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Madame President: Nesbitt stands at center of 'dynamic' college

POSTED: January 3, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Much has changed at Gainesville State College in the 10 years Martha Nesbitt has been at the helm.

The enrollment has more than doubled, a new academic building has been added, four-year degrees are being offered. Even the roads into the school have changed.

But one thing that has remained constant -- and something Nesbitt marvels at -- is the faculty and staff's closeness, their care and concern, for students.

As big as the school has grown, class sizes haven't become gigantic, as in UGA-gantic. Professors can still work one-on-one with students.

It's a point that Nesbitt stressed in her recent "state of the college" address, given annually to college employees.

"As we look to the future, I believe our efforts should continue to be focused on great teaching, the personal care for each student and the academic and social supports they need to develop as individuals," she said.

Nesbitt arrived at Gainesville College, as it was known then, on Aug. 1, 1997, as the third president in the institution's history.

She had been serving as vice president for academic affairs at DeKalb College in Decatur, and in the year prior to her appointment, was on leave, working as special assistant to then-Chancellor Stephen R. Portch.

"It was wonderful," she said, recalling the move. "... I knew the college enjoyed a very good reputation and I felt really, really fortunate to be here."

Nesbitt quickly got busy meeting with employees.

"I wanted to get to know them personally," she said.

The details she sought were not so much career goals and education philosophies but more personal stuff -- how many children and grandchildren they had, that type of thing.

The interviews gave her a chance to talk about her husband Pete; her two children, John and Ann; and her grandson. She now has three grandchildren.

She later met with top administrators to learn more about the college's inner workings and plans.

"Everything I discovered about the college was great," Nesbitt said. "I have never worked with such a dedicated faculty and staff."

At the time, Portch said that "Nesbitt's career has been building to this presidency."

"She has built a stellar reputation for her service and commitment to two-year colleges," he said.

Nesbitt took somewhat of a roundabout route to working in higher education.

The Atlanta native recalls her mother, as a widow, telling her in her youth, "You can always get a teaching job."

Pursuing education as a career started as "more of an insurance policy than anything else," Nesbitt said.

She also recalled, "In those days, if you were a woman, you either went into nursing, teaching or becoming a secretary."

Nesbitt, who declined to give her age, earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Duke University in North Carolina.

She taught for a year at a high school in Atlanta and was invited to be a visiting lecturer at Emory University in Decatur. Nesbitt met Pete the summer before the lectureship and ended up getting married and moving to her husband's native Indiana.

While there, she taught part-time at Wesleyan Methodist University. That's when she caught the bug for a career in higher education.

The couple ended up moving back to Georgia, where Nesbitt went on to earn her Ph.D. from Georgia State University in history in 1975.

She joined DeKalb College in 1974 as an adjunct instructor of history and political science and served as an instructor of history and political science from 1975 to 1977.

From 1978 to 1983, she served as chairwoman of the school's Social Science Division, while continuing to serve as an instructor. She became vice president for academic affairs in 1983.

Then, from 1984 to 1986, Nesbitt also served as DeKalb's vice president of student affairs.

From May 1994 to May 1995, Nesbitt served as interim president of DeKalb College while a national search was conducted to fill the presidential vacancy.

She has served on numerous University System of Georgia committees, including as co-chair of the Semester Conversion Committee in 1995-96.

Nesbitt has served on the national board of directors for the American Association of Women in Community Colleges and as a regional director for that organization.

When she arrived in Hall County, Gainesville College was a two-year, 2,830-student college sitting off four-lane Mundy Mill Road in South Hall.

Classes began Aug. 16 with about 7,600 students enrolled, a nearly 20 percent jump over last spring's 6,344.

The school now has Wal-Mart Supercenter as a neighbor and Mundy Mill Road, being widened to 10 lanes at I-985, is no longer the only way in. Newly opened four-lane Thurmon Tanner Parkway runs beside the college, with the newly rerouted Frontage Road leading motorists to the campus.

There are plans to put up a new college sign at the Frontage Road/Thurmon Tanner entrance, Nesbitt said.

Last year, Gainesville State was the fastest-growing college in the University System of Georgia, at 15.4 percent growth.

The school now has a larger enrollment than Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville and could pass Columbus State University this fall.

