The puzzled expressions among academics, officials and students Thursday was not just surprise over three University of Georgia presidential candidates - a Michigan dentist, a woman provost and a Watergate scholar from Kentucky.
The question du jour was: Who are they?
"I don't know anything about any of them," said Charlie Smith Jr., a member of the state House Education Committee and a university alumnus. "I can only say that I hope whoever is chosen maintains the high academic standards at the university."
Nan Koehane, president of Duke University, had never heard of Debra Stewart, the rising star and 54-year-old vice provost at North Carolina State University.
Few others had heard of the other two presidential candidates, Centre College President Michael F. Adams and James Bernard Machen, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan.
Like many in Athens, Joe Key, University of Georgia vice president for research, came close to endorsing Mr. Machen as his choice for president because Michigan is considered a notch above Georgia in scholastic reputation.
"It's obvious that we're a large research institution," Mr. Key said. "I think we need a major player to lead the university. It's clear what I would do. Dr. Machen clearly has the kind of credentials that anyone would like to see."
Named Wednesday, the three candidates should know soon which will be asked to replace Charles Knapp, who is leaving June 30 to head the Aspen Institute think tank in Washington. A vote on a new president is scheduled for the June 11 meeting of the state Board of Regents.
Meanwhile, across the state and the campus, students, employees and alumni wondered how the outsider candidates would fare in Georgia and wondered why they had never heard of them before.
"I think a lot of people are surprised that there wasn't anybody internal or that there wasn't anybody from a nonacademic background," said Ryan Oliver, UGA vice president of student government.
"I'm delighted that there is some variety with regard to gender," said Sylvia Hillyard Pannell, a drama teacher and member of the University Council executive committee. "I think the main point is that in five months, the search committee was able to find the best people."
"I don't know anything about any of these candidates, but there's nothing in any of their backgrounds that leads me to think they would not be progressive," said Leslie Bates, Georgia's director of minority services.
For the most part, each candidate would be an unknown quantity when selected.
Already in Washington running the Aspen Institute, President Charles Knapp could not shed any light Thursday on his possible successors. But many Bulldogs went ahead and indulged in a new, slightly disloyal game in Mr. Knapp's absence: "Guess the President."
Chris Burton, a biology major from Kentucky, was bullish on Mr. Adams, despite wisecracks he's heard from his peers downgrading Centre College, a private school that is home to 1,000 students and no reputation for sports or research.
"Up in Kentucky, Centre College has got a great reputation," Mr. Burton said.
According to the record books, it even beat Georgia in a 1924 football game in Danville.
Mr. Adams, 48, attended public schools in Albany and Macon. During his tenure at Centre, he has overseen the tripling of the college's endowment to more than $120 million, the construction of several new buildings on campus and an increase in the student body to more than 1,000.
A government scholar, Mr. Adams also has served as a top aide to former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. He has also managed to become an expert on the Watergate scandal.
Many Georgia professors are especially impressed with the credentials of Mr. Machen, a Michigan dental school administrator who rose to provost of the top research school. Mr. Machen was dean of the University of Michigan School of Dentistry until becoming provost in 1995.
Ms. Pannell said Michigan's reputation and 36,687-student enrollment puts it near UGA's size and gives Mr. Machen a possible edge. He might have to take some ribbing in Athens about his dental background, however. A few dental jokes were heard on campus Thursday.
"What's the show, Little Shop of Horrors?°" Ms. Pannell said, laughing. "I think that's a childhood fear that's emerging."
Danny Holtz, who transferred to Georgia from Michigan last year, felt good about Mr, Machen, too.
"I think he's qualified. I went to Michigan for two years. It has an outstanding reputation. I'd love it if he came down here," Mr. Holtz said. "He's used to a big state school and Michigan has a big tradition for football."
Former Michigan Board of Regents member Deane Baker praised Mr. Machen's experience in helping to run Michigan's "large and complex university."
"He served well as provost and rebuilt the dental school," Mr. Baker said. "He served as provost at a very troubled time. I think he would do well as president."
Ms. Stewart, the first woman to break into the senior administration at North Carolina State University, recently served as interim chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Her being the first female candidate for Georgia president raised more than a few eyebrows.
"I'd like to place my bets on Stewart. It would be a historic moment to have a president who is a woman," said Patricia del Rey, head of women's studies at UGA.
There was widespread willingness to give all the candidates the benefit of the doubt.
It falls Portch to recommend a final candidate to the board.
The most dynamic candidate will probably will, Mims said.
"I think all three would definitely fit here," Oliver said. "Adams, he obviously has the ability to raise a lot of money. I'm sure the regents would like that. The fact that (Stewart) is a political scientist would help us. And, coming from Michigan, you can't go wrong (with Machen)."
Like many, Will Lindsey, a real-estate major from Barnesville, didn't feel like playing "Guess the President" just before final exams.
"He's just a figurehead," Lindsey said.
Staff Writer Lee Shearer contributed to this article.
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