From Lawyer To College President

It was a stealth visit to Mercer University’s campuses in Macon and Atlanta that soothed Bill Under-wood’s initial reluctance to become the university’s president.

“I’d been contacted by [then president] Kirby Godsey about becoming the president, but I told him I wasn’t interested,” says Underwood, who at the time was a law professor at Baylor University in Texas, where he had served as interim president. “About two months later and after a few other phone calls from some Mercer folks, I decided to visit on my own.”

Without alerting anyone at Mercer, Underwood flew to Atlanta, rented a car and drove to Macon. “I spent the day walking around the campus, talking to students and looking around,” he says. “Then I drove to Atlanta and visited the Mercer campus there, doing the same thing. You can always find out more when you aren’t on the ‘grand tour.’”

As a result of his “undercover investigations,” Under-wood came to several conclusions: Mercer was one of the best kept secrets in higher education, its campuses were filled with bright, committed students and it might be a place where he could do some good. “I called Kirby back and told him I’d like to be considered for the job,” says Underwood, who became Mercer’s 18th president effective July 1, 2006.

Bringing energy and enthusiasm for programs Mercer already had in place, Underwood envisions a bright future for the venerable university, founded 176 years ago by Georgia Baptists, although its ties with the Georgia Baptist Convention were severed in 2005. Of primary importance is getting the word out about Mercer to people who think they know all about the university.

Mercer is the only university in Georgia that has a medical school, a law school and an engineering school. Mercer’s Atlanta campus already has more students than the Macon campus and is growing fast. “I think that’s due to the nature of the programs,” Underwood says. “The Atlanta campus is home to the nursing and pharmacy and health sciences schools. We recently added a physician’s assistant program that’s doing well, and we’ll add a speech therapy program and a PhD program in nursing.”

Conceding that Mercer hasn’t done as well as it could have to tell its story, Underwood shared an anecdote about his conversation with Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle in which it became apparent Cagle wasn’t aware of all Mercer was offering its students. “That’s our fault, not his,” Underwood says. The result? Cagle was invited to visit Mercer in Macon, which he did, touring the engineering school and research facilities.

“That’s the sort of thing we need to do,” Under-wood says. “We need to introduce more influential people to what Mercer has to offer.”

Underwood brings a diverse skill set to the job of university president. In addition to his work in academia, he’s a lawyer; he clerked for an appeals court judge and worked in a respected litigation firm in Dallas. His legal expertise helps him focus on the essentials of complex situations. “Really good lawyers are problem solvers,” he says. “They’re also practiced in the art of persuasion.”

Those persuasive skills will come in handy as the university seeks to expand its endowment to $1 billion in a difficult economic climate. “I don’t see us making tremendous headway this year,” he says, chuckling, “but we have programs at Mercer people want to support. I think we’ll get there.”

Underwood is implementing a unique method of lowering the cost of an undergraduate degree. In February, Mercer announced the Four-Year Pledge, an initiative to help students graduate in four years; if they don’t, the university absorbs all costs of the additional courses required to graduate.

“We feel it’s important to get back to a four-year undergraduate program,” Underwood says. “Some of the fault in not graduating in four years is the responsibility of the students, but the university shares some of the responsibility also with ‘curriculum creep,’ adding additional hours to the courses needed to graduate.”

Underwood says a student shouldn’t be punished for being thwarted by poor scheduling or bad advice. “This makes the university think seriously about what it takes to graduate in four years so there is responsibility in designing a curriculum, advising, and scheduling,” he says.

Categories: Influential Georgians