Q&A with President Cox


Katie Futch, Asst. News Editor

On October 8th, WGUR’s Jonathan O’Brien, and Katie Futch, the Assistant News Editor for The Colonnade, sat down with GC’s new president, Cathy Cox.


In this interview, they discussed Cox’s background and how its diversity represents the Liberal Arts Education, the tension amongst the faculty regarding COVID-19, and what she plans to do at GC.


O’Brien: Go into your background for those of us who were on the younger side when you were Secretary of State. Can you talk about everything that happened before that and what’s prepared you for this moment?

President Cox: I grew up down in South Georgia, which is easy to tell when I opened my mouth that I am a true South Georgian. But I started in college thinking that I would study plant science. I had two great grandmothers who were gardeners and taught me to work in the yard with them. I loved working with plants. I started college at ABAC studying horticulture and agriculture. I thought that would be my career path until I spent a summer pulling weeds at Callaway gardens in 100-degree weather. I decided that having a job in the air conditioning might not be so bad. I changed my major when I transferred then to the University of Georgia to journalism. I like to write, and I thought that would be interesting.

After graduation, I went to work for a newspaper in Gainesville, Georgia. The new kid on the block always got the job nobody else wanted: the crime beat. I went to murder scenes, car wrecks, autopsies and had to write about all of those things.

Then I also had to cover trials and defendants charged with a crime. When I went to the courtroom, I was lost. I did not know what the judges were doing or the language people were using. I decided I needed a legal education to write intelligently about what was happening in the courtroom. That’s why I decided to pursue a law degree at Mercer law school. Once I got there, I found out that lawyers write a lot. That changed my whole perspective on what I wanted to do with my writing career. After I graduated with my law degree, I started out practicing law in Atlanta with a large firm. I decided to go back to Bainbridge to practice after my dad became ill. I was the first woman lawyer down in South Georgia in about 10 or 11 counties down there, which was in and of itself, quite an experience. You know, people would come to the courthouse and say, let’s go watch the lady lawyer and see if the judge is going to make her cry. But it provided me a lot of opportunities, I think, to change some perspectives that women could be lawyers just like men and allowed me to pursue an interest in politics.

A couple of years after my dad died, I was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives and got to serve in the legislature.

After two terms in the legislature, I had the chance to run for Secretary of State as the first woman to run for and be elected to that office. Which was another great experience. I served two terms as Secretary of State. In 2006, I ran for governor, and the voters decided I needed to do something else. So, I lost that election. But I see that as a win because that opened the avenue I had to go into higher education.

Then I got the chance to be President at Young Harris College and to go to work on a very small campus that wanted to grow from two years to four years and spent 10 years there as president. I became immersed in the liberal arts education process, and what it can do for today’s students. It made me appreciate all these different things that I have been able to do with my life and how the breadth of my education, though not a conventional liberal arts education, had helped me adapt to all these changes that I had been through.

Ultimately, I got the chance to go back to my alma mater at Mercer law school and become the dean there over the last four years, which was sort of tugging at my heart. To do that at Mercer law school, I thought I wanted the opportunity to be on a larger university campus, and to serve as a dean since I did not come up in the traditional academic realm. And that was helpful to me, I think, in growing as an academic leader to work closer in context with faculty, and on curriculum issues, and those kinds of things. But when this opportunity came along, I felt like I had the right experiences to serve Georgia College well, but I was just excited to get this opportunity and to be a part of a campus that is doing so well as Georgia College is today.

Futch: It sounds like you have a lot of communication experience and dealing with large groups of people, whether it is your career in politics, your presidency at Young Harris, or being the Dean of Mercer law school. What is your key to success whenever communicating with large groups of people?

President Cox: You just have to understand how important communication is. But I look at communication as a conversation. I certainly prepare when I’m giving speeches, but I’ll tell you a story that sort of changed the way I approached speeches. When I was first elected to the legislature, I was at a chamber of commerce banquet in my hometown of Bainbridge, and another state official came to give the speech at our Chamber of Commerce banquet, and I was in the audience like everybody else. A man came to give the speech and he gave this canned speech that had nothing whatsoever to do with anybody in Bainbridge. And I thought, what are we, you know, chopped liver? You have traveled from Atlanta down to Bainbridge, and you have given a speech to our chamber banquet, and you have not talked about one thing that relates to who we are and what we are doing.

It changed my perspective about how I give speeches and how I try to talk in interviews like this to just remember, who is my audience? What do they expect? What do I want them to get out of this conversation? I always try to prepare speeches, to think I want this audience to leave here saying I got something out of this, she recognized why my time was valuable. My audience’s time is valuable. What is your message? What do you want to try to get across? Communication is just the essence of who we are. So you use it as a chance to establish a relationship with somebody and make it a two-way conversation if you can.

Futch: As a graduate of Grady College of Journalism, you understand what it is like to receive a USG education. What do you value most about your experience?

President Cox: I think about all the friendships that I made at every school that I attended, whether ABAC, University of Georgia, or Mercer law school. I made lifelong friends that I am still in touch with today. I hope that all of you are finding that at GC. If you invest time in building those friendships, these friendships will support you and enrich your life forever. But it takes a while. You have to be a friend to make a friend.

I had a meeting with students on my first Friday here. I asked students what they loved about Georgia College, and so many of them talked about their relationships here with other friends, which I thought was revealing about the students here at Georgia College and their maturity in appreciating the importance of relationships, they talked about how they love being able to walk down a sidewalk and have five people say hello to them and call their name on the way to class.

