The year 2001 brought uncertainty, fear and incalculable pain for this nation as a whole. It was momentous for our national psyche and for our sensibilities as Americans. But before that bleak day in September, American life was normal. People were born and they died. Workers started jobs and left them. Couples got married. Babies got christened.
And Floyd College, as Georgia Highlands was called then, got its third president, Dr. J. Randolph Pierce. The Rome-based institution had for many years served the residents of Floyd and surrounding counties, providing the first two years of college for place-bound students who couldn’t pull up stakes and live in another town or city to get a jumpstart on their education. The college hadn’t thought too much about expanding, except to Bartow County, where the first president, Dr. David McCorkle, had established a satellite instructional site just opposite the railroad tracks downtown.
His successor, Dr. H. Lynn Cundiff, first envisioned a larger presence in the region by negotiating for the Cartersville campus which was originally conceived as a joint venture with several other educational institutions. Once Pierce arrived, however, his long-term vision for the college included very strategic plans to extend the institution’s reach into other areas in northwest Georgia.
The reason was practical – Rome and Floyd County’s populations had not grown substantially in many years, while Bartow and counties south of it – part of the greater Atlanta metropolitan area – were expanding rapidly. To keep the college healthy meant going where potential students were clamoring for access to higher education. And it meant that the college needed additional funds.
Floyd College had never tried to raise funds like private or four-year institutions regularly do. The college hired a consultant with experience in guiding two-year institutions through the difficult maze of a capital campaign. The process included focus groups with faculty, staff, students, community members, business leaders and political representatives. The purpose was to find out what the perceptions of the college were among its various stakeholders and those outside the institutional community. The findings helped the college develop plans for a brand and name change.
Among the findings, the college learned that potential supporters outside Rome and Floyd County were less likely to donate to an organization with a name that identified it narrowly with a local community. Bartow County citizens especially wanted the name to be more inclusive of their interest in the new Cartersville campus, which had been given to the Board of Regents and upon which the first building was already rising.
Pierce wasted little time acting on the results of the focus groups. The capital campaign, called Legacy, was launched. He submitted the name Etowah College as a new name for the college. Etowah is the name of a river that flows through Rome and much of Northwest Georgia, so he was giving a nod to the founding city as well as other communities in the region.
The Etowah name, however, wasn’t approved because of an objection from the Etowah Foundation, which provides scholarships to a number of educational institutions.
So it was back to the drawing board for a contentious month where numerous editorials appeared in Rome media and hundreds of e-mails poured into the college from Rome citizens outraged that a change to the name would even be considered. But Pierce persevered, and when he submitted the next request for Georgia Highlands College, it was approved unanimously by the Board of Regents.
Shortly after the new name was approved, GHC cut the ribbon for the new building on the Cartersville campus, immediately prompting a 50 percent enrollment increase. The college also opened a site in Marietta on the campus of Southern Polytechnic State University. Two years later, the doors to the Paulding Instructional Site opened on the square in Dallas in time for fall semester. At the same time, an instructional site opened in Douglasville in a couple of modular buildings behind Chapel Hill High School. It moved to new quarters in a renovated grocery store on Stewart Parkway the next year.
Now in 2011, Georgia Highlands College boasts six locations (counting Heritage Hall, also in Rome, and the site of our health sciences disciplines). These additions happened in spite of a very depressed economy. During 2011, the college successfully completed its first major gifts campaign, raising more than $5 million. In March, Pierce announced that GHC would begin an athletics program in 2012. Last May, the Board of Regents approved a change of sector to state college, allowing GHC to offer its first baccalaureate degree, a Bachelor of Science in nursing. Enrollment continues to climb, and now stands at more than 5,500, a 5.6 percent increase from fall 2010.
And Pierce is retiring before the new student center, now under construction in Cartersville, is operational. He’s leaving a healthy institution, a viable and growing enterprise. During the past decade of change and expansion he’s made some extraordinary friends and many admirers. Whatever the future holds for Georgia Highlands College, his legacy will remain one of vision, leadership and success.