Fred Davison’s Rocky Road to the Modern UGA

Fred Davison was 37 years old when he was appointed UGA president. Credit: Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library / University of Georgia Libraries

Editor’s Note: The modern University of Georgia got its start in 1967, after Gov. Carl Sanders acknowledged that jumpstarting UGA toward excellence would take money, lots of it. Sanders convinced the Georgia legislature to appropriate the funds, and by the time he left office, the university was about to begin its transition from backwater Southern college toward competition with the better regional and even national universities.

Fred C. Davison, formerly dean of UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine and, briefly, a vice chancellor of the University of Georgia System, was chosen to be the new UGA president.

The Davison era was controversial throughout and was exacerbated by what many faculty felt to be heavy-handed tactics that punished dissenters and rewarded supporters.

In this article, Roger K. Thomas, former head of the UGA Psychology Department and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who was in the thick of the tumultuous decline and fall of the Davison administration, draws on an extensive examination of documentation as well as his own experience to highlight some of the darker events associated with Davison’s presidency.

Background and Context

On June 1, 1967, George Simpson, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, appointed Fred Davison president of the University of Georgia and charged him with improving UGA’s national standing. Davison and his closest advisors decided the best way to accomplish this directive was to hire and promote faculty based primarily on ability to get research grants and gain research recognition. This was a lofty goal, but it was implemented badly.

Davison introduced the position of provost and appointed the head of the chemistry department, S. W. Pelletier. Pelletier, with little faculty consultation, soon published the new University of Georgia Guidelines for Promotion and Appointment (hereafter Guidelines), which added new layers of review and diminished departmental-level recommendations. By 1970, “severe disagreement between faculty groups and the administration [arose] over the equity of new promotion guidelines…” (Thomas Dyer, The University of Georgia: A Bicentennial History, 1985, p. 353). Dyer reported that the faculty disputes focused on the provost. 

By 1975, the Faculty Senate of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences developed a survey questionnaire to assess Franklin College faculty members’ attitudes and opinions regarding the performances of members of the upper administration, not by name but by office.  Of course, everyone knew their names.

The results of Survey 1 were reported in February 1976. The results of Survey 2 were reported in May 1977. Both surveys were highly unfavorable to Davison. In response to Survey 2, Davison misrepresented the truth in a 176-page document sent to every faculty member at UGA. Meanwhile, a significant event occurred.

Dean Tate Intervenes

William Tate was dean of men at UGA from 1946 until his retirement in 1971. He was highly respected statewide, and the Tate Student Center was named to honor him. In retirement, Tate had morphed from stern disciplinarian to beloved old dean.

At a student rally on Jan. 20, 1976, Tate charged that Pelletier’s policies in the Guidelines discriminated against hiring UGA graduates on the faculty. In the following three months, the Athens Banner-Herald/The Daily News, The Athens Observer, the Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal, The Red & Black and others published editorials, columns and letters related to Tate’s charge. Davison’s defenders criticized Tate, who responded several times. Davison responded to Tate in a front-page article in The Athens Observer (Feb. 5, 1976), and law school dean Ralph Beaird, a senior advisor to Davison, threatened to sue Tate. 

Under the heading “Tate Misconstrued Facts,” in The Red & Black (Jan. 23, 1976), UGA Vice President for Instruction William Hayes both denied Tate’s charge and explained why “inbreeding” (hiring one’s own graduates) was bad. Hayes wrote, “The fact is that most major American universities discourage the hiring of their own Ph.D. graduates.” A summary of Hayes’ explanation is that one’s own graduates don’t bring new ideas. As a UGA “inbreeder,” I replied to Hayes (we were both psychologists) in The Red & Black (Jan. 27, 1976) with a list of several names of Harvard Ph.D.s who were faculty members in the Harvard Psychology Department. Further, I noted that Hayes came to UGA from the University of Michigan’s faculty, where he had earned his Ph.D. To show that Tate was not in error, I quoted the Guidelines:

“Only in cases where exceptional merit can be demonstrated… The general criterion as whether the internal candidate is superior to external candidates… clearly superior in his potential as an original scholar to his immediate competitors, but is considered to become an outstanding figure in his discipline area…”

What can be more discriminatory against internal candidates than that?