Maybe it’s because we’re all sort of in that post-pandemic world where we’re so happy to be back together. And I hope that lasts, I hope we can build on that and do other things to bring our community back together.

I know I got friendships from being a part of a residential campus, you don’t get that from online education. I mean, you might learn the basics of a discipline online, but you don’t build those kinds of relationships that can add so much to your life. You might also meet somebody that’s ultimately going to be your law partner, somebody that will hire you, somebody that networks you into another job refers a case to you as a lawyer, 20 years from now, I mean, the relationships and the way people interact, and what that will do for your life and your career, you just will never be able to measure.

O’Brien: There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of tension amongst the faculty here at Georgia College. How do you plan to bring things together to keep the Board of Regents and the faculty happy?

President Cox: There’s one thing you learn in politics and that is besides developing a thick skin is that you will never, ever make everybody happy. It’s not that I won’t try, because I will try. I would love for everybody to be really happy about working on this campus, just as I want every student to be excited about attending college here. But at the end of the day, if we try as hard as we can, everybody’s not happy.

But we have to be realistic about what our situation is. First and foremost, we want everybody to be safe. We’re part of the university system. We have to follow the guidance that we get from the university system. They are following and developing guidance based on CDC guidance, and the Georgia Department of Public Health. We can look at that and modify that for our campus purposes.

You also have to think about where we are. We are light-years from where we were in August. We’re light-years from where we were last spring. I want to figure out if we are doing everything we can to incentivize and encourage vaccinations because we’re never going to find our way out of this pandemic until we can further vaccinate our population and encourage people to feel good and safe about getting vaccinations. There’s a good chance that we could have further upticks in the virus if we don’t further get our populations vaccinated. I want to drill down into how we can do that. But we’re in a much better place than we were at the beginning of the semester. We have to deal with the reality that can make us a little more comfortable today than where we might have been with mitigation efforts that were needed at the first of the semester.

As a leader, you always have to know you want to give people a chance to be heard, you want to come up with the best ideas possible from people, and then you have to move forward in the best way you can.

O’Brien: One criticism of your predecessor has been that he wasn’t as accessible as most people would have liked. What are you going to do to try to connect with the campus community?

President Cox: I don’t think you’ll be saying that about me. When I was president at Young Harris, the favorite thing I loved to do was just to walk the campus and get to know students. I would walk the campus at night, where I could see students when they weren’t in a rush between classes, and had a chance for conversation. I have a yellow Labrador Retriever dog, Ellie Mae, who would love to walk the campus with me and meet all of you students. So if you’re not fearful of a 12-year-old puppy dog who certainly won’t hurt you, you may see me. If you see the lady walking around with the dog, it’s me, please speak to us. Because I want to know you. I want to be a part of your activities. I want to know what you enjoy. I want to know what your career path journeys are. I want to know why you’re excited to be here. I want to know what you love about this place, I can’t help grow this college and strengthen it. Unless I know what you think we’re doing best. Unless I know what you think we’re not doing best if I don’t know what’s driving you crazy. I don’t know how to fix those things. So I hope you’ll find me to be very accessible.

Futch: How do you plan to increase diversity and inclusion on Georgia College’s campus?

President Cox: I had a good track record of improving diversity and inclusion at Young Harris College. We were able to grow our student body diversity, improve the faculty and staff, ratios and numbers in diversity over the time that I was there. So there are a lot of ways that I can think of. And a lot, I think, are already in the works here. I want to drill down and understand how that’s going to work and how we can enhance that. But there are nuances. Not all student populations have the luxury of getting in a car with a family and making a campus visit. So I want to make sure that our virtual visits and virtual tours of the Georgia College campus are robust so that students who can’t drive down here can see our campus and feel good about what they see. And I also want them to know that you can come to Georgia College and you don’t necessarily have to have a car because our shuttles will take you to the grocery store and Walmart and so you don’t have to have a car to get everywhere.

So I want to figure out what the students need? And how can we reach out to students of all backgrounds and all needs? But diversity is one thing. But inclusiveness is another thing and how do we assess the environment here for inclusiveness? How do we make sure that students from all walks of life feel included and welcome on this campus?

That’s something I’m going to be embarking on a listening tour this fall. I’m very serious about listening. I didn’t come here with a grand plan to say I can do everything better than what y’all have been doing. I’m coming here to say, I’m very impressed with what you’re doing. But I want to listen, so I understand it. So I can figure out how we can even do better things and enhance what we’re doing. I want to know where we’re perhaps struggling and, and understand more, why that is, and where we’ve got some weaknesses that we can address and shore up. But you will never improve diversity if you don’t have a welcoming and inclusive campus environment. And so you kind of have to tackle that if you want to improve the ladder.

O’Brien: You’ve done so many different things. What’s been your biggest challenge?

President Cox: My biggest challenge is just getting sleep. You know, I just like to do a lot of things as you can tell. I guess in some respects, the job I had as the dean kept me in such a box of limited authority. I didn’t feel as challenged as I wanted to be. And I think the role of a president gives you more challenges, maybe sometimes more challenges than you want on any given day. But I like to be challenged, I hope all of you as students are going to pursue careers that challenge you. I don’t ever want to be bored in life. I think life is far too short to be bored. So I hope you all pursue jobs and careers that you find to be interesting, that keep you thinking, keep you on your feet, keep you awake at night, and keep you challenged. Because I think that’s what life is all about. I think that’s what makes life interesting is to be challenged and to find hard things. Because ultimately, when you accomplish those things that are hard, you find this great sense of reward and enrichment, and how great learning is, and when you’re just going through the motions and rinse and repeat every day.