Georgia State should make urban and regional studies the centerpiece of the university

Look what they’ve done to my school, Ma.
Look what they’ve done to my school.
(Apologies to songwriter Melanie Safka)

It used to be known as the College of Urban Life. Later it became the College of Public and Urban Affairs.

And then most recently the college morphed into the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Last week, the word came out that the GSU administration was considering folding the Andrew Young School into GSU’s Mack Robinson College of Business. That led to the forced resignation of the recently-named dean of the Andrew Young School — W. Bartley Hildreth — who had protested the potential merger.

Now it appears that the administration has backed off that plan, and GSU is now seeking to fill the dean’s position and is advertising it internally. And two centers that faced being cut — the Fiscal Research Center and the Georgia Health Policy Center — now seem to be off the chopping block.

So where does that leave the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies?

Morale has been damaged. The relatively new dean is now returning to teaching. It’s in temporary limbo because there is no dean.

And most importantly questions exist over whether GSU’s top administrators — President Mark Becker and Provost Risa Palm — truly value and appreciate what the school has to offer the university, Atlanta, the region, the state, the nation and even the world.

On Friday, March 12, members of the school’s faculty talked about how they can bolster the school’s mission and standing in the days ahead.

Here is my humble recommendation — restore the urban focus of the school as a centerpiece of its educational and community mission.

I do have a personal stake in this story — I received my Master’s degree in urban studies from GSU’s College of Urban Life in 1980.

In the mid 1970s, Georgia State was relishing its geographic and symbolic role as an urban institution. It was one of six national institutions to receive federal funding to create an urban life observatory.

With federal support, GSU developed the Urban Life building and created a college with an excellent interdisciplinary urban curriculum. All students in the college took core courses, such as Urban History and Urban Economics. The college provided a wonderful overview of how cities have evolved, their challenges and possible solutions.

I was living in Boston working as an administrative assistant with a journalism degree when I became aware of GSU’s College of Urban Life. It seemed like a perfect way for me to come back home and get a graduate degree in a critically important field.

The college also had the Center for Urban Research and Service, which was tracking all sorts of trends, including the “Back to the City Movement.”
Students attending the college were specializing in all sorts of professions, including public administration, criminal justice, social work, urban planning and public policy.

Because I was so intrigued with urban transportation issues, I flirted with the idea of becoming an urban planner working on alternative modes of travel.

As a graduate assistant, I was the first bicycle planner for the city of Atlanta, when one of my main efforts was trying to get the Department of Public Works to install bicycle safe sewer grates. We also planned bicycle routes to feed into the MARTA rail system, which was under construction.

We knew MARTA would carry Atlanta into the future, but we didn’t know that our region and state would not support its expansion to the rest of the metro area.

After I graduated, I kept up to date with my college. Over the years, I watched with dismay as the urban component seemed to keep playing a diminishing role as the college went through its various incarnations. (Ironically, much of that decline occurred when Carl Patton, an urban planner, was GSU’s president).

Harvey Newman, one of my professors back in the late 1970s who is now chair of the school’s Department of Public Management and Policy, called me last summer to introduce me to his new dean — Hildreth. The three of us had lunch at the Commerce Club, and I expressed my concern about the school’s declining urban focus.

Hildreth asked if I would prepare a “white paper” to state how urban studies could become a more significant part of the curriculum. As a new dean, he said he was open to all ideas.

As I see it, Georgia State is an urban university. It is strategically positioned near seats of government for the city, county and state. It also is next to the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the top philanthropic institutions in the state.

GSU easily could excel in creating a Center of Urban and Regional Affairs. Such a center, housed in the Andrew Young School, could be an interdisciplinary program with links to the colleges on campus, such as the business school, the law school and Arts and Sciences.

Cities are fascinating organisms that thrive when government, business, the media, universities, philanthropic foundations, non-profits and civic institutions work together to improve their communities.

The world is becoming more urban. More than ever, we need to understand how we can create healthy, sustainable cities. Georgia State’s Andrew Young School, named after our former mayor, is a perfectly positioned to play that role.

So to President Becker and to Provost Palm — let’s turn this unfortunate situation into something good for Georgia State, the Atlanta region and Georgia.

Let’s refocus GSU into becoming true urban institution.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

3 replies
  1. KW says:

    GSU currently has an urban think tank in operation. It is called the Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth, Urban Fellows Program. It is a collaboration between the College of Law, The Robinson School of Business, and the School of Public Policy. Go here,, for more information.Report

  2. Rebecca says:

    Maria, I didn’t know you were the city’s first bicycle planner! That’s a great tidbit. Funny thing – I’m still working on getting parallel grates switched out (many were replaced during sewer work in the wrong direction) and trying to get bike lanes on arterials connecting to MARTA stations…Report

  3. jay says:

    it is more than a little ironic (and very pitiful) that a university that has so impacted a downtown (positively) does not place a high enough value on studying, and teaching about, the very environment in which it exists. this leads me to believe that the benefits which have resulted are but serendipity. One can only imagine the impact that could have been had they thoroughly studied it!Report


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