Wednesday, June 2, 2010
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Young Harris College President Cathy Cox Featured in Insider Advantage Georgia
Catching Up With ... Cathy Cox
It's 'President Cox' Now, Not 'Secretary Cox'
By Dick Pettys
Four years ago at this time, she was locked in a rough-and-tumble fight for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, keeping the kind of near-‘round the clock schedule that statewide candidates know only too well. Today, she is the head of a growing private college in northeast Georgia, keeping the kind of near-‘round the clock schedule that college presidents know only too well. For the many candidates who will fail to meet their electoral dreams this year, Cathy Cox is proof there is life after politics.
“I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” she said as we caught up with her by telephone last week. “June 1, it will be three years. It has honestly been three of the best years of my life.”
Maybe, she said, it’s because she never expected to go into higher education as a career.
“But every day is a nice new surprise that has been exciting, all-consuming and incredibly rewarding. My husband, Mark, said he didn’t think I could ever be busier than when I was Secretary of State. But I’m busier now than I was just because there is so much going on at the college. To have one focus and to be away from the partisan atmosphere (of the Capitol) makes it more enjoyable and exciting.”
Cox, a Democrat, served two elected terms as Georgia’s Secretary of State from 1999 to 2007, and had served in the House for three years before that, representing Miller, Seminole, Early and Decatur counties. Her late father, Walter, had represented the region in the House some years earlier.
Her fight with then-Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2006 was a brutal matchup that to some extent left her party divided after Taylor emerged with the win. He proved unable to knock off incumbent Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue in the general election that fall.
Although she has both a journalism degree and a law degree, it was the law she expected to pursue after leaving office and after serving for one semester as the Carl E. Sanders scholar at the University of Georgia law school. Then came the telephone call that changed her direction.
“Bert Lance’s father was president of Young Harris College when Zell Miller’s father was the dean. Bert called me when they started the search for a new president and asked if I would be interested in submitting my name. I told him that I had a J.D., not a Ph.D. He replied, ‘Well, you have a ‘D.’”
In short order, she got the job leading the private, Methodist-affiliated school whose campus is just across the street from Miller’s famous “rock house.”
For its size, the school has produced a remarkable number of Georgia political figures.
Besides Miller, the list includes former Gov. E.D. Rivers, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Duckworth, former Congressmen Jack Brinkley and Ed Jenkins, plus a number of people who have made their mark in business, sports and even the recording industry. Country music artists Ronnie Milsap and Trisha Yearwood are Young Harris graduates.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, who attended Young Harris as a freshman, was the commencement speaker for this year’s graduates.
The school and the town take their name from Young L.G. Harris, an Athens, Ga., judge who was the school’s first major benefactor.
Originally a four-year school, Young Harris was a two-year institution for much of its modern history. But the board of trustees told Cox during the interview process that plans were in the works to make it a four-year school again.
“I felt like some of my strengths were in taking on big projects, like the electronic voting initiative, and in bringing in the best people to work on them. I felt like growing a college would be a better use of my skills, and that is what has been so exciting and what makes every day different. Going from two years to four years is virtually like growing a college from scratch,” she said.
“We evaluated the entire academic program, our student life program, our campus facilities – you name it and we’ve had to take a serious look at how we can do better and how we can distinguish ourselves from other colleges,” she said.
One of Young Harris’ biggest strengths over the years has been its relatively small size. It’s easy for students to get lost at a big, public school. Not so at Young Harris. Even after a 30 percent increase under her presidency, the school now is only at about 800 students.
“We’re not trying to grow beyond 1,200 or 1,500 at most. I think what we do as a small, residential, liberal arts college is what we do best. We’re not trying to lose the small, personal nature of the campus. I get to have contact every day with students. I get to know them by name. I have groups of students over for dinner. Watching these students grow and pursue their dreams is as rewarding as anything I’ve ever done,” she said.
Young Harris earned its accreditation from SACS in December, 2008 to go to a four-year school and it began offering a bachelor’s degree program last fall, adding its first junior class in 95 years. It will became the senior class this fall. It is accredited for nine degree programs now and expects to add seven more in the education field soon.
The faculty has about doubled to keep up with the progress and the school has $80 million in new buildings either completed or in design, with a master plan calling for hundreds of millions of new construction over the years.
Miller, the former governor and senator, can keep an eye on some of the work from his front porch across the street – and he does.
“We are building 12, tournament-quality tennis courts right across from his house. He keeps me updated. He continues to be very active as one of our trustees. One of his grandsons, Bryan, is in that rising senior class.”
The whole Miller family, in fact, is involved in Young Harris College, as it has been for decades. Miller’s son, Murphy, now a judge as well as Bryan’s father, is a trustee of the school. Miller’s other son, Matt, is a member of the Young Harris city council, which keeps tabs on the school’s construction projects. Former First Lady Shirley Miller serves on the alumni association.
Will she ever get back into politics?
“N-O. No,” she said quickly. “I still love politics and I am so grateful for the experience I had in the Legislature, in statewide office and in all of my campaigns. I really do miss the people, but I do not miss the partisanship and the backbiting and the sheer meanness that has developed. It is unfortunate for Georgia and I hope good people will run and change it.”
She added: “Having been so immersed in politics and loving it as much as I did, years ago I would never have thought I would enjoy being a college president. But having been there, it’s everything I hope to enjoy in a career. I am very, very happy where I am. I don’t miss the Atlanta traffic, either.”
Insider Advantage/Poll Position is a unique boutique firm of experts in the areas of research, strategy, media, business and government. Insider Advantage Georgia is based in Atlanta, Ga., and is published by the Internet News Agency. For more information about this publication, visit www.insideradvantagegeorgia.com.