As G.P. “Bud” Peterson, Ph.D., ends his tenure as the Georgia Institute of Technology’s president, the retiring leader is looking ahead as much as he’s looking back.
“We started a commission a few years ago to see where education is going. “How is it we educate students or prepare students to be productive in their careers 20 or 25 years from now? … We’re very, very engaged on what we want to do to prepare students for a career,” he said of a program at the Midtown college.
Peterson spoke on a myriad of Tech-related topics at the Rotary Club of Buckhead’s weekly lunch June 10 at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Buckhead.
In January Peterson announced his plans to retire this summer (or until the new president can start his or her tenure), so the Rotary meeting was one of his last public appearances as president. However, he is remaining to conduct research and teach at least one class — he jokingly said the last time he taught a class was decades ago, when schools still used chalkboards.
June 6, the University System of Georgia announced it named Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, since 2012, as the sole finalist for Tech’s presidency. Cabrera is a Tech graduate who is credited with increases in enrollment and student academic strength and outcomes at George Mason, a news release stated.
Peterson, who has been Tech’s president since 2009, has been credited with making major strides since his arrival, including raising enrollment by 69% (24% for undergraduates and 159% for graduate students), according to a news release. Rotary member Geoff Gill, who introduced Peterson, said Tech is the nation’s top producer of female engineers, minority engineers and engineering degrees.
“During that time, Tech is the No. 1 public university in engineering in the country,” Gill said. “All of the engineering schools at Tech are rated in the top five in the country. First- to second-year retention rate was 97 percent. For those of you who like me went to Tech, it was 33 percent back then. It was easy to get in but hard to stay in.”
Peterson and his wife have four adult children, three grandchildren and have served as foster parents to nine children. He’s a mechanical engineer with bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.
“He holds 16 patents, including one for cooling localized regions of the brain to arrest epileptic seizures, particularly in babies and small children,” Gill said.
Peterson said Tech during his tenure introduced a $7,000 online program for a master’s degree in computer science for those who can’t afford the regular program and/or don’t live near the campus. The school has since added programs in data analytics and then cybersecurity, and all three programs have been successful.
“These companies are snarfing these (students) up very quickly for new jobs,” Peterson said.
During his tenure, he's dealt with some scandals, including an ethics problem in which four high-ranking employees their jobs last summer after an internal investigation and audit determined they had little oversight in their positions. Three misused taxpayer funds and exploited relationships with vendors, and a fourth took trips to China to promote products for a vendor whose board of directors he sat on and charged the school for its expenses.
In February, as a result, the college hired Ling-Ling Nie as its new general counsel and vice president for ethics and compliance, an expanded role.
Another scandal, which came to light in April 2018, involved findings that the Georgia Tech Research Institute spent over $1 million in taxpayer funds on "morale" events, which included meals and entertainment expenses for Tech employees and their families.
In an interview following his speech, Peterson was asked what he wants his legacy as Tech’s leader to be.
“I’ll let other people decide what the legacy is,” he said. “I hope that people feel that Georgia Tech is in a better position now than when I came. We’ve done some exciting things in the way we approach education using technology. We’ve done some exciting things in innovation and entrepreneurship. We’ve grown the undergraduate student population, grown the research. There’s a whole host of things, but I’ll let somebody else decide what my legacy’s going to be.”
When asked how he felt about congratulating the class of 2019, his last as president, Peterson said, “I have shaken the hands of almost 60,000 students that have graduated from Georgia Tech in the last 10 years. A lot of people are concerned … about where the country’s headed and what’s the future hold? All you have to do is look out at these young people that are graduating, and if our future is in their hands, we’re going to be just fine.
“These are some amazing young people, and I can’t tell you how impressed I am of them. I’m so jealous of them, so envious. … In their lifetimes they’re going to cure cancer; they’re going to see interplanetary space travel. It will be a common occurrence. They’re going to solve the issues around climate change. The things they’re going to do and see and do in their lifetime are hard to imagine what those would be.”