Starting from Scratch

How’s this for a transition? In fall 2004, Dr. Daniel J. Kaufman was chief academic officer at the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA), one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious schools. One year later, Kaufman became charter president of Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC), a school so brand, spanking new it got its name and logo less than five months ago.

“When you’re chief academic officer at West Point, you inherit over 200 years of tradition, the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ approach, whereas (at GGC), you get to be an entrepreneur,” says Kaufman, who retired as a brigadier general in June 2005. “You try to do it right and create a vision for what the institution can be and will be for the students, the community, the region, the state, and bring that vision into reality.”

In spring 2005, the Georgia legislature and Board of Regents approved the conversion of Gwinnett University Center, located in Lawrenceville, to GGC, Georgia’s first state college established since 1970.

“What was intriguing about the opportunity was the process of starting from ground zero. In the education business, no one gets to do that,” Kaufman says. “That’s a challenge that you never get in the education business, so I thought the opportunity was too good to pass up.”

Prior to his arrival at GGC, Kaufman and his wife, Kathryn, both Brunswick, Ga., natives, spent 26 years at West Point, both in the classroom, teaching in the Social Sciences department until Kaufman became a member of the administration.

A 1968 graduate of West Point, Kaufman distinguished himself both professionally and academically, serving in both cavalry and armor units in the U.S. and Vietnam, where he received the Bronze Star for heroism and two Purple Hearts for wounds received in combat. Kaufman earned his master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and his doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But beyond his impressive credentials, Kaufman has the enthusiasm of a classroom teacher for whom engaging students and developing relevant academic programs is a prime motivation. “I think we see an opportunity driven only by our own imagination and ability to acquire resources,” he says. “We want to make it very clear that we want our students to be prepared to be part of the high tech world and workplace, continuing the innovation in businesses that are located in this state. Beyond that, we want everyone – students and faculty – to be facile with technology.”

Technology is more than a buzzword at GGC – the school’s mission statement asserts that it will be a “leader in the use of instructional technology and other innovative education methods.” Giving those lofty words real life application is another matter, but Kaufman believes he has a handle on it through introduction of “hybrid courses” and online learning allowing greater flexibility as to how and where students learn.

“We’re going to expand the traditional confines of the classroom,” he explains. “We intend to be innovative in the use of educational technology not just for its own sake but to reach out and bring nontraditional students to higher education. We’re committed to access; we want to service the nontraditional student who may not be able to come to class every day.”

Making Kaufman’s job easier is the fact that GGC has significant support from the community, many of whom have worked on getting a four-year college in Gwinnett County for 20 years. “Everyone wants this to succeed,” he says. Estimates place initial enrollment at 8,000 students when the college offers junior level courses in fall 2006. “We’re going to have a fairly good sized college here in Gwinnett; we could grow to 10,000 to 15,000 very quickly.”

Though GGC’s campus culture will differ somewhat from USMA, Kaufman thinks appearances can be deceiving. “The students might look different but they’re all interested in their education and committed to achieving their goals,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether they wear “cadet gray” or “Old Navy,” what’s fun about students is the energy they bring to the environment. At West Point, we had the privilege of selecting the best kids from across the country, training them to become military officers. Here we’re going to serve the population of Gwinnett County and the region so they can stay close by and be productive citizens. It’s a different mission and I understand that, but the fact that it’s different doesn’t make it any less exciting.”

Categories: Influential Georgians