Dr. Gary McGaha: Leading the Educational Change
Words and Images by DeWayne Rogers
All it takes is one quick walk around the campus of Atlanta Metropolitan State College and you feel the energy. As students and faculty bustle about, the campus teems with the promise of a bright academic future. But that future doesn’t just belong to the many students who now call this institution of higher learning home. No, the promise also extends to the school itself, as it has changed its name (formerly Atlanta Metropolitan College) and its educational approach.
Yes, the winds of positive change are swiftly blowing across the campus of Atlanta Metropolitan State College, and the primary man behind this educational renaissance is the institution’s president, Dr. Gary McGaha. As he sat in his office, answering questions for this special interview with rolling out, McGaha beamed with pride as he shared the current successes and long-range future of the institution. In his opinion, Atlanta Metropolitan is on track to become one of the most sought out schools in the state of Georgia and beyond. Judging by the excitement of the students on campus, it appears he is on to something.
There is a noticeable buzz around campus. Everyone here seems to be excited about the new school year. Why is that?
We’re excited because the institution is engaged in some very extensive activities that are changing the culture and climate of the Atlanta community. We are growing extensively … we’ve had an 81 percent increase in our enrollment in the past five years. And, we are now a baccalaureate degree-granting institution. Our name has been changed from Atlanta Metropolitan College to Atlanta Metropolitan State College.
How does your location play a role in this amazing transformation that is taking place?
We sit in the fertile educational spine of the city of Atlanta, and we are the impact and opportunity institution for the city of Atlanta. We think that is the difference that is sorely needed for the citizens of this state, and we really want to make an impact that is unlike what has happened in the past.
You mentioned that your name has now changed. Can you explain just how important that is for this school?
It is absolutely phenomenal, because it is more than just a name change, it is a level change. We’ve gone from offering the associate’s degree to offering the baccalaureate degree, and our first baccalaureate degree is in biological science, which is designed as a pipeline for the health professions of medicine and pharmacy. We’ve seen a quadrupling of interest and enrollment from students who are interested in pursuing degrees in that program. So it is certainly going to change what happens in this city from the standpoint of higher education. It is critical to understand as well that we educate a larger percentage of Georgia and Atlanta natives, than any other institution of higher learning in the city.
So what separates Atlanta Metropolitan State College from the other institutions in the city and state?
We have a high-quality program that is really and truly capturing the attention of a large number of individuals. We were looked upon as a nontraditional school at one time, but now about 80 percent of the students who have enrolled this semester are coming directly out of high school. So we are getting the message out, and are now a first choice institution. This name change and level change will change the trajectory of higher education in the city of Atlanta.
How do you strategically make yourself a first choice institution for students, since as you stated, it was once considered a nontraditional route for education?
It is a first choice institution because of deliberate planning on our part to make it a high-quality institution. We also put forth special efforts to make sure that this was an institution that focused on the holistic approach to education, unlike what happens in a lot of places. We tell students that you don’t just come to school here and pass classes … we want to see a transformation of the individual, based on what goes on in those classrooms. We have a faculty here that is absolutely phenomenal by any academic standards, and they do more than teach … they empower and encourage our students to be better people.
As you walk down the hallways and interact with students, how does the mood feel?
The energy here is just absolutely phenomenal. We are seeing levels of energy and interests that we have never seen before. We added 10 new faculty members, and all 10 have Ph.D.s in their teaching disciplines from research institutions. In our new biological science program, for example, we normally offer two courses of “Principles of Biology,” which is the gatekeeper course for students desiring to complete that program. Now we have five courses, and they are all full. That is just one example of the growth and excitement that I see and feel each day on campus. It is really, very exciting. The other thing that warrants attention is that we have a campaign here for connecting the college to the community. We see a direct relationship between what we do, and what happens in this community. So we are working with community leaders to make this transition of where our students come from to here, very seamless. It is something that is working tremendously well.
How do you continue to get inspired each day to show up and diligently work to change the lives of students at this institution?
This is not a job for me — it is a mission. I’ve been in education all of my life, going from high school all the way through the Ph.D. program, and it’s something that I have wanted to be a part of my entire life. But I made some changes in 1993 to move to what I thought was a new frontier in higher education, and I left Morehouse School of Medicine as a senior level administrator to come here, because I liked what this institution was embracing.
God has given me an opportunity to use my experiences here to help transition this school and move it to another level. People in this city and state deserve what this institution provides, and we are looking to expand those opportunities so that we can affect the lives of more and more youngsters.
**For more information on how you or your child can enroll in Atlanta Metropolitan State College, visit www.atlm.edu.