TELEGRAPH STAFF WRITER
Mercer University's incoming president, William D. Underwood, is dividing his time these days between Macon and Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
He arrived here during the weekend with his wife, Lesli, to look at homes and has been meeting with Mercer faculty and administration almost nonstop this week.
Underwood squeezed in some time Wednesday morning to talk to The Telegraph on a variety of issues from his temporary office in the Administration Building on campus.
"I drive my public relations people crazy because I'm so accessible," Underwood said as he settled in his chair with a cup of coffee and told a reporter to keep his cell phone number handy.
Underwood, former interim president at Baylor University, will succeed Mercer's current president, Kirby Godsey, on July 1.
QUESTION: What are your first impressions of Macon and Mercer?
ANSWER: Very positive first impressions. Macon is a beautiful city with a far more vibrant downtown than I've seen in other cities of this size. It's very dynamic.
Mercer has an outstanding reputation nationwide. It has a high quality academic program combined with its faith-based missions, more than other schools. There's a wonderful faculty, campus, facilities. There are tremendous assets here.
QUESTION: In your acceptance speech you said something along the lines that Mercer will always be a Baptist institution with or without formal support of the Southern Baptist Association. Can you expand on that?
ANSWER: I'm a Baptist. Baptist universities are true to the principles governing higher education and they do it very well. They instill academic freedom, have a reputation for diversity and work within an environment of searching for religious truth. So, a Baptist university committed to Baptist principles is the greatest and most vibrant place to learn, to teach, to do research. There are issues we can examine from a Christian perspective that you couldn't do at a state university. I can do that here; we have more freedom in our search for truth. As long as we honor Baptist principles we can be the greatest of all universities.
QUESTION: How would you go about preserving Mercer's Baptist heritage?
ANSWER: That's one of the things I plan to talk about in the weeks and months ahead. I don't think Mercer's heritage or identity is dependent on a formal association with a Baptist group. Continuing to relate to individual churches - that's a Baptist thing to do. There's an upcoming Baptist summit where we will talk about the autonomy of congregations, rather than an association with a group. We'll talk about how we become more individual as a university community, what it means to be a Baptist university.
QUESTION: What is your view on the teaching of intelligent design in the curriculum at Mercer?
ANSWER: I believe in academic freedom and don't feel we should force particular subjects into the curriculum. The mistake made at Baylor was that the administration tried to force intelligent design, and a center for studying it, without informing the faculty.
QUESTION: Is Mercer an institution open to gay and lesbian students, faculty members and staff? Can students, faculty and staff be openly gay without fear of recrimination from the institution?
ANSWER: I don't think Mercer recently has ever taken action against gay students. A university with Baptist principles does not act against someone because they're gay. Mercer has not advocated the gay lifestyle. We allow open discussion, of course, on how we as Christians relate to homosexual issues. Allow open discussion with different perspectives in our pursuit of truth, have a vibrant search for truth. Have an open discussion about sexuality. At a Baptist university, these issues can be examined with a fuller perspective than at state-run universities. I am an advocate of the marketplace of ideas. While Mercer does not advocate the gay or lesbian lifestyle, we permit students to talk about such issues. The Baptist university campus is perhaps the best place to talk about these things because you can get all perspectives.
QUESTION: How do you plan to go about fund raising in these tight times?
ANSWER: If you want to have a high quality of academic programs you need resources. Fund raising is an important aspect of my job, to generate resources necessary to provide a high-quality education. Mercer is a great product to sell. We will show people how to achieve their dreams by supporting us through donating to Mercer. Kirby Godsey has done a wonderful job with that, and I'm going to continue those efforts. I would like to see our endowment, currently in the ballpark of $200 million, to hit $1 billion in 10 years. It's an ambitious goal, but it's something I'd like us to work toward.
QUESTION: Nationally, faculties are graying and getting close to retirement. What will Mercer do to make a special effort to recruit young Ph.Ds as assistant professors?
ANSWER: It's never easy to set a trend for learning, teaching, scholarship. Enhance that with more resources for research and it makes opportunities here very appealing. We already see that Macon is a great place to live, and that will attract scholars. The remunerative level can be on a par with other institutions, and we can recruit the brightest and most talented students for here.
QUESTION: How do you plan - if you do - to make Mercer's tuition more affordable in the future? More scholarships, perhaps?
ANSWER: I began last week to talk to many people at Mercer, and I'm going to do it a lot more in the next six months - the administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees and people in Macon - to learn about the specific culture and our environment. I've got a lot of listening and learning to do, and that's why I'm here now.
QUESTION: Any plans for a football team at Mercer?
ANSWER: No present plans. If people here think it's a good idea, I'll listen.
QUESTION: One of the hot things now in higher education for some institutions is establishing a presence in China. The University of Florida, for example, will soon have a center in China that will award bachelor's degrees. What plans does Mercer have for China or what plans does Mercer have in general for becoming more international in scope?
ANSWER: One of the things the trustees have talked about is enhancement of our international program. We'll talk about it further and see what ideas are feasible for that. It's a topic I'm very interested in. There's a book, "The World is Flat," by journalist Thomas L. Friedman, where he states that we truly have a world community and world economy for the first time in history. We are competing internationally, and this awareness will require universities to enhance their international programs. No doubt we will be doing that at Mercer in the future.
QUESTION: Are there any plans to award more graduate degrees, possibly doctorates, in traditional arts and science subjects?
ANSWER: Mercer has expanded its graduate program, and now we offer a doctorate in educational administration. We want to look at a way to identify areas for new programs, but we have to be strategic about it. We already have a quality undergraduate experience, and we have to look for areas where we can enhance through graduate programs. I want to hear faculty perspectives on this. Mercer is unique for its size, with a wonderful array of professional programs already in place. Our graduates have enjoyed tremendous success all over the world.
QUESTION: You've been designated a "master teacher" at Baylor and had planned to teach this spring. Do you plan to teach sometime in the future at Mercer?
ANSWER: I had talked about teaching as a possibility for the spring quarter, but it would be difficult to do that there and be here. What I will do is take a sabbatical. Here at Mercer, I would be interested in teaching in the future; it's a way to stay connected with the students. If my responsibilities permit it, I think it would be something with law, something I'm qualified to teach.