Originally created 01/01/02

Incoming chancellor 'one of the boys'



ATLANTA - Dr. Thomas C. Meredith looks tired. In a conference room at the University System of Georgia's offices, he sits in shirt sleeves, leaning on an elbow he has propped on the meeting room table.

Beside his elbow sits a stack of folders and brochures, among them a Medical College of Georgia packet thicker than a big-city phone book.

He's fresh from a meeting with leaders of the Augusta school, a sit-down that ran well over schedule. Next, he'll meet his wife, Susan, for an Atlanta house-hunting trip.

All this, and a day planner full of other appointments, on a day the University of Alabama System chancellor drove to town for a meeting of the Southern Regional Education Board.

It's a routine that Dr. Meredith, 59, has become accustomed to since late October, when Georgia's Board of Regents picked him to fill the state's top university job.

Since then, he's been hard at work wrapping up his work with the Alabama system and the numerous boards and councils he serves on while simultaneously trying to get up to speed on his new job.

"It's been a lot of reading; there are so many initiatives under way," said Dr. Meredith. "(And) finishing up in Alabama has been more time-consuming than anticipated."

As he prepares to take the helm of Georgia's 34 public colleges and universities this month, it's obvious he's cramming for the test - soaking in as much new information as possible.

In recent meetings with Georgia reporters, he's turned interviews around, asking nearly as many questions as he answers about higher education in the state. The same has been true of his meetings with college and university leaders.

"He was a very good listener," said Dr. Daniel Rahn, the president of Medical College of Georgia, who met with Dr. Meredith recently. "He asked penetrating questions about the issues that I discussed."

Georgia leaders say the research will serve him well two weeks into his tenure, when members of the General Assembly hit Atlanta for their 40-day session.

In the midst of an economic downturn, when Gov. Roy Barnes has called for spending cuts in every state department, Dr. Meredith will become the No. 1 defender of the state's portion of the university system's $4.3 billion budget.

"The best way to assure success is to have done your homework ahead of time," said Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which reviews and approves the budget.

It's a role Dr. Meredith knows well.

In Alabama, where spending cuts have been far more severe than in Georgia, he fought for every dime that went to the three-school University of Alabama System.

Last year, when the system looked destined for a major spending hit by the legislature, he made the two-hour drive from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery for some "very intense" closed-door meetings with lawmakers.

The legislators ended up returning millions of dollars to the system's budget.

"Part of the role of any chancellor is to make the sale on the importance of higher education and on funding that enterprise," Dr. Meredith said. "I enjoy it; I enjoy that aspect of the job."

As chairman of the Senate's Higher Education Committee, Sen. Jack Hill knows about the sometimes-shaky relationship between politicians and educators. He said the new chancellor will see more than his share.

"The politics on the Regents is a set of politics; the politics with the (university and college) presidents is a set of politics," said Mr. Hill, D-Reidsville. "The politics with the legislators, with the governor - it takes a master to make that work."

Dr. Meredith's experience, Mr. Hill said, will be a bonus.

"It gives him an advantage over, say, a college president who comes in as chancellor," Mr. Hill said. "He will not be surprised by the political give-and-take that he finds in that arena."

Another advantage he'll have, some say, is a lifetime of education in the Deep South that will help him connect with lawmakers whose roots are planted firmly in the red Georgia clay.

Legislators are almost unanimously complimentary of the work outgoing Chancellor Stephen Portch has done to organize the system, prioritize spending requests and increase standards at state schools.

But few under the Gold Dome considered Dr. Portch - a bookish native of Oxford, England, touted as one of the smartest men in state government - to be "one of the boys."

At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds - measurements he lists on his resume - Dr. Meredith looks every bit the basketball-playing native Kentuckian that he is. And coming most recently from the home of Southern icon Paul "Bear" Bryant, he can talk football like a good ol' boy.

"Legislators are typically good people," said Dr. Meredith, whose wife hails from Booneville, Miss. "This job is just a matter of making your case and making the sale."

And though he's reluctant to talk much about his specific ideas, he's already beginning the sales job. Consider this early budget strike:

"Georgia's been very supportive of education - there's no doubt about it," Dr. Meredith said. "(But) I have noticed a slight decrease in the percentage of the budget going to education. There may be a good reason for it, but that's something we'll have to look at in depth."

One other area he's already eyeing publicly is Georgia's low participation rate in higher education. If the percentage of state residents attending college or technical school was among the nation's leaders, there would be 600,000 Georgians enrolled, instead of the current 300,000.

"We still have a long way to go on participation rates in higher education," Dr. Meredith said. "We can work on that. There are things that can be done."

Otherwise, he's slow to comment specifically on Georgia issues. Those who say too much early tend to have to backtrack later, he said.

But there is no shortage of issues he'll inherit.

At the University of Georgia, there's the effort to increase minority enrollment. This year, about 6 percent of the student population is black, in a state that's 29-percent black. Last month, the system abandoned its court battle defending a limited affirmative-action program.

He'll see the tail end of the system's switch from quarters to semesters.

"In a couple of years, no one will ever remember that the University System of Georgia was on quarters," Dr. Portch said in his final State of the System address. "It is one of my early Christmas gifts to Tom Meredith."

But the conversion left some students further away from graduation and signing up for fewer classes - although system officials say those numbers are getting better.

Regardless, education leaders say, the system Dr. Meredith inherits will be in better shape than the one Dr. Portch took over seven years ago.

Enrollment and test scores are up. The number of university students in remedial classes is down. College and university presidents - most of whom were appointed by Dr. Portch - are more publicly supportive of decisions by the state's Board of Regents.

"We're a lot more seamless than we were at that time; everyone kind of knows their place and their part of the overall picture," Mr. Hill said. "I don't think he's got nearly the challenges that Chancellor Portch faced. "On the other hand, we don't know what the future holds."

THOMAS C. MEREDITH

New job: Chancellor-designate for the University System of Georgia

Current job: Chancellor, the University of Alabama System

Professional history: President and professor of education, Western Kentucky University; vice chancellor for executive affairs, adjunct professor of higher education and executive assistant to the chancellor, University of Mississippi; academic programs officer and associate director for programs and planning, Mississippi board of trustees

Education: B.A., Kentucky Wesleyan College; M.A., Western Kentucky University, Ed.D., University of Mississippi

Age: 59

Family: Wife, Susan, and two adult sons

Hobbies: Sports, photography, travel

Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.