Trustees Elect Underwood As New President


MACON – The Board of Trustees of Mercer University today unanimously elected law scholar William D. Underwood as the University’s 18th president. Underwood, who currently serves as interim president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, will take office on July 1, upon the retirement of Dr. R. Kirby Godsey, who has been the University’s chief executive officer for an unprecedented 27 years.
“The Presidential Search Committee was very deliberate in its national search for the next president of Mercer,” said David Hudson, chairman of Mercer’s Board of Trustees and chairman of the Presidential Search Committee. “Kirby Godsey has left an indelible mark on this university, and we knew the next president would have to be someone who could continue to chart a strong course for the institution. We have found that leadership in Bill Underwood.”
Hudson continued, “Bill is a strong academician, committed to excellence in both the classroom and scholarly research. He has powerful communication skills that enable him to build bridges and break down barriers between different constituents. His understanding of what it means to be a faith-based institution allows him to appreciate the importance of the University’s Baptist heritage in the context of academic and intellectual freedom. We have found the right leader for Mercer in Bill Underwood.”
Underwood would follow in the academic tradition of Mercer’s 16th president, Dr. Rufus C. Harris, who also was a nationally noted law scholar and who had served as a law school dean before beginning his 19-year presidency at the University.
Mercer President Kirby Godsey strongly supports the Board’s selection of Underwood. “I believe that Bill Underwood is among the most prominent new leaders in higher education in America,” he said. “The University is extraordinarily fortunate to have attracted him to Mercer.”
Underwood has served as interim president of Baylor since June 1, when the President Robert B. Sloan, Jr. transitioned to chancellor. Considered a “serious candidate” for Baylor’s chief executive post according to The Baptist Standard, Underwood asked the Presidential Search Committee in September to remove his name from consideration so he could continue the work he planned to do as the interim president. Baylor’s Board of Regents Chairman Will Davis expressed disappointment of Underwood’s decision at the time of his request.
During his term at the helm of Baylor, he has been credited for bringing unity back among the faculty, staff, students and alumni, which had become fractured during the previous administration over the future direction of the university. During his six-month presidency, Underwood has received a vote of affirmation as well as a standing ovation from the Faculty Senate and strong support from the alumni association.
In the Nov. 29 edition of the Baylor student newspaper, The Lariat, the editorial staff thanked Underwood for the “positive work he’s done during his presidency.” Attributing the interim president’s policy of openness and transparency for the re-building of the Baylor community, the students stated, Underwood was leaving “the university in much better shape than when he started, which is the mark of a good leader,” for Baylor’s new president, who takes office in January.
Prior to his appointment to interim president, Underwood had been a member of the faculty of the Baylor Law School since 1990. He holds The Leon Jaworski Chair in Practice and Procedure and directed the rigorous Practice Court program, which has received high marks from the Princeton Review and Litigation News. In 2004, Baylor awarded Underwood the prestigious designation of Master Teacher for his commitment to teaching and scholarly research. Only nine of Baylor’s current 800 faculty members have received the Master Teacher designation.
In 1997-1998, Underwood temporarily left the classroom to serve as Baylor’s General Counsel. He also represented the university in proceedings before the NCAA Committee on Infractions and was a member of and spokesperson for a committee that recently headed an investigation into allegations of misconduct arising out of the death of men’s basketball player Patrick Dennehy.
Underwood, the son of a Baptist preacher, earned his undergraduate degree at Oklahoma Baptist University. A summa cum laude graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law, he was a member of the Board of Editors of the University of Illinois Law Review and a member of the Order of the Coif. After law school, he completed a federal judicial clerkship with the Honorable Sam D. Johnson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Court.
He became a high-profile attorney practicing civil trial law with Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, a prominent litigation firm based in Dallas. Underwood has published extensively in the field of civil practice and procedure, including articles that have led to significant changes in federal and state procedural law. After joining the faculty of Baylor’s College of Law, he continued to successfully represent clients in a variety of civil and criminal cases.
An elected member of the American Law Institute, the American Bar Foundation, and the Texas Bar Foundation, Underwood has served as Reporter to the Civil Justice Reform Act Advisory Group to the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.
He is married to the former Lesli Pearson, a third-grade teacher at an inner-city public school in Waco, who is a past president of the Waco Chapter of Parents for Public Schools and a past board member of National Parents for Public Schools organization. They are the parents of two children, Jessica, 16, and William, 12, and members of Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco.
About Mercer University
Founded in 1833, Mercer University is a private, faith-based institution that has a national reputation of scholastic excellence, with rigorous academic programs, innovative teaching and time-honored values that embrace reason, responsibility, compassion and character. A dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate and professional education, the University has 7,300 students; 1,300 faculty and staff; 10 schools and colleges – liberal arts, law, pharmacy, medicine, business, engineering, education, theology and nursing; major campuses in Macon and Atlanta; regional academic centers in Douglas County, Henry County, Eastman and Macon; a university press that has published more than 1,100 volumes; four academic libraries; teaching hospitals in Macon and Savannah; educational partnerships with Robins Air Logistics Center in Warner Robins and the Center for Health and Learning with Piedmont Healthcare; an engineering research center in Warner Robins; a budget of more than $150 million; an endowment of more than $180 million; and a NCAA Division I athletic program. For more information, visit

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