Sun, June 23, 2024

Augusta University President prepares to say goodbye

Dr. Brooks Keel, President of Augusta University, is spending his final weeks leading the institution.

Keel assumed the presidency in July 2015. It marked a coming home for him. An Augusta native, he received his undergraduate degree from what was then Augusta College. He stayed to complete his graduate degree at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG).

Among his career stops, Keel was Vice Chancellor of Research and Economic Development at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He followed that with a move to Statesboro to become President of Georgia Southern University.

When he stepped into the presidency, the university was experiencing challenging times.

Between 2010 and 2015, the university experienced annual declines in student enrollment. Decreases ranged from 1.4% to 5.9% for a yearly average decline of 3.2% between 2010 and 2015.

Improvements began shortly after he arrived. Enrollment increases have averaged about 3% between 2015 and the 2023-2024 school year. A highlight came when fall enