June 21, 2004

Emory Profile: Don Newsome


By Eric Rangus

The high-wattage guests on stage at President Jim Wagner's inauguration last spring included a former U.S. President (Jimmy Carter) Georgia's governor (Sonny Perdue), Atlanta's mayor (Shirley Franklin), a streetcar's worth of deans, professors and other academics--and an accountant from the Candler School of Theology.

"I was very surprised when I got the invitation," said that accountant, Don Newsome. "I was glad to participate ... but pretty nervous."

That participation included a trip to the microphone as well. It was the first time anyone could remember a staff employee formally taking part in an Emory presidential inauguration.

Newsome, president of the Employee Council, wasn't at the podium more than a minute, but those 60 seconds spoke volumes about how staff employees, never the most high-profile constituency on campus, recently have had their collective voices heard and affected change.

"I think that kind of visibility is important," Newsome said. "I feel that in the years I have been on the council, its profile has grown, and we have earned the respect of some constituencies who didn't really know us before."

Newsome's status as 2003-04 council president has given him--and through him, all campus staff employees--access to many high-level committees including groups reviewing the University's discriminatory harassment policy, retiree benefits and diversity.  

But rather than focus on personal accomplishments, Newsome is more comfortable pointing out the goals met by Employee Council since he took over as president last fall. As would any accountant worth his abacus, Newsome checked off each one on a legal pad as he discussed them.

Pre-employment drug testing. In January 2003, the Employee Council presented to the University Senate a motion initiated by Carter Center staff asking that the administration rethink its 2002 policy mandating that all prospective staff employees undergo drug tests before hire. The Senate forwarded the motion to the administration once and was rejected. When Wagner took office in summer 2003, the motion was resubmitted, and the new president worked with HR to adjust the policy so that only certain jobs required drug testing. "I've been on the council for five years now, and that's one of the greatest things we've seen happen," Newsome said. "It was an important and emotional issue to a lot of people, faculty, staff and students, and I felt like it brought us together."

The Presidential Town Hall. Wagner's first town hall was the council's largest ever, drawing nearly 150 people to Winship Ballroom. Wagner even has suggested that the 2004 event be extended to 90 minutes since the 60 minutes allotted for the previous year's town hall weren't enough to cover all the questions.

Servant Leadership. What began as a small effort by a handful of council members has grown into a program with its own budget featuring monthly programming with dedicated volunteers. Newsome has met individually with Wagner and Mike Mandl, executive vice president for finance and administration, about how the servant leadership idea could formally be embraced across campus.

Relay for Life. The council sponsored a team at the American Cancer Society fundraiser and collected nearly $2,000 in donations, almost twice the requirement. Several council representatives and their family members took part, and that bonding exercise was at least as important--on a personal level--as the fund raising. "To be part of that evening was pretty emotional, and it brought some of us on the council--who've known each other for years--together in an entirely different environment and made us closer friends," Newsome said. "To experience something that emotionally powerful brings people together."

One on Ones. This effort will most likely blossom next year. Organized by the council's servant leadership program and the Center for Ethics, One on Ones encourage employees to engage in meaningful conversations with others at work as a way to build community. More than 20 council members signed up for One on One training that will take place later this month.

That's quite an agenda for a council president who, when he first came to Emory, did so with a carefree attitude that was simply looking for something important enough to shift it into high gear.

"My previous employment record in one place was two or three years," Newsome said. "It never occurred to me that I might still be at Emory 15 years later or that I might consider retiring from here 20 years from now. I used to change jobs frequently."

Newsome came to Emory in 1989, working in student accounts (now the finance division). At the time, the job was one bounce in a long line of low-obligation responsibilities that started in college.

A native of Thomson, Ga., near Augusta, Newsome majored in general studies at Tulane, a broad program that allowed him to sample many disciplines without focusing on one. "I didn't want to commit, because I didn't know what I wanted to do," Newsome said.

After graduation, Newsome continued carrying that outlook. He floated around jobs in retail and with a bank before landing at Emory. Even then, he was slow to warm to the community.

"When I worked in the B. Jones Center, I hardly ever crossed the street except to go to the Administration Building, where my division was based," he said. "When I came to theology, that brought me a little further into the campus, closer to the Quad, and that's when I started feeling like the campus is home."

Newsome moved to the Candler School in 1992 as director of student financial aid. Eventually, he was promoted to accountant, where he now helps
the finance director take care of the school's books.

"I can remember dropping accounting every semester because I thought it was so dull," Newsome said, adding that his parent encouraged him to become a CPA. "I thought I would just be a Renaissance guy and read great books or travel or something. But it's funny how things work out."

Almost on a whim, Newsome volunteered to join Employee Council to fill out a co-worker's term in 1999. Soon he was asked to lead the membership subcommittee, then was chosen as president-elect in 2002, which committed him to three more years of membership. It was a decision Newsome hasn't regretted.

"Joining the council is an opportunity to get to know people from all over Emory," Newsome said. "And the council is a very diverse group of people. We represent every level of employment among staff employees. I get to meet people who have different jobs than I do, and it has definitely improved my sense of belonging to this community.

"I never thought about these things before, but there have been great benefits of being part of Employee Council, and they really made me more attached to Emory emotionally. Before, this was just a job."