THE INSIDE STORY
Andrew Gumbel’s prize-winning book “Won’t Lose This Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System” recounts Georgia State’s highly successful efforts to level the playing field for students from all backgrounds.
Interview by William Inman (M.H.P. ’16)
When he was first approached to write a book about Georgia State’s groundbreaking work in student success, British-born journalist Andrew Gumbel had never set foot in Atlanta. And while he knew that American higher education was plagued by equity gaps, he didn’t know a whole lot about the Southern, urban school that was leveraging its own dataset to exponentially raise graduation rates and improve the lives of thousands.
It didn’t take him long, though, to appreciate the incredible sea change that was still unfolding as he first arrived on campus in 2018. His mandate was to cast a fresh pair of eyes on the story of Georgia State’s emergence as a national leader in student success, and it wasn’t long before he had administrators, faculty members, students, advisers, politicians, outside experts and other key players recounting their part in the transformation — in many cases for the first time.
“I realized that this university and the work it was doing had grabbed me by the guts and was not going to let go,” Gumbel said. “I could see the revolution in student advising as this extraordinary marriage of data analysis and lives being transformed in real time — the essence, to me, of Georgia State’s achievement.”
Below, he talks about the book, how it came together and how people have reacted to it.
How did you get involved with this book project?
It was a straight-up job for hire, to start with. The love came a bit later. The pitch wasn’t quite, “There’s some university in Georgia that wants you to write a book saying how great it is,” but I did need to be talked into it. Even after I realized that Georgia State had been doing some pretty special, groundbreaking work, I worried that I’d end up in an impenetrable world of acronyms and charts and jargon. So, I wrote a pitch to Mark Becker, then the university president, and Timothy Renick, then the senior vice president for student success, saying this needed to be a dramatic story about people — both those who had figured out how to do things differently and those whose lives were transformed as a result.
The book couldn’t just dwell on Georgia State’s results. It had to reveal the story behind the results and bring that story vividly to life.
I’m sure many institutions would have been very nervous at the prospect of an outsider poking about for months on end, but Becker and Renick were enthusiastic — as was the Kresge Foundation, which spearheaded the project. It was the first indication I had that people at Georgia State are not like other university administrators.
What was your perception of American higher education, and of Georgia State, when you started?
I’ll admit I’d never heard of Georgia State, and my experience of American higher education was limited because I was born and schooled in Britain. I knew from my experience as a classroom volunteer working with lower-income high school students in Los Angeles that far too many young people are denied an opportunity to fulfill their potential and maybe are never encouraged to recognize and nurture that potential in the first place. Without knowing more, though, I also bought into the conventional wisdom that there wasn’t too much to be done about that. The way I saw it, a small number of the brightest and most determined would break through the daunting socioeconomic boundary lines, but the rest would find the challenges — the class barriers, the unfortunate persistence of racial disparities and, of course, the cost of higher education — too great to overcome. Obviously, since writing the book, I’ve changed my mind about all that. And it’s rarely been more exciting and exhilarating to discover how wrong I was.
When did you start feeling confident that you were finding the story you were looking for?
Conceptually, it didn’t take long at all. Mark Becker opened up immediately and encouraged everyone I contacted to be similarly forthcoming — an absolute gift for a writer. Tim Renick is, at heart, a great teacher, and the overview he started to give me in our very first meeting proved extraordinarily durable — something I fully appreciated only as I went back to my notes after talking to dozens of other people and realized he had long since given me the frame to interpret much of what they had to say.
Not everyone revealed their personality right away. That came over time, as we developed our relationships. But I knew after my first trip that everyone on Tim’s team and in other key parts of the university administration had a personality. It sounds silly to say now, but at the time that came as a huge relief.
Emotionally, I found the connection a few months in when I met Crystal Mitchell and Cary Claiborne on the Decatur Campus and started hearing some of the student stories that would later become the heart and soul of the book. There was a moment when Crystal had tears in her eyes, and I had tears in my eyes, and I knew this university and all it was doing had captured my heart.
Who are some of the most compelling people you interviewed?
That’s like asking a parent to name a favorite child. And there were a lot of children, a lot of people I came to feel strongly about. There was almost nobody I talked to I didn’t connect to in a meaningful way. The stories that moved me most were usually told by people from the toughest backgrounds, but I appreciated many, many others for their insights, their humor, their intellectual chops and, above all, their capacity for empathy, which you’d hope would be the driving force in any educational setting but too often, on other campuses, gets eclipsed by other things.
The book isn’t some wonky analysis. It’s a good read because there are stories, and there are some warts, too. What kind of reception has the book had?
Overwhelmingly positive. I wanted people to see this not just as a higher-education story but as a quintessentially American story, one that provides more hope for the future than a lot of the news headlines we read these days. And that’s how a lot of readers have reacted to it. I’ve also been contacted by a wide array of people — from nonprofit executives to megachurch pastors — who tell me the book is a great primer on how to run a successful organization of any kind. I’m not sure I intended it that way but managing change with the aim of making the world a better place is certainly an important part of Georgia State’s legacy. I’m glad that theme came through so clearly.
Photo by Robert Gallagher