Bill Underwood talks about leading a university in changing times. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

Bill Underwood talks about leading a university in changing times. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

Editor’s note: Mercer University provides office space on its downtown Macon, Ga., law school campus to Nurturing Faith Publishing, for which we are grateful.

MACON, Ga. — Mercer University President Bill Underwood took his post 10 years ago, coming from Baylor University where he was a law professor and interim president.
His father had been a Baptist pastor, and his son is now a graduate student in religion at the University of Chicago. Last fall Underwood joked to a group of ministers that he’s glad their “affliction skips a generation.”

Credited as a visionary leader, Underwood’s administration has experienced wide-ranging accomplishments such as increased enrollment, vast physical additions and improvements, expanded academic programs including two new medical school campuses, winning sports teams and community revitalization.

His arrival a decade ago came at a time of opportunity and challenge, building on the leadership of now-chancellor Kirby Godsey who had engaged the campus community, expanded the university’s professional schools and built up its academic reputation — and dealt with disgruntled Baptists.

For decades the Baptist-rooted university had experienced tension with the increasingly fundamentalist Baptist state convention in Georgia from which it received funding. Convention leaders pulled out of that relationship of more than 170 years just as Underwood was assuming the presidency.

Trustees, wanting to retain the university’s Baptist identity apart from the tempestuous relationship with fundamentalist convention leaders, approved bylaws requiring the university president to be Baptist as well as half of the trustee board.

Voluntary collaboration with like-minded Baptist organizations was further pursued, including Mercer’s key role in planning the first Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant in 2008 that brought together thousands of Baptists from across racial and convention lines for dialogue, worship and ministry.

The university has maintained a close relationship with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology has a predominant but not exclusive Baptist identity. The university’s Atlanta campus now houses the American Baptist Historical Society and its impressive archives.

“I think that [Baptist] heritage provides some grounding for us,” said Underwood in an interview with Nurturing Faith editor John Pierce. The following conversation is adapted from that interview.

Amputees, who lost their legs to landmines in Viet Nam, receive prosthetics developed and fitted by faculty and students as part of Mercer on Mission. Mercer University photo

Amputees, who lost their legs to landmines in Viet Nam, receive prosthetics developed and fitted by faculty and students as part of Mercer on Mission. Mercer University photo

NF: A university’s identity affects recruitment of students and donors and a lot of other things. Ten years ago you came to Mercer right after the Georgia Baptist Convention had voted to sever ties with the school. So you dealt with the fallout from that. How do you define, and what have you done to try to define, the identity of Mercy University?

BU: I think this is nothing new. Our first commitment is to provide an extraordinary academic experience for students, and that has been the highest priority here whether we were affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention or not.

We certainly continue to emphasize the quality of the academic experience. But there are some special features to that academic experience that you do not find at other schools that share a commitment to academic excellence.

The Mercer on Mission program relates directly to our Baptist heritage, and it is something that is remarkably appealing to young people. Programs like that have fueled the growth and energy at the university and have extended our Baptist heritage in a way that is highly relevant in the 21st century.

When you tell young people they can be involved in developing a new generation of prosthetics and then fitting landmine victims in places like Vietnam, that is really appealing to those who are looking for ways to live meaningful lives.

Or when you tell them that we have chemists here working on ways of solving the problem of mercury poisoning that exists in Africa and South America and they can be a part of that and implement their solutions … That just has tremendous appeal.

Mercer on Mission has become central to our undergraduate experience here at Mercer, and it defines the university in a way that is very appealing to young people.

NF: How did Mercer on Mission come about, and how has it expanded?

BU: The idea for a program like Mercer on Mission was initially presented to me by Scott Walker, then pastor of the First Baptist Church of Waco, Texas. It was when I was at Baylor, but I was not there long enough to do anything with his idea.

When I came to Mercer I remembered that idea. During my first meeting with our university chaplain Craig McMahan, I told Craig about Scott’s idea and asked him to implement it here at Mercer.

Craig has just done amazing work in taking that concept and continuing to develop it, refine it and expand upon it. The program today is larger than it has ever before been. We had 200 students engaged in that program this year at 13 different sites around the world.

NF: So, is your hope to continue to grow the program? Is there a goal to have a certain percentage of undergraduate students participate?

BU: Our goal is to eventually have every undergraduate student participate in [Mercer on Mission]. When you walked on the campus this morning, you saw all these bright orange banners hanging on the signposts with the slogan: “At Mercer every student majors in changing the world.”

That is our aspiration for the school, and that is what Mercer on Mission is all about. So our hope is that one day this will be a part of the experience of every student who comes here as an undergraduate.

NF: How does that convey the philosophy and the identity of Mercer to prospective students?

BU: It communicates to people that this is a university with a soul. It is a university that wants to inspire students to take their God-given gifts and talents and to begin experiencing what it means to use those gifts and talents to lead full and meaningful lives.

I am obviously not a theologian or a minister, but when I look at the parable of the Good Samaritan, the question that led Jesus to tell the parable was properly understood as “Master, what must I do to lead a full and complete life?”

At the conclusion of the parable Jesus says, answering the original question, “Go and do likewise.” I think what we are trying to do is have our students experience what it means to lead a full and complete life, because we believe that once they have had that experience they will want more of it.

NF: Does that identity have a broader appeal than just to Baptists and even those from other Christian traditions?

BU: Absolutely. I think it has widespread appeal among a large segment of young people today who are looking for meaning in their lives.

NF: You pulled a real coup by getting President Jimmy Carter to become a trustee. I know you first got acquainted in planning the initial, massive Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant in 2008. What has his relationship meant to you and the university?

