There are so many more accomplishments I could mention; time doesn’t permit me to talk about them all, so I hope you will pick up your copy of our annual highlights publication when you leave here today.  If you are watching online, you can access a digital copy of our annual highlights piece from the Office of the President’s webpage

Let me pivot in our final few minutes to the coming year. As you know, our current strategic plan has been in place for just over 5 years. I studied it as I was preparing for my interviews last summer and was wowed by the detailed effort you’ve made over this time to grow, improve, and perfect nearly every aspect of the university.

As we start this new year, I believe it is a perfect time to build on the strong foundations currently in place.  The strategic planning process, which is currently being led by Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, Dr. Holley Roberts, will present all of you with an opportunity to provide input as we collectively shape the overall direction of the university. This spring, we will engage in a lot of the outlining, discovery and deliberations as we start to sort out our aspirations for Georgia College. In the next year, we hope to complete the plan and prepare for our kickoff and implementation phase.

As we infuse our aspirations and goals into the strategic planning process, I’d like to outline a few key areas of emphasis that I feel would be helpful. As Georgia’s designated public liberal arts institution, I’m hopeful we can find ways to deepen our commitment to the liberal arts as we continue preparing our students to navigate the complexities of life.

GC Journeys is our signature program to ensure just that, and we must continue to do all that we can to provide transformative experiences for our students. Teaching our students the essential skills to be successful in college and in rapidly-changing, productive careers and fulfilling lives must be our primary concern in a student-centric university. That is a huge task – but one that I think we all believe the liberal arts can best be utilized to teach. So, let’s use our strategic planning process to think about how we can be creative and distinctive – how we can teach those essential skills better than anyone else.

In addition, our commitment to inclusive excellence must continue. As many of you know, we are now actively searching for our next Chief Diversity Officer. The Office of Inclusive Excellence is a critical component to advance our efforts to ensure that Georgia College is a welcoming and safe place for everyone, and that people of different races and ethnicities, different faith traditions, different sexual orientations and identification, different viewpoints and more -- can all find success on our campus and beyond.

This is important not only because of the values we hold dear as an institution, but also because we want to ensure that Georgia College represents the rich diversity of the state of Georgia, the nation and indeed the world – and that our students are well prepared to thrive and lead in this fascinating world of rich diversity. As demographics continue to shift in Georgia, an increasing number of under-represented populations among high schools will matriculate into college programs.  The work we do to diversify our student body today will determine the strength of our institution’s candidate pool tomorrow.

I hope that our search will help us find a new leader for this office by the summer to help us launch and expand on our new Diversity Action Plan and assure that we, again, are a preeminent university on all matters related to our embrace of diversity and inclusion.

We are also actively searching for our next Vice President for University Advancement. We have a unique opportunity to shape our fundraising efforts and continue to grow the endowment that provides resources for Georgia College. As we reflect on what we aspire to be, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of philanthropy. World-class universities understand that it takes resources to be the best – and their alumni and donors know that, too. I’m excited about getting new leadership for our Advancement team to assure that our fundraising efforts are aligned with our overall university goals of preeminence. We won’t get to preeminence without an Advancement operation that is working at full speed.

As we work toward raising the profile of Georgia College, I would also like to ensure that key stakeholders like our alumni, friends, and state-level influencers are being engaged and take notice of the progress we are making. The ability to shape, define and expand our brand in differentiated ways will be critical to the long-term success of Georgia College. When I talk about our “brand,” I’m referring to what we’re known for – our reputation, our distinctiveness, if you will. A strong brand is vital to recruit the brightest students and to attract high quality faculty and staff.  This past year, Georgia College had a record number of completed applications – 4,663 to be specific, which resulted in a record-high freshman class of 1,507 students. And based on data earlier this week, we are on pace to equal or exceed those numbers this fall. 

One way you can help us elevate the profile and the “brand” of Georgia College is to share your work and accomplishments with us.  I urge you to reach out often to Omar Odeh, our Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications and his team in the Office of University Communications with your good news and successes. We want to amplify the stories that embody our brand attributes – and that means stories of success by our faculty, staff and students.  I’m grateful that so many of our faculty members share their expertise with the media and participate in state and national conferences, panel discussions and seminars. These opportunities are time consuming but are also perfect examples of how we project thought leadership and establish presence on a national stage. Our external stakeholders take notice, prospective students also take notice, and this translates into an even stronger reputation for our university.

I hope that you are as excited as I am about the future of Georgia College. The next few weeks and months will present several opportunities to become involved in the strategic planning process. As geeky as it may sound, I like strategic planning when it involves the whole campus and enables us to make concrete plans for growth and improvement. Our strategic plan will be the road map we follow to get to a better place – not a document to sit on a shelf.

I encourage you to think creatively to find out of the box ideas and strategies that will help to differentiate us, deepen our commitment to the liberal arts and ensure the success of our students, faculty and staff. Together, let’s find out what’s possible and go after it!

To answer the question on the state of the university? I’d say it is very good, very good. But when we gather together for this event in 2023, I want us to say we are even better, and we’ve developed a road map to get us from good to great. I am excited about the future of Georgia College, but there’s a lot for us to do in the coming year and I am honored to take this journey with you all.

Thank you for your time this afternoon, and GO BOBCATS!

I’ll now turn the program over to Carol Ward, our Chief Human Resources Officer, for our annual Service Recognition Ceremony.