May 14, 2021

Fourteen on the 14th with Georgia’s Dr. Meg Amstutz

By: SEC Staff
SECU (Twitter: @TheSECU)

You know the SEC. You know its 14 member universities, their school colors, chants and slogans. But do you know the people? The faculty? The staff? The students? The administrators? Maybe you caught a glimpse of someone walking around campus and wondered, “Who’s that?” You’re curious, and you want more insight. More stories, more advice and more favorites. Well, we have you covered.

Dr. Meg Amstutz, Associate Provost for Academic Programs and Chief of Staff in the Provost’s Office at the University of Georgia, is a Tennessee native who found her calling in education. Dr. Amstutz turned her passion for education and a penchant for being a conduit of change into a role helping students, faculty, and staff get connected to live out the mission of the University of Georgia. We sat down to talk with her about this season’s big event – COMMENCEMENT – which just so happens to fall under her purview. Keep reading to learn more about what Dr. Amstutz loves about commencement, some of her favorite spots to visit in Athens, and her many travels.

1. When or how did you discover you wanted to work in higher education? 

I come from a long line of teachers, but my first inklings were from time I spent with my uncle. He was a chemistry professor at Mercer University, and when I was younger, he would take me to visit his campus. I liked seeing where he worked. I thought it was a very worthwhile career choice to work with young people and help them advance in their careers, plus it always felt comfortable to me. Then, while working at Centre College – my alma mater – as an assistant to the president, Dr. Michael F. Adams told me I should go back and get a Ph.D. I listened, and I ended up working for him when he came to the University of Georgia. I fell in love with Athens.

Image Courtesy of the University of Georgia

2. What does it take to put on a large-scale event like commencement?

Oh gosh, it takes so much team effort. It’s such a large undertaking. I serve as co-chair of the commencement committee, and my co-chair is our associate director of special events, Lindsey Copus. We’re always working on commencement, because it truly is a yearlong effort. We have a full steering committee that looks at everything from facilities and management to the police force, transit, and communications, to name just a few areas. We also engage with representatives from our colleges, the registrar, alumni relations, athletics, and many other units. In addition, we have scores of volunteers. We have at least 200 people who help make everything happen.

Image Courtesy of the University of Georgia

3. How has planning changed for this week’s events given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

Our students have gone through so much, and we’ve worked hard to give them a good experience. There will be changes because of current conditions, but these students are as excited as any of our students have been … they just might celebrate a little differently. They’ll be encouraged to socially distance themselves and wear face masks. Our platform party is significantly smaller – this year it will just be the president, provost, our keynote speaker, and our student speaker. Our graduate ceremony will have doctoral students hooded by a professor, friend or family member rather than walking across the stage and shaking hands, and for the undergraduate ceremony, our graduates have the option to be on the field or in the stands with their families. It’s been an exercise in flexibility.

Image Courtesy of the University of Georgia

4. What’s your favorite part of a commencement ceremony?

For the undergraduate ceremony, I have two favorites. There’s a moment in the ceremony when the president expresses to the class that the world will expect “uncommon things” from them because they’re a graduate of the University of Georgia. That line has always resonated with me. We expect our students to go out into the world and not be average. It’s a moment I really love. The second moment is more emotional. There’s nothing like when the fireworks go off at the end of the ceremony. I’m glad to say we’ll still be using the lights and fireworks to keep our undergraduate ceremonies in Sanford Stadium special.

Image Courtesy of the University of Georgia

5. What does your role as Associate Provost and Chief of Staff look like day to day?

I have a portfolio of duties ranging from serving as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges liaison to overseeing a variety of academic programs through the provost’s office. I’m the liaison for the SEC Academic Leadership Development Program, and I’m excited we’ll be hosting on our campus this fall. I also work with on-campus leadership programs, help coordinate our Signature Lecture series, and serve as an officer for the university’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Every day is different, and that’s one of the things I enjoy the most.

