President William D. Underwood has led Mercer during a period of dynamic growth and development for the University. Since his appointment as Mercer’s 18th president in 2006, enrollment has increased by over 22 percent to more than 8,600 students, with the University successively enrolling the four largest and best-credentialed freshman classes in the institution’s history in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Mercer has launched second and third medical school campuses (Savannah and Columbus), initiated a master’s-level physician assistant program and a doctoral-level physical therapy program, and added Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology, Nursing, Counseling, Educational Leadership, and Curriculum and Instruction.
Reflecting an increased emphasis on research, Mercer has recently been reclassified as a research-doctoral university by the Carnegie Foundation. Over the past decade, the number of Ph.D. students has increased tenfold, from fewer than 35 to more than 300, while the amount of annual externally funded research expenditures has grown to more than $32 million. In addition to increased levels of funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, Mercer scientists for the first time were funded as eminent cancer scientists by the Georgia Cancer Coalition, while other Mercer scientists are now receiving funding to support their research through the Georgia Research Alliance, a consortium of Georgia’s leading research universities which admitted Mercer to membership in 2014. Mercer has been named among the 50 leading institutions nationally for undergraduate research.
The University has intensified its longstanding commitment to service-learning and community engagement under President Underwood’s leadership. The College Hill Corridor initiative – which is revitalizing a two-mile area between Mercer’s Macon campus and downtown – is supported by more than $7.5 million in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and has won international awards for community redevelopment and has leveraged more than $200 million in public-private investment. The groundbreaking Mercer On Mission program, launched in 2007, has been recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative as “an exemplary approach to addressing a specific global challenge.” Mercer earned the highest federal recognition for community engagement by the Corporation for National and Community Service – the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll in 2009, 2013 (With Distinction), and 2014. In 2008, Mercer became the first university in Georgia to receive the Carnegie Foundation’s designation for “Curricular Engagement and Outreach and Partnerships,” a classification that the Foundation reaffirmed in 2014.
In 2015 Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honor society, awarded Mercer a chapter, placing the University in a cohort of the nation’s most respected academic institutions.
Under President Underwood’s leadership, Mercer resumed competition in intercollegiate football in 2013 after a 72-year hiatus. During the inaugural season, Mercer established a new NCAA Division I record for wins by a start-up program by going 10-2. Mercer was admitted to membership in one of the oldest and most prestigious intercollegiate athletic associations when it became a member of the Southern Conference in 2014.
The Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce in 2013 honored President Underwood with its Citizen of the Year Award in recognition of his service to the community, and in 2016 The Macon Telegraph named him as its Middle Georgian of the Year. Georgia Trend magazine has named him among the 100 Most Influential Georgians in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. He was named in 2014 as recipient of the Leadership Character Award by the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership and has served as a member of the NCAA Division I Presidential Advisory Group.
Prior to joining Mercer, President Underwood served at Baylor University as interim president and held the prestigious Leon Jaworski Chair at the Baylor School of Law. President Underwood is an accomplished educator and scholar. He was designated a Master Teacher at Baylor in recognition of extraordinary classroom teaching over an extended period. In 2008, the Baylor Alumni Association presented him with its W.R. White Distinguished Service Award.
An elected member of the American Law Institute and the American Bar Foundation, President Underwood was awarded the J.D. degree summa cum laude by the University of Illinois College of Law in 1985, where he graduated as class salutatorian and was an editor of the University of Illinois Law Review. Following graduation, he clerked for the Honorable Sam D. Johnson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, prior to practicing law for several years with a prominent law firm in Dallas. As an undergraduate, he attended Michigan State University and Oklahoma Baptist University, where he met his spouse, Lesli. They have two children, Jessica, who is an attorney in Dallas with the firm Baker Botts, LLP, and William, who is a Ph.D student studying the philosophy of religion at the University of Chicago.