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UGA President Jere Morehead speaks to Gwinnett Rotary

UGA’s new president, Jere Morehead, speaks to a lunch crowd at the Rotary Club of Gwinnett on Tuesday at The 1818 Club about the university’s recent academic accomplishments and upcoming fundraising goals. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

UGA’s new president, Jere Morehead, speaks to a lunch crowd at the Rotary Club of Gwinnett on Tuesday at The 1818 Club about the university’s recent academic accomplishments and upcoming fundraising goals. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

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Jere Morehead

DULUTH — While academic prowess by its incoming freshman class is higher than its ever been, the University of Georgia continues to lag behind peer institutions like the University of Florida in other academic and fundraising categories.

The focus of UGA’s new president, Jere Morehead, is to close that gap as the institution strives to remain committed to a quality student experience. Morehead told a lunch crowd at the Rotary Club of Gwinnett on Tuesday at The 1818 Club that while UGA is proud to have recipients of prestigious awards like the Rhode, Truman, Goldwater and Udall scholarships, it ranks below peer and neighboring institutions in its private endowment.

In private endowment rankings, UGA is No. 98, while the University of Kentucky (83), University of Florida (56), Georgia Tech (43) and the University of North Carolina (30) all rank higher, Morehead said.

UGA is also behind UF in endowed faculty positions, which are created from private gifts to fund research and expenses for professors. UGA has 229 of those positions, while UF has 380, and recently announced a fundraising campaign to reach 500 in the next three years.

“So you see the work that we have to do if we are to remain competitive with Florida,” said Morehead, who became UGA’s 22nd president on July 1 after 27 years as a faculty member. “Not only in Jacksonville in a few weeks, but also when you compare us between Gainesville and Athens.”

In a fundraising campaign that’s in a silent phase, Morehead said one focus will be to raise the level of giving for the charter scholarships, which have been “sitting stagnant at $1,000 a year for the last 20 years.”

The fundraising push comes at a time when the university recently was ranked No. 20 by U.S. News and World Report among public research universities and was ranked No. 2 by Washington Monthly in its annual “Bang for the Buck” college rankings.

UGA’s latest graduation rate was an all-time high at 83 percent, and freshman retention rate was 94 percent. This year’s freshman class, with 5,150 students, averaged a 1,280 score on the SAT, a 29 on the ACT and a 3.86 grade-point average. Students admitted to the school’s honors program averaged a 4.07 grade-point average, a 1,462 on the SAT and a 33 on the ACT.

“If we want to continue to recruit great students, and continue to improve our retention and graduation rates, then in my opinion we will have to remain on a course to raise more private support to ensure that these students are well-educated and well-supported while they’re at the University of Georgia,” Morehead said.

Part of the reason UGA is behind peer institutions, Morehead said, is because it became too reliant on state support, which has dropped since the Great Recession. He said places like UF learned the lesson of finding alternative funding sources earlier, and UF also invests more in its development and alumni relations operations.

“We’ll have to put more resources into, and more focus on that area, and that’s what we’ll be doing as we move forward with this campaign,” Jere Morehead said. “We’ve made a lot of progress over a long period of time in fundraising, but I think we’ve got to step forward even more aggressively if we want to achieve the goals we have for the institution’s future.”

One topic Morehead avoided much discussion of was the UGA football team, which has lost two straight games. But he applauded football coach Mark Richt.

“The thing I most appreciate about Coach Richt is his honesty and how he comports himself, his personality, and even now dealing with all the injuries and adversities that he’s faced in the last few weeks, he still acts like the same person that was beating South Carolina and LSU,” Morehead said. “So I think he’ll find a way to get through these challenges and turn the corner, hopefully in a few weeks, particularly if we can get some of our players back.”