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Nesbitt leaves behind a legacy of culture at Gainesville State College
Philip Wilheit hugs Gainesville State College President Dr. Martha Nesbitt moments after he announced a building on the campus would be named for her. - photo by For The Times

After today, Gainesville State College will no longer be under Martha Nesbitt’s leadership.

But her influence and legacy, her friends and colleagues say, will remain on the Oakwood campus as long as it stands.

Nesbitt, who has held the presidency of Gainesville State since 1997, officially retires today. She was the third president of the college, succeeding Hugh Mills and J. Foster Watkins.

Since taking over in 1997, Nesbitt has led the college in the “age of growth.”

From 2000 to 2010, enrollment grew 174 percent and the college now serves around 8,900 students.

In 2003, the Oconee campus opened, giving students in the eastern part of the state access to
the institution.

“I’m a great fan of President Nesbitt,” said Philip Wilheit, a member of the University System Board of Regents. “She’s done a wonderful job of guiding the school to the heights that it’s obtained.”

But some who know and have worked with Nesbitt said it is not just the growth the college has seen that makes her the leader she is — it’s her ability to maintain the Gainesville State culture amid the growth.

“I was so impressed with what she did at Gainesville State College,” said Margaret Venable, vice president of the Oconee campus. “Yes, the enrollment grew by leaps and bounds, but the thing was she was always so focused on maintaining the high quality, and that’s part of what made me respect her leadership so much. It wasn’t just about growth, it was about quality and helping students be successful, and I think she’s created a culture of that within the institution that will continue for years to come.”

Nesbitt said student-focused culture was on campus when she got there 15 years ago and instead of having a “ship to turn around,” she just kept on course.

“It’s much easier to maintain that kind of culture than it is to change that culture,” Nesbitt said. “When we started growing and adding a campus and became a state college, I reiterated over and over again that we need to keep our eyes on our values.”

And, Nesbitt said, it’s easy to keep her eyes on the values when the place she works means so much to her.

“I feel sorry for the people who get up in the morning and think: ‘Oh, I got to go to work,’” she said. “I look forward to coming to work, and I love the work of the college. And I’ve been in education my entire life; I know what a difference we make. It’s a legacy I inherited and one I want to leave.”

Wilheit, who has been on the Board of Regents for more than a year, said the state has “35 wonderful universities,” but Gainesville State and Nesbitt are always on his radar.

“I get to look at 35 universities around our state, and we’ve got 35 wonderful universities, they really are, but I always kind of swell with pride when I look at Gainesville State,” he said.

More than 20 years ago, Venable was hired as a junior faculty member at then DeKalb College, now Georgia Perimeter College, where Nesbitt was the vice president of academic affairs.

“I was impressed with her from the very beginning,” she said of Nesbitt. “I just thought: ‘Wow, she has got it together.’ And here I was, just starting my career.”

Venable worked at DeKalb for 19 years and followed the career of Nesbitt the entire time. When a job opened up at Gainesville State, Venable jumped at the opportunity.

“I was thrilled when I got the job,” she said. “The person you work for makes all the difference. The leadership example, the leadership style, their ability to work with you and mentor you — it makes a big difference in both your career and daily job satisfaction.”

And the satisfaction of the leadership translates into student success.

Gainesville State transfers students to the University of Georgia, North Georgia College & State University, Georgia Tech, Georgia State and a handful more.

“I really believe that the first president, Hugh Mills, he knew that this college would serve a majority of students whose families have never been to college,” Nesbitt said. “So he knew we needed support systems in place. But because of the location, he knew we would be sending transfer students to North Georgia and the University of Georgia, and that if they did not do well, we would not have credibility as an institution.”

She’s continued that tradition, and last year nearly 40 percent of the students were the first of their family to go on to postsecondary education.

“(Gainesville State does) a great job of preparing them for the next step,” said Wilheit. “(Nesbitt will) give everybody in the world credit except herself. We all know that it all starts at the top, at the leadership position.”
And she wanted to be in that leadership position — until the end.

Wilheit said university system chancellor Hank Huckaby even offered Nesbitt a position as the chief academic officer for the system.

She turned it down to finish out her tenure at Gainesville State.

“I have to admire her for that because it was quite a bump that she was offered,” Wilheit said. “She doesn’t talk about that much, but people need to know how much (Gainesville State) meant to her.”

And now that she is retiring, she’ll have more time for travel, family and golf — if she can stop thinking about the college.

“One of the things that I have thought is I’m not sure what I’m going to think about because almost all of my waking moments I’m thinking about the college, or a person at the college or a program or a development at the college, and I know I just can’t turn that off,” Nesbitt said.

But while she is traveling the world with her husband, Pete, or visiting their children, Ann Weber and John Nesbitt, she will miss the people on Gainesville State’s campus.

“There is a real sense of community on this campus that you don’t find often,” she said. “And it was here when I came and it’s still here.”

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