If you want to see where Georgia Regents University is headed, look to the west.
Georgia Board of Regents Chancellor Hank Huckaby told a Columbia County Chamber of Commerce breakfast audience Wednesday morning that the University of Alabama-Birmingham provides a model for growing Augusta’s consolidated universities into an “honest-to-goodness research facility” with statewide reach.
“This is a great place in a great part of the state, and it’s going to be even greater with the things we’re going to do,” Huckaby said – but he acknowledged the challenge of trying to greatly increase the number of college graduates statewide to the level that future economic development will demand.
Speaking during the chamber’s annual Post-Legislative Breakfast, and following comments from members of the local legislative delegation, Huckaby said he agreed in 2011 to leave the legislature to serve as chancellor after assurances that Gov. Nathan Deal was prepared to shake up the state’s higher education system.
“If he had said no, if he had said he wanted to take it slow, I would have said I wasn’t interested,” Huckaby said.
Since taking over as chancellor, Huckaby said he’s had to fight the competing perceptions of residents that secondary education is too costly, in contrast to the business community clamoring for better-prepared workers. Along the way, he’s battled efforts to protect the status quo.
“Everybody talks about change, they embrace the concept of change, but that’s for you – not for me,” Huckaby said. “We want to keep things just the way they are. We’re comfortable with where we are. But that’s a recipe for disaster.”
To that end, he defended GRU President Ricardo Azziz as a “change agent” hired for a research university that, unlike highly rated UAB, lagged in nationwide comparisons.
“We hired the president that’s a change agent,” Huckaby said. “Change agents turn over sacred cows. I’m turning over sacred cows as chancellor; some people like it, some people don’t.”
Those who don’t are vocal in their criticism, he said.
“Being president of a college and university in this day in time is not an easy job,” Huckaby said. “It’s at least 24/7, you’re always on call. ... And you have to be willing, particularly in public higher education to realize that everybody, every parent, every student, knows how to do your job better than you do.”