Published December 8, 2005
MACON — Mercer University trustees elected William “Bill” Underwood as the university’s 18th president on Dec. 2. He will succeed longtime President R. Kirby Godsey upon his retirement on July 1.
Godsey has served an unprecedented 27 years at the helm of the Georgia Baptist-related university – which has had a sometimes rocky relationship with the state convention. Georgia Baptists, at what many called a last straw, voted November 15 to formally sever ties with the institution following a gay/lesbian coming out day in October.
A second vote at next year’s state convention meeting in Atlanta will determine the fate of the 172-year-old relationship.
Godsey’s successor is a nationally recognized legal scholar with no previous ties to the 7,300-student university.
He is married to the former Lesli Pearson, a third-grade teacher at an inner-city public school in Waco. They are the parents of two children, Jessica, 16, and William, 11, and members of Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco.
“I believe that Bill Underwood is among the most prominent new leaders in higher education in America,” Godsey said.
Underwood will inherit Godsey’s legacy which has built Mercer into one of the leading universities in the South – a reputation it has held for 14 years as ranked by U.S. News and World Report magazine. It has also been recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the best universities in North America.
Underwood has served as interim president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas since June 1, when President Robert B. Sloan, Jr. transitioned to chancellor. During his term at the helm of Baylor, he has been credited for bringing unity back among the faculty, staff, students and alumni, which had become fractured during the previous administration over the future direction of the university.
He will use those skills as he charts Mercer’s course in the wake of the rift with the Georgia Baptist Convention.
At Mercer, battle lines have been drawn over what some consider to be academic freedom while others stress the need for stronger control of what is taught in the classroom. The Mercer Triangle Symposium, which sponsored the coming out day Oct. 11, was the breaking point for many.
While some Georgia Baptists understood the need for open discussion of gay rights in an academic setting, they bristled over the formation of a campus group that openly lobbied for such a lifestyle. The Symposium, which lobbied against anti-gay bills coming before the Georgia General Assembly, was also linked to Project Equality, a national gay/lesbian group with a chapter in Mercer’s School of Law.
The Symposium’s Web site stated it was founded in 2002. The situation was further inflamed by the publishing in the campus newspaper The Cluster, of 29 names of Mercer faculty and staff who supported the group’s objectives. Two of those were a professor of Christianity and an assistant professor of Christianity.
Many Georgia Baptists said the group crossed the line between academic freedom and promoting the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender lifestyle. The Symposium billed itself as Mercer’s “GLBT rights student organization.”
According to the Atlanta newspaper, Underwood said Mercer will continue to emphasize “academic freedom, religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.”
“Mercer will remain committed to those principles whether it remains affiliated with the GBC or not. I would hope, though, that the GBC reconsiders.”
GBC Executive Director J. Robert White thinks the die has been cast.
“The next year will be invested in an orderly dissolution of the relationship with Mercer.”
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