BU: Well, he is among our most active and engaged trustees. What I did to attract him was to share what we were trying to do with Mercer on Mission — which had a special resonance with him given the work at the Carter Center.

I think he saw that work as worthy of investing his time and effort. So President Carter helps whenever I call and uses his influence to advance the work we are doing in a myriad of ways.

NF: For many students the most significant experiences are the relationships with faculty. How do you encourage those kinds of relationships?

BU: When I was an undergraduate student at a little school in Oklahoma, I had a professor I had gotten to know. I loved this guy; he was a great professor. I took every class he taught and did a couple of independent studies with him as well.

One day he saw me outside the library and asked what I was going to do when I graduated. And I told him I really was not sure. I thought maybe I would be a basketball coach or something like that. He said that would be great, that a teaching profession is important.

Then he said, “I have seen you in class; you can do anything you want to do; you can be a U.S. senator if you want to be that” — which I did not want to be.

But the point of the conversation was that here was someone for whom I had deep respect, expressing that kind of confidence in me and really causing me to raise my sights as to what was possible.

It is something the faculty and I talk about frequently: the opportunity to help every one of these young people raise their sights as to what is possible for them to accomplish. It is something our faculty is committed to; they love the students here and if you do not, this is not a good place to teach.

At the general faculty meeting [last] year I shared with them my story, and it is good for all of us. I am a faculty member. It is good to remind ourselves of the special opportunities we have.

NF: One of the ways you raise visibility for a university is through successful sports, and you have certainly done that here. Was that something you saw as an opportunity when you arrived? And how did that develop?

BU: When I came to Mercer it was a difficult decision because I consider Texas home. Most of my family is in Texas. I loved where I was at Baylor.

But when I came on my own to visit, before interviewing, I felt like this was a really special place and that, outside of Georgia, [it was] a pretty well-kept secret in the world of higher education.

That is not a good thing. The more people know about the work you are doing and recognize the importance of your work, the easier time you have attracting resources whether it is talent or financial or whatever.

In our culture one of the fastest ways to raise profile is through sports. The day we beat Duke in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament, the number-one Google-searched term in the world was “Mercer University.”

NF: And you always want the Google search to be about a positive thing.

BU: Right.

NF: You have raised visibility to the point that Google and ESPN and others know about Mercer. I would think it also does some healthy things for the “town and gown” relationship, right?

BU: Certainly sports is a way to raise visibility, but there is something else about sports in our culture: It is a great tool to use in building community.

When you come to a Mercer basketball game or a Mercer football game, you will see people from just about every walk of life. You will see people pulling together for that two or three hours who do not otherwise agree on anything.

I think you can build community through sports in ways that, in our culture, are very difficult to do otherwise. I see that here in Middle Georgia; I see it on our campus.

The number of students and faculty you see walking across campus wearing Mercer T-shirts is a reflection of the community-building that has resulted from the success we have had in sports.

NF: Colleges and universities can be closed communities. You can have people who have lived around schools all their lives but have never been on campus. Sports or cultural events are often needed to draw them in.

BU: That’s why we have tried to sell Mercer athletics as Macon sports teams. The football team wears stickers on their helmets that say, “Macon Made,” to reinforce the idea that this is Middle Georgia’s team.

NF: What are the biggest challenges facing higher education now, and what are some particular challenges you are facing?

BU: One of the biggest challenges, and something we have really taken on, is making sure this kind of educational experience is affordable for young people. There was a time when colleges and universities raised their tuition 6 and 7 percent year-after-year-after-year, and a few still do that. But we have moved pretty far away from it.

We have not raised tuition in our medical school for five years now because it hurts our mission to raise our costs. We are trying to get doctors into rural communities in Georgia to practice primary care. So we need to hold down our cost at the undergraduate level.

We have pretty much tied any tuition increase to the consumer price index in our region so that over time there is no real increase in cost. We implemented that five years ago. I think over the last five years we have had the lowest tuition increases of any private school in the South.

That is because we value the diversity of the campus and the idea that we want this kind of program to be accessible to young people. But I think that is a major challenge we all have in higher education. How do we enhance the quality of what we are doing while at the same time controlling the cost?

NF: What is the next big thing for Mercer?

BU: Well, that is a good question. I am not sure what the next big thing is, Johnny. You may have to ask my successor. I guess it is enough to carry out the many things that are going on now.

I mean we do have a lot going. We are about to break ground on what will be the largest and most expensive building we have ever built: a new $42-million under-graduate sciences center on this campus.

We are continuing in our efforts to make Macon the best place to live in the Southeast. The announcement that we are bringing back the Capricorn Studio as part of the $25-million, mixed-use residential retail development downtown is an example of that.

Having a vibrant culture scene in Macon is part of the renaissance of this city. We are looking at putting some art programs downtown for similar reasons. We think that kind of vibe in an urban community creates a real positive environment.

NF: Mercer is obviously the biggest positive impact on the city of Macon. And, obviously, Macon’s health is very much tied to Mercer’s health.

BU: Oh, yeah. Kirby Godsey, who was the greatest leader in higher education of his generation, recognized that you cannot build a great university in a decaying community because bright, talented and creative entrepreneurial young people are not attracted to decay. So we have a strong interest in Macon’s continued renaissance because it makes it easier for us to attract talent to the university.

NF: What has been the biggest surprise to you over the last 10 years?

BU: That is a good question, but something I would have to reflect on. I learned a lot of things. I was really not qualified for the position when I came. They took a chance on someone who had very little experience in higher education leadership roles. As a consequence, they had to live through a learning curve for me and I am sure there were several false starts along the way.

NF: But many more good starts.

By John D. Pierce