Presiding over his first meeting as the new chair of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents this month will be Ben Tarbutton III, a 1994 management graduate from Georgia Tech. After being an outspoken critic of last year’s contentious effort by the University of Georgia and Georgia Southern University to add engineering programs, Tarbutton now seeks to unify the board under new Chancellor Hank Huckaby. Tarbutton spoke to the Alumni Magazine about the challenges ahead, his experiences at Tech and his hopes for the future of the Institute.
Your family has been in Sandersville, Ga., for generations and long has played a leading role in civic life there. What is it like, being part of that legacy?
My grandfather was an entrepreneur, and one of the things that certainly affected my life was his opportunity to own and operate the Sandersville Railroad. It was founded in 1893 by a group of local businessmen who later offered my grandfather the chance to manage it and then to own it. It’s been in our family since 1916.
Just being reared in small-town Georgia, you do have an appreciation for that lifestyle. Our roots run real deep in Washington County. I was raised to value a good education, a good work ethic and to be involved in the community and to give back.
Our railroad has really grown up with the kaolin industry. The primary volume has been for the coating of paper, going into catalogs and magazines. It was commercialized in the late ’20s and ’30s, and the volume increased in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s been a big part of my life. We’re also in the trucking business. Our sister company is B-H Transfer. It’s been a long affiliation with the Tarbutton family.
What memories do you have of the railroad from your childhood?
I’d go down to my father’s office and kind of grew up, not working as a child, but certainly near it. My home, we could see the train every day going to and from one of the major plants. That’s a real fond memory, just seeing the train. Working summers, being out of school, holidays, working at the railroad. When I graduated from Tech in 1994, I started work Sept. 1 and have been there 17 years.
Your family has a long legacy with Emory University. How did you end up at Georgia Tech?
Everyone in my immediate family has gone to Emory for undergrad or postsecondary work, except for me. Growing up, I was coming to Georgia and Georgia Tech games. I was heavily influenced by my grandfather, Olney Rankin [a 1927 commerce graduate], and my uncle, Vance Rankin [a 1960 industrial management graduate]. My grandfather was a staunch Tech proponent.
When I was in high school, I wanted to go to a great school and at a university that offered it all, a quality of life that included athletics. Georgia Tech then and still is a school that offers it all. It’s hard to beat it, across the country.
So your family doesn’t consider you a black sheep?
There were references to that over the years. I just really wanted to come to Georgia Tech.
Did the campus experience live up to your expectations?
My father said, being in the business world, he had always been impressed with the number of successful businessmen across Georgia who had gone to Georgia Tech. When I came to campus, I was impressed by the caliber of people. They’re going to be out there designing things and making things and building things. I wanted to be part of that student body that was going to go out and shape the world.
What are your favorite memories from school?
It kind of started off with a bang. My first fall was the national championship team led by Bobby Ross. That was a magical fall.
I was in a fraternity and made a lot of lifelong friends. Took a lot of classes from Dr. Phil Adler. He was very impactful. He garnered a lot of respect from his students, because he was tough on us. It wasn’t easy going to his class. You had to be as ready as you could be because of the Socratic method. You were on the spot.
Did you know you were going into the railroad after Tech?
It wasn’t set in stone, but that’s something that I wanted to do. My parents never pushed anything on me. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities working for the railroad. … We do everything the major railroads do. We own and maintain our own infrastructure. We own our own cars. We do our own billing and customer service. So that’s the track I was headed on.
What is it like working with family?
Dealing with a family business has nuances, but if you’re guided by what’s best for the company the answers become pretty self-evident. We’re no different from anyone else. You have to keep adding customers. The last four or five years have been challenging, so we’re active on the economic development front.
In my opinion, the American dream starts with a job. It’s all linked. I was president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. That’s part of your service in a small town, to make sure the infrastructure is in place to create a wonderful environment for business to flourish.
So the Tarbuttons wouldn’t make a good reality TV show?
We’re pretty “three yards and a cloud of dust.” There’s no glitz and glam, but if you want, you can come see us working.
How did the Board of Regents appointment come about?
I was contacted by the governor’s office in December of 2005. I met with Gov. Perdue then. We talked about the position. There were no promises made. He shared some of his thoughts. I guess I must have answered his questions correctly to where he called in January  to ask me to serve a seven-year term. There are 18 regents from each Congressional District and five at large. I have the 12th Congressional District.
I’ve been very fortunate that many of the past chairs have given me opportunities to lead. I’ve tracked up through the major committees. I was chairman of academic affairs and chairman of real estate and facilities. And most recently, I was chairman of finance and business operations, which handles all the funding. We have a roughly $7 billion budget. About $1.7 billion is state appropriations. The rest is tuition, auxiliaries.
It’s a big operation. We are a big business for the state of Georgia. There was a recent report that the [university] system makes a $12.7 billion economic impact on the state. We’re positively impacting the present, but we’re creating the future leaders and shaping the future of Georgia through higher education. When I go to bed at night that’s what makes me sleep well. We’ve pushed the system forward. The Georgia system is recognized nationally as a top-flight system.
