ATLANTA - To sit and talk with Stephen Portch is to hear a story about change.
An activist with an accent, the native of Somerset, England, has shaken things up plenty during his seven years at the helm of the University System of Georgia.
Test scores for freshmen are up. Twenty-three of the state's 34 college and university presidents have been named since he came, with the 24th to be named in about a week.
The old system of academic quarters has been scrapped in favor of the more widely accepted semester system. And a scholarship called HOPE has gone from being a novel political idea to becoming one of the state's most popular programs ever.
But ask Dr. Portch, who steps down as the system's chancellor this month, about progress, and he's most likely to point to higher academic standards - "the cornerstone," he says - and a new attitude of excellence.
On those fronts, he'll say the system is miles away from what he saw on his first tour of Georgia's public colleges and universities in 1994, when he left Wisconsin's No.-2 higher-education post to take the job.
"All they wanted to talk about was how big they'd grown," said Dr. Portch, 51. "Now, some of those very same people ... couldn't be prouder about how much better their institution is today."
It was that sort of desire for improvement, Dr. Portch says, that led him to the U.S. in 1974. He earned a doctorate in literature from Penn State and worked 18 years for the Wisconsin system before coming to Georgia.
"What attracted me to this country was that energy and ambition always to do better," he said, comparing it to England which he called "more attuned to stability."
This week, Dr. Portch will step aside, honoring a commitment he made when he was hired to serve no more than seven years. Tom Meredith, the current chancellor of the University of Alabama System, will take over.
Dr. Portch, who earned his first administrative post when he was 30, said seven years is enough, and a good time to let someone with new ideas step in.
"I believe in letting the next generation have an opportunity, like I was given one," he said.
His legacy will largely be a positive one.
"He exceeded our expectations," says Sen. Jack Hill, who heads the state Senate's Higher Education Committee.
"I don't know that enough people realize all that Stephen Portch has done for Georgia," said Gov. Roy Barnes.
Not that there weren't some hurdles.
Some campus shake-ups left hurt feelings and bruised egos. Not everyone, particularly not leaders at smaller colleges, agreed that standards should be ratcheted up - saying their enrollment numbers would suffer.
And lawmakers grumbled when a supposedly "revenue-neutral" transition from quarters to semesters cost the state millions of dollars to offset a dip in the number of classes students were paying to take.
Dr. Portch laughs at the political shots he took during the semester conversion. He says some lawmakers were trying to score points by slamming the crossover, and calls the switch "smooth."
"You don't get mad at politics personally, as long as nobody's out to hurt the students and the system," Dr. Portch said. "When push comes to shove, they've never hurt the system."
And while he says he'd like to have seen some of the system's initiatives further along - like a push to increase access and diversity in higher education - he says he has no regrets.
"You'd be foolish to say you wouldn't do certain things differently," he said. "But there is not a major disappointment."
For now, he's staying busy. He's been making the case with state politicians that, despite an economic slowdown, next year would be a good time to build more buildings and increase pay for professors and other university leaders.
Neighboring states have even tougher budget crunches, he said, and any positive move would help Georgia's system attract the best and brightest new employees.
The pace in higher education always slows down this time of year, when students are home for the holidays. Otherwise - aside from the constant packing - his work days aren't all that different than the past seven years.
"Other than the fact that a few more people are wanting to buy me lunch," he said.
The transition with Mr. Meredith has also been a smooth one, he said. The two have talked several times, particularly about a new Valdosta State University president, which Dr. Portch will name on Dec. 31.
He doesn't have much in the way of advice for the Kentucky native, who earned high marks in Alabama for working with a sometimes-surly legislature to get money for his schools.
"Tom has more experience than I do; he's worked in tougher environments than I have," said Dr. Portch. "He's a real 'people person.' He'll have very good personal relationships (and) his skill set and style will work very well."
As for himself, Dr. Portch is keeping his calendar for the next year mostly empty.
He'll spend more time riding the horses, Tess of the d'Ubervilles and Thomas Hardy, that he named for British literary figures. He'll do some consulting work, including a stint with the Education Commission of the States, which Mr. Barnes heads up this year.
And he'll take his time reading the newspaper - checking out the sports and features without having to scan the news section to see if he or his schools have made headlines.
He won't rule out taking another full-time administration job. But if he does, it won't be any time soon.
"You learn to never say never because then you have to eat crow," he said. "But certainly not for 12 months and likely way after that.
"It would certainly take a very special opportunity."
Born: Somerset, England
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Reading; master's and doctorate in English, Penn State; honorary doctorate, Richmond University in England
Career: Chancellor, University System of Georgia, since 1994. Worked for 18 years in the University of Wisconsin system, ultimately serving as vice-president for academic affairs, the system's No. 2 post.
Personal: He and his wife, Barbara, live in Newnan, about 45 minutes south of Atlanta, with three horses named for literary figures and a pack of hounds.
Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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