6. It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. How do you do it all?

I’ve always been impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of our faculty, students, and staff who want to make positive things happen, and I’m able to put people together or help connect a person to resources. I have a great deal of help from wonderful colleagues across campus. Nothing I’ve mentioned is done by myself. I usually work with a team, and I’m fortunate. I love the energy I get working from a team … brainstorming, coming up with a concept, and engaging across campus. There are ideas everywhere, and what’s most often needed is some coordination to execute those ideas, and that’s what I do. I sleep well, which is probably one of the ways I am able to manage. It’s important to take care of yourself and stay rested and healthy.

7. How do you define leadership?

Leadership is taking a vision or an idea, engaging others, and helping refine that idea to move forward together to accomplish a goal. The tone set by a leader is important to the success of whatever you’re doing. The really good leaders I’ve worked with have helped draw out people’s skills and talents so that everyone feels like a valued member of the team.

8. What was the most valuable takeaway from your experience as Interim President at the College of Coastal Georgia?

I had such a good time at Coastal Georgia! My most valuable takeaway might have been how important a clear, defined mission is for a college or university. That mission then helps you as a leader make key decisions for the institution. The state of Georgia has a system of colleges and universities with distinctive missions, and at Coastal Georgia, I got to see how that campus – serving a unique region of the state – was critical in building its community. Their school of nursing and health sciences is essential to making sure the region has wonderful staff in its hospitals. Thinking about UGA as the flagship research university, our mission is to inquire into the nature of things and develop new research, products, drugs, ways of engineering, etc. I had spent most of my career at one institution, and to see how some things were done differently but perfectly elsewhere illustrated why a system is so beneficial in higher education.

College of Coastal Georgia: About/The Camden Center

Image Courtesy of the College of Coastal Georgia

9. How do you motivate others?

By staying positive and in communication with my team. I think people lose motivation when they don’t feel like they’re a part of decisions or they feel like they can’t reach out to you. I try to keep an open door and let people know I truly value what they want to contribute.

10. How would your best friends describe you?

I think they would start by saying I’m positive. I think they’d also say curious, a communicator, and some of them might describe me as diplomatic. I try to listen to all sides and often work to reach a consensus.

11. How do you unwind?

Normally, I love to travel. I haven’t been able to do that in the past year, but I’m looking forward to it. The last place I went internationally was Norway, and it was gorgeous. The country is beautiful. The fjords, the mountains, the landscape, and the appreciation people have for nature are amazing. I also love to read fiction and biographies, cook, do some light gardening (I have a few friends who are real gardeners who might disagree, so I’ll say that it’s really light – mostly pruning), and I enjoy camping when the weather is cool. There’s nothing like getting outside in nature and roasting marshmallows over an open campfire.

Image Courtesy of Unsplash

12. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? 

Probably from my father. He always says, “This too shall pass.” It’s advice that helps when you’re facing a difficult situation. It’s a reminder that life is cyclical, and nothing lasts too long. Better times are ahead.

13. If I spend 24 hours in Athens, where do I have to visit?

You have to go to the State Botanical Garden – which are beautiful any time of the year; the Georgia Museum of Art – it has rotating collections and terrific indoor and outdoor galleries; the Special Collections Libraries – which contain the archives for the Peabody Awards and exhibits of rare documents; and the patio at Big City Bread – one of my favorite restaurants in town. Big City Bread has incredible biscuits, baked goods, and brunch!

Reserve Big City Bread Cafe for Your Special Event! — Big City Bread Cafe

Image Courtesy of Big City Bread Cafe

14. Who would you ask 14 questions?

This is perhaps the hardest question for me, but I think the person I’d want to talk to right now is the author Ann Patchett. She runs an independent bookstore in Nashville and has written a number of award-winning novels including Bel Canto. I recently read a wonderful essay of hers published in Harper’s Magazine, and it talked about an encounter she had with Tom Hanks, how it led to a relationship during the pandemic, and how life had evolved during 2020. I enjoy writing, and I think talking to her would be inspiring to me as a writer myself. I’m interested in the writing process.

Ann Patchett Has Some Book Recommendations - The New York Times

Image Courtesy of The New York Times

We’re going on a summer hiatus, but we’ll be back on August 14 with 14 more SEC questions and answers! Thanks for reading!