During last year’s debate over the engineering expansion, you were a prominent critic. Were you concerned about it appearing that you opposed it because you’re a Georgia Tech graduate?
I know I’m a Tech guy saying this, but in my five-and-a-half years on the board, we’ve never been accused of being too quick to act. We’ve always been methodical on big items. On medical expansion, we hired a consultant, we considered it and we embraced it. The engineering effort, we hadn’t done any of that. Just because a school writes a position paper, we can’t substitute that for independent regent effort.
It was a tough time to be involved. There were a lot of people who felt strongly on both sides. Any time you have a 9-8 vote, that’s really tough on a board and takes a long time to get over.
Have things healed?
We’ve got to move past it. The vote has come and gone. We’ve got so much going on. We have budget challenges. We have a new chancellor. That’s where the focus of the board needs to be. I’m coming in as chair and I don’t plan on bringing up any divisive issues. This board has enough to say grace over, protecting the system and enhancing what we have.
How is your position changing?
You’re allowed more freedom, more latitude. The chairman’s role is one of facilitation. You need to lead the system, but at the same time we have an 18-person board. That board is the entity that needs to make the decision, not me. I’m very cognizant of my role. The strength I bring is I have a good relationship with all of the regents.
We’re going to have issues we don’t have 100 percent consensus on. But we’re going to allow people to voice their opinions, and then the will of the board will carry the day.
The board has had some major changes. How will that affect things?
It’s going to be time consuming. It’s going to be challenging. But I’m looking forward to working with Chancellor Huckaby. I think he brings a skill set that’s unmatched in recent years. The relationships that he has, day one with the legislature, knowing people throughout the state, is going to be such a benefit for us. We’re really going to utilize him to make sure we take full advantage of the people he knows and his credibility.
You have a year and a half left. What are your big goals?
The two things that are front and center are to ensure that Chancellor Huckaby gets off to a fast start. We’ve got a lot of challenges out there, and wrapped up in that is the budget. At my first meeting as chair in August we’re going to be approving our budget. That’s a big deal. It includes our bond package. State revenues are getting better, so we’re going to work hard to get full formula funding for our schools.
Our schools have done more with less. We’ve been holding steady while we’ve been adding more students. It’s been a tough period. No state employee has had a pay increase in four years. We have a lot of good people and they work through it.
Beyond that, the Fort McPherson base has immense possibilities to be a mecca for research and development and incubation of new companies and new jobs. We want to work with Gov. Deal on what he wants that to look like. But we already have so many great partnerships. The location is ideal, right by the airport. That’s a multi-year buildout, but that could really be something special for the state.
The other thing is that we have a great new president, Ricardo Azziz, at Georgia Health Sciences University. It’s more than just a medical school. They’re doing nursing, dentistry. That’s important for the state of Georgia for that school to continue to increase the number of doctors they’re producing, but also to have residency opportunities. You’re 80 percent more likely if you do a residency in a state to remain in that state. Georgia is 41 out of 50 in physicians per capita. It’s an important thing for the future of the state.
What is the future role for Georgia Tech?
Georgia Tech—this is across the board—everyone recognizes it as the crown jewel of the system. Under the leadership of President Peterson, the Georgia Institute of Technology is ripe for a truly great run into the future. It will further enhance its international status. From the undergraduate education to GTRI to the ATDC and incubation of companies, that dovetails so well with Gov. Deal’s efforts to create jobs.
Look at the recruitment of NCR Corporation. They’ve relocated and brought two manufacturing facilities. They are here in part because of Georgia Tech. Tech’s economic development impact is going to be nothing but further enhanced.
What have you thought of President Peterson’s leadership?
He is so high energy, so capable. Every alumnus, student and faculty member should support him as much as they can. He’s out there raising money, pushing the school forward. We need as a state to support Georgia Tech as much as we can. They have mission critical needs going forward that will affect not just the state of Georgia but really impact people’s lives.
I was really honored and lucky to on the board because I was able to serve on the search committee. As you go through life, you hire a lot of people. Some of them you’re not that proud of. But Bud Peterson is exactly who we thought he would be. He’s a class act, a man of integrity. I don’t think anybody’s outworking Bud Peterson.
What do you do in your rare moments of free time?
I’ve been married for 11 years. My wife, Betsy, and I have three children. We enjoy coming to Georgia Tech football games and tailgating with friends. We’re involved with our kids’ activities. I’m assistant coach on my son’s double-A baseball team. We’ve got a lot going on. It’s busy, but it’s a lot of fun, though.
I enjoy hunting and fishing, but I don’t have any time to do it. I’m not much of a golfer.
Once you roll off the board in 2013, do you have any plans?
I’m so dialed in on what’s happening over the next 18 months. Something good will happen. I’d be remiss in not thanking Gov. Perdue for the opportunity. To give a young person the kind of opportunity he gave me is something I’ll never forget.
I’ve got enough to say grace over. I doubt I’ll be looking for something to do.
How about some hunting?
I’m definitely taking some time off to do that.