Underwood leading Mercer into new era

A couple of feet from his desk, Bill Underwood keeps a three-foot stack of federal legal decisions that he reads in his spare time.

But Underwood has had very little of that since becoming president of Mercer University in July 2006.

This month, as he marks four years leading the 177-year-old Macon university, Underwood said he’s pleased with the progress being made, and he looks forward to more accomplishments in the near future.

“There are some things that have really developed that I feel are essential to the university’s future,” he said. Chief among them is the College Hill Corridor Commission, the partnership formed by the city of Macon and Mercer in support of a student project focusing on redeveloping downtown.

The project has blossomed into a public and privately funded plan that’s focused on improving the commercial and residential areas between the Mercer campus and downtown Macon.

“That project is all about creating an environment that is appealing to bright and talented people, whether they are faculty, staff or students,” Underwood said.

Sarah Gerwig-Moore, co-chairwoman of the College Hill Commission and an assistant professor at Mercer’s law school, called Underwood “a careful thinker — a methodical thinker.”

“He has a lot of energy,” she said. “I think a lot of people are remotivated and re-energized by him.”

Underwood said one of his main responsibilities is to build a “community” that attracts top-notch students, staff and faculty.

The College Hill Commission is just one of the projects that’s moving toward that goal. Athletics, the arts and academic services are equally as important, Underwood said.

Under his tenure, Mercer has hired a new athletics director as well as men’s and women’s basketball coaches. Lacrosse is being added this fall, and football is being evaluated as a new, nonscholarship sport.

“I think athletics has a quality that can unite a community, even for just a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon,” Underwood said. “I think establishing those emotional connections, it is really important with your alumni.

“I have got interest in football, but I have said from the get-go it has to make economic sense for the institution for us to do that,” he added. “I have to be convinced that it would pay for itself. I am not really talking about selling tickets, but I am talking about attracting students. And I would have to have the ability to raise funds for the facilities we would need. We don’t have a stadium. ... There are three leagues in the country that play Division 1 nonscholarship football — the Ivy League, the Patriot League and the Pioneer League. That would make sense for us.”

Homecoming, until Underwood arrived, was a less significant alumni event at Mercer. It’s now a focus area for the administration and is part of the overall fundraising and development efforts that eat up about 40 percent of his time.

“I would say the economic downturn has really interrupted the progress we would have wanted to make,” he said. “While it has started to recover, it is not to the point of prior to the economic downturn.”

A growing university

Mercer is continuing to expand its reach and student population during Underwood’s tenure. Mercer, which has about 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled, has opened locations in Eastman as well as Henry and Douglas counties, combining with existing locations in Macon, Atlanta and Savannah. The school operates medical, nursing, engineering, pharmacy and theology schools.

Underwood looks at facility expansion as part of the overall growth plan of the university. In five years, Underwood believes, it would be realistic for Mercer to have 10,000 students, with 60 percent of those attending the Atlanta campuses.

But Underwood quickly adds that site and student expansion should happen naturally and isn’t a primary focus of his administration.

“What I would really like us to focus on is continuing to deepen the quality of existing programs,” he said.

Underwood wants Mercer to be compared with other universities, such as Emory, Duke, Wake Forest and Vanderbilt.

“If we are going to achieve our aspiration of having the same academic profiles that the other great private research universities in the Southeast have, we are going to have to continue building quality,” he said.

As part of Underwood’s initial Mercer vision, building a research effort that has a distinctive agenda has remained important to him.

“I am really pleased with the progress we have made in building a robust research agenda at the university and building a special type of research university,” he said. “What I like about the research agenda that our faculty is pursuing is that they are involving their students directly in their research including their undergraduate students.”

Back in the classroom

Underwood said he plans to stay at Mercer as long as he can be effective and has plans to finish his career in the classroom teaching law.

“When I was in law school, I thought the greatest lawyers were the ones teaching law school,” he said.

For those who know him, they’re not surprised he wants to eventually return to the classroom.

Gerald Powell, dean of Baylor’s law school who worked with Underwood at Baylor, said, “Bill was a very capable young lawyer in Dallas. We heard about him and recruited him to our team. He was like a great athlete, and we went after him” to teach law.

Before taking the position at Baylor, Underwood practiced civil trial law with Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal in Dallas.

Ten years after being hired by Baylor as a professor in 1993, Underwood was asked in 2003 by Herbert Reynolds, then Baylor’s president, to lead an internal NCAA investigation into Baylor basketball infractions that involved a student-athlete’s death. This high-profile activity came at the same time he was teaching, leading the law school’s Practice Court Program and handling legal cases on the side.

In 2005, Underwood served as interim Baylor president. During that time, the 14,000-student Baptist institution was under pressure from forces trying to choose the vision of the private institution.

“He really became a general or commander-in-chief in a civil war,” said Randall O’Brien, current president of Carson-Newman College in Johnson City, Tenn. “Baylor had become divided, and Bill was put in a nearly impossible situation.”

Underwood used his talent and “unparalleled work ethic” to build relationships on both sides of the situation, eventually “going a long way to calming those stormy seas,” said O’Brien, who worked along with Underwood as dean of the religion program at Baylor and eventually worked as provost for Underwood.

Taking over Mercer after Kirby Godsey, who served as president for 27 years, Underwood said he has a lot of respect for his predecessor.

“To be someone who reinvented himself to remain fresh for 27 years is remarkable,” he said. “I am not going to fill Kirby Godsey’s shoes.”

But Underwood continues to rely on characteristics that have made him a successful lawyer to lead Mercer into a new era.