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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
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An Interview: Stephen Portch

Since becoming chancellor of the University System of Georgia in 1994, British-born Stephen Portch has been credited with implementing the HOPE merit scholarship program, raising the system’s academic standards and creating partnerships between higher education and the public schools. Portch was interviewed recently by Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Patrick Callan: Change Magazine described what has happened under your leadership as a “general reinvigoration of higher education in Georgia.” How would you characterize changes in Georgia’s higher education in recent years?

Stephen Portch: First I would have to say that there was a very solid foundation to build on. Quite frankly, part of that goes back to the creation of a constitutional board in the 1930s. The more I study and think about the challenges of governance in this country, the more I realize that constitutionality does have some significant virtues in terms of achieving certain goals. So, that foundation was terribly important.

Secondly, in Georgia there already was a tremendous ambition and thirst to do better, and it permeated the corporate sector, the government sector and K–12. People really were ambitious, and of course the resources were here to help out. And the genius of (then Governor) Zell Miller was to bring in the state lottery at the perfect moment; it has provided more than $3 billion for HOPE Scholarships, free pre-K for all four-year-olds, and new technology funding.

When I came here in 1994, you had the lottery that was just being started, and you had the Olympics just about to come. There was energy and an excitement in the state, and a lot of that was focused around ambition for the university system. So, the stars aligned very nicely in terms of an education governor, in more than name (who had taught himself, understood what it was to be in higher education, and had a very clear picture in his mind of what he wanted out of higher education), who really was looking for initiatives to come from the board and its institutions.

The other thing that has really helped move higher education in Georgia forward tremendously has been the opportunities we have had to bring in new leadership at the presidential level. We have hired 20 presidents in six years. In every single instance we have gotten our first-choice candidate, despite the fact that the presidential market is a little thin overall.

The quality of the people we have been able to bring in, in terms of leadership, has been a really, really important ingredient. It is probably going to be the most enduring legacy in many ways.

PC: What are the most important policy initiatives?

SP: We have a comprehensive strategic plan where all the elements interconnect in some way. So, there is really no single initiative standing alone. The unifying theme of it all is the goal of a more educated Georgia. Everything we do connects back to that measurable goal. Raising admission standards is a critically important part of our plan. Then, connected to that, if you are going to raise admission standards, you have got to have interventions to help kids less likely to meet them. So, that gave birth to our P–16 and college prep initiatives.

Then comes our international initiative where we set the goal at double the national average of our students studying abroad; we are on track to accomplish that. Well, if that is what we want for our students, and we are raising admission standards, we really need to revamp the curriculum. What tools do we have at our disposal to do that? That is where semester conversion came in. You can make the argument academically, quarters versus semesters, until the cows come home, but what you cannot argue about is if you do that conversion, you cannot keep the same curriculum. We really did, in our first wave anyway, do a pretty good job of revamping the curriculum.

Considering all these initiatives, then, what sort of Georgia do we want to help create for these students who are going to have a stronger educational experience? That is where we got very much involved in the economic development in the state around the knowledge economy. So, a number of our major initiatives have been working in partnership with Governor Barnes, the Legislature and the corporate community to help Georgia focus on what sort of economy it wants for the future, and to make sure we are aligning production of our graduates for that future.

What we really did not fully conceive of at the beginning was how overarching technology would be to virtually all of these initiatives. So, that really has become a connection across and among them.

PC: You have said that initiatives age, so that they cannot become static, and that the focus cannot be on just preserving them in their original form. With all the change you have had here, how do you think about change and continuity and stability?

SP: We put so many changes in place in such a short period, which was necessary because we had a governor champing at the bit to provide resources for new initiatives. We did more than we should probably have reasonably tried to do in one short period. I think many of us, having been on campuses, know that if you have system initiatives, then you really do have to allow enough time for ownership and reshaping on the campuses.

Those initiatives are still in the stage of becoming part of the institutional culture. So, I think we had to be a little cautious not to move on with another wave of initiatives until the first wave had become institutionalized. They are just getting there at this point, I would say. You also have to be willing for others to take ownership or for initiatives to become “morphed” into new developments. For example, Governor Barnes is focusing on “seamless” education. Our P–16 initiative needs to adjust to support that effort.

PC: How did the university system’s willingness to move quickly play externally?

SP: Internally, for every one of our initiatives where you saw three people happy, there probably was at least one who was unhappy. What I did not know at the time was that there is some real value in that.

With our own faculty, for example, I suspect they said, ‘Gosh, we have eight, nine, ten new initiatives out there. I like seven of them, but I am not so sure of this post-tenure review thing. Still, on balance, I like the package.’ That was not part of our strategy; it just happened that way.

Externally, we got largely applause for rapid decision-making and increased responsiveness.

There was also a sense of positiveness in this state, which helped us enormously. There was nobody “trashing” us at the time. I guess I have been around enough to see what it does to people when they feel they are just being trashed all the time. It is hard to get people to be open to change when they are made to be defensive. So, the combination of a comprehensive package, real good salary increases, a positive environment, and other stars aligned, creating a very good atmosphere and opportunity.

PC: Turning to the state initiatives for a moment, obviously the best known and biggest state initiative was the HOPE Scholarship program. What has it accomplished? Are there flaws to the program that need to be addressed?

SP: Governor Barnes has just addressed what I think was really the sole remaining major flaw. The most valid, but overstated, criticism of the program was that it was a middle-class, upper-class program, and those who most needed it were perhaps left behind. Governor Barnes adjusted the program so that students with the greatest financial need could get both a full Pell Grant and a HOPE Scholarship.

I think one of former Governor Miller’s geniuses was that he created a scholarship/ financial aid program that can be described in only one sentence. You had to use a semicolon, but you could do it in one sentence. Did you get a B-average in high school? You get your tuition paid. You keep the B-average in college and you get your college tuition. Can you think of any financial aid program in the history of American higher education that could be explained in one paragraph or one page, let alone in one sentence?

There was a real simplicity. Had Miller asked experts, we would have all told him all the reasons he should not have done it that way. We would have complicated it beautifully for him. I am glad he did not ask.

The other thing that we have seen very clearly is that our efforts are most definitely keeping the best and brightest students in the state. When you look at a combination of The HOPE Scholarship, our raised admission standards, and our constant mantra about achievement and preparation, the University System of Georgia went well over 1,000 for the average SAT score of incoming freshmen for the entire system (including the 2-year schools) for the first time ever this year. That results from a combination of some very good students in the state, and more students raising their achievement levels. We have seen a significant decrease in the need for remedial education. We have seen a significant increase in our students coming who have taken the full college prep curriculum. So, I like all our trend lines.

PC: So, you seem to be saying again that HOPE succeeded because it was part of a package and not a train on its own tracks.

SP: Yes. All the messages were consistent. HOPE said study hard, achieve, and we will give you a scholarship. We said we are going to raise admission standards, but we are going to do that because we want more students to succeed. Our data tells us that if you do not take the college prep curriculum in high school, you are not likely to succeed. If we know that, why do we not act on it and help you? So, all the messages were both constant and consistent.

PC: Looking to the future and to Georgia specifically, you have made it clear that you expect major changes in higher education. Could you elaborate?

SP: Within the next decade, the dominoes are just going to come down one after another. Those dominoes are some of the most sacred cows in American higher education: semesters, credits, courses, degrees. Technology is going to lead us to the fundamental changes, but it is not technology itself. Because of technology, students can earn degrees anytime, anyplace. And we are increasingly seeing blends of students, such as traditional students who are picking up a course through technology rather than going to summer school, for example. Or, instead of getting up at seven o’clock in the morning to take a required course, they would rather take it on the Internet.

So, we are going to have some students who say, ‘If I can take this anytime, anyplace, why is that not true of my regular courses?’ I think that is going to start raising questions about our entire building blocks. Fifteen-week semesters? Irrelevant. Credits? A total artificiality. Grades? They will probably fall as well.

Paradoxically, another stimulus for all these dominoes coming down structurally is the standards movement in K–12. There is so much work being done now in K–12 on defining what students should know and be able to do. Georgia has been much involved in this movement, which then raises an important issue: If you are going to have students graduate from high school based on what they know and can do, versus seat time, then obviously admissions ought to be on the basis of what students know and can do. If admission to the university is offered on that basis, surely exit ought to be.

I have never seen that magical moment when a student suddenly goes from 127 credits to 128, and, poof, something changes about that person. Distance learning, again, is saying that the completion of a degree will be based on skills and knowledge, not sitting in a seat for a certain number of hours. I think the best of distance learning courses are really very well defined in what they expect a student to know and be able to do.

The single biggest wasted resource on every campus in America is faculty time. We have lost the intellectual core on many of our campuses because our faculty are not allowed to spend a majority of their time on intellectual matters. If you do away with a lot of these other constructs, a lot of bureaucracy goes with them. Also, our faculty no longer have to transmit information, because technology generally transmits information so much better than people do. The faculty role then revolves around these questions: How do you transform information into knowledge and wisdom? How do you make judgments about what information you should access, since we are all overloaded with information on the Internet? What information should we pay attention to? How do we analyze it? How do we segment it? How do we make judgments?

So, the role of the faculty becomes much more of a facilitator of learning than a professor of information. It is going to be a much more chaotic world than our very neatly structured one.

PC: And the dominoes that will fall…?

SP: Basically, it means that our present dominoes are a very tightly structured system based on degrees earned on the accumulation of credits, which are earned by sitting in courses over a certain time period and getting particular grades. Each of those crumbles when you consider the realities of anytime, anyplace learning.

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