The jump in enrollment can be attributed partially to Gainesville State setting up classroom space in Athens in 2001. The college first leased space from Demorest-based Piedmont College.

The University System of Georgia ended up buying Cleveland-based Truett-McConnell College's campus in Watkinsville.

Over a few years, the school went from a few hundred students to nearly 2,500. Students saw the benefit of living near a major college town without getting lost in the crowd.

The college will build a $1.4 million facility on the campus to house a bookstore, multipurpose room and faculty and staff offices, freeing up space in other places.

Because the Oconee campus has reached capacity, enrollment numbers went down there this fall but they continue to soar in Oakwood.

Gainesville State also is picking up students who might otherwise attend Georgia Gwinnett College, the university system's newest, yet not fully accredited, college. Lack of accreditation means students can't apply for federal financial aid, Nesbitt said.

Plus, the Board of Regents changed the school's status in 2005, renaming the school Gainesville State and allowing the school to begin offering four-year degrees.

Students now can pursue one of four bachelor's degrees, including a much-needed one in early childhood education. Georgia's colleges have long been unable to produce enough teacher graduates to keep up with demand.

"Gainesville State College is a dynamic institution," Nesbitt said in her Aug. 13 speech.

"We are changing in some very important aspects, and we want to manage these changes in ways that keep our focus on student success in a learning-centered environment."

Nesbitt also considers as other highlights during her tenure:

Raising $500,000 in becoming the first two-year University System of Georgia institution to fund an Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair.

Becoming a tobacco-free campus in 2003.

"One of the things I wanted to get rid of was cigarette butts all around the campus," Nesbitt said. "Plus, smoking is our No. 1 health problem. We needed to set an example."

Faculty, staff, family and friends raising $34,310 to fund the Martha Nesbitt Endowed Scholarship, which was announced at the Aug. 13 event.

The college raised the money through a "silent letter-writing" campaign and Nesbitt said she was truly shocked.

In her tenure, Nesbitt also has confronted some thorny issues, particularly immigration.

The college accepts undocumented students. "We are mandated to do this if they meet our admission requirements," she said.

"Once these students are admitted, we should treat them as we treat every other student. We want them to succeed and hopefully, they will someday find a way to become citizens," she said in her speech.

Nesbitt said that complaints that the policy is a drain on taxpayers is unfounded.

"They're paying out-of-state tuition, which means they're paying their full way," she said.

She otherwise believes that if someone is "here illegally and they are guilty of a felony, they ought to be out of here," Nesbitt said. "I don't believe (the United States) should be harboring illegal criminals, that's for sure."

In future years, she sees Gainesville State continuing to grow, although at a slower pace.

She also sees the school adding new programs and four-year degrees.

"Down the road, about five years out, I see an effort started toward (building) dormitories," Nesbitt said.

As for herself, Nesbitt is not ready for retirement.

She said she would like to see how certain events, including the long-awaited construction of a new classroom building, play out.

Nesbitt has long pushed for a 117,000-square-foot building, estimated in 2005 to cost $25.7 million, to house the continuing education, humanities and business departments.

The University System has listed that project as one of its top two priorities in its capital improvements budget for next year.

"I'm very hopeful that if the legislature passes that budget, by next July we'll get design money for the new building and the following July, money for (construction of) the new building," Nesbitt said.

Also, a major road construction project on the outskirts of the Gainesville State is expected to be completed by Dec. 31, 2008.

The project involves a new Interstate 985 interchange and a makeover of the Mundy Mill Road interchange, both which carry motorists to the college.

The college also is about to start construction on a newly renovated and expanded student center, a project that is expected to cost $8 million.

The project will eliminate some parking spaces, but, at about the same time, the college will open up a new 308-space lot beside the continuing education building.

"This whole area is torn up," Nesbitt said. "I'm eager to see what happens with all the work."

In the meantime, though, Nesbitt is turning her attention to another academic year.

Last week, she and Brenda Adams, student life coordinator, visited students attending night classes at the college. She asked each class how many newcomers there were to the college.

Each time, at least one hand shot up and Nesbitt would quickly say, "You made the right choice."

Then, with a sweep of her to the rest of the class, she added, "These other folks will back you up on that."



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