Survey 1 

While the Tate controversy was in progress, on Feb. 28, 1976, the findings of Survey 1 assessing Franklin College faculty members’ opinions and attitudes were reported. The survey included general items such as whether UGA was an excellent place to work and items associated with the performances of several high-level administrators, again, not by name but by office.  

Survey 1 resulted in unfavorable assessments of the president and provost and favorable assessments of the dean of the Franklin College and dean of the graduate school. Faculty members indicated they had insufficient information to offer opinions on other administrators, so Survey 2 was limited to general items and to attitudes and opinions regarding the president, the dean of the Franklin College, and the dean of the graduate school. Provost was not included because the new acting provost was a temporary position.

“Caution in Interpreting the Results” (Survey 1, p. 6) included, “It is an attitude and opinion survey and does not constitute an evaluation of the performance of the administrators.” Similar cautions were expressed in Survey 2 (p. 4). 

I do not recall any response to Survey 1 from Davison comparable to the 176-page document that followed Survey 2. Nancy Lewis (Atlanta Journal, Feb. 9, 1976), aware of the impending Survey 1 results, asked Davison for his reaction. “Davison said flatly that he will put no credence in the poll’s results, whatever they be.” He explained that the director of UGA’s Institute for Behavioral Research, William Owens, said the “poll was unscientifically drawn and conducted.” Davison also said faculty cannot “accurately evaluate their superiors.” 

The effects of the Tate controversy and Survey 1 were conflated, and true cause and effect may never be known, but “within a few weeks [Mar. 9, 1976] the provost had resigned” (Dyer, 355), Owens was appointed acting provost (1976-1977) and, in July, Hayes resigned. 

Survey 2

Survey 2 was delivered to the faculty Senate on May 23, 1977. Both survey reports are in the Homer C. Cooper Collection, University Archives, UGA’s Hargrett Library. Professor Fred Bates, sociology, chaired both committees. I am listed on the cover of Survey 2 as a member of the five-person committee that constructed and administered it. 

Davison’s 176-page response (May 25, 1977) is accessible (UGA’s Hargrett Library, UA 97-101, Box 111, Folder 1). It was prefaced by an eight-page memorandum to “University Faculty” from “Fred C. Davison.” The memorandum began with detailed criticism of a survey questionnaire that was not the one used, although it was clearly implied that it was, and it included other erroneous and questionable assertions. On p. 7 of the memorandum, Davison wrote the then-infamous “We are a house with 12 windows [UGA’s 12 colleges] and the light shines through all but one [Franklin College].” One paragraph later, he wrote: “I have therefore decided that the current Arts and Sciences program must be restructured along functional lines. This will be done in the immediate future.” However, the only change I remember is that Dean John Stephens was replaced in 1977 by Jack Payne, a microbiologist. 

Another apparent victim of surveys 1 and 2 was Graduate Dean Hardy Edwards. Whereas the Franklin College faculty had an unfavorable opinion of Davison, it had a highly favorable opinion of Edwards. In early October 1979, citing questionable reasons, Davison requested Edwards’ resignation. He protested vigorously but was fired on Oct. 4 

Davison’s Resignation

Davison’s end as UGA President is documented in Hue Henry’s book, Take Down (2018). Henry was one of Jan Kemp’s attorneys. Kemp (unrelated to Gov. Brian Kemp) sued for having been dismissed as a remedial studies teacher for exposing unethical conduct by her administrative superiors associated with undeserved grades for some UGA football players. Davison tried to deny foreknowledge of the Kemp situation, but his vice president for academic affairs, Virginia Trotter, was on record as having kept Davison well informed (Take Down, pp. 305-308). Kemp sued for lost wages, mental distress, punitive damages and reinstatement of her UGA teaching position. 

The verdict in Kemp’s favor was announced on Feb. 12, 1986. Davison resigned on Mar. 13. On May 6, Kemp settled for $1,079,682.

To be fair to Davison, he led UGA to a strong start towards national research recognition, and succeeding presidents Charles Knapp, Michael Adams and Jere Morehead have continued that effort. Knapp introduced greater emphasis on teaching by offering resources and recognition that had previously been minimized, an effort also continued by his successors.

And to be fair to them also, I want to recognize Pelletier’s service in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and Beaird’s service in the U.S. Army Air Force during the 1945 invasion of Okinawa.