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
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
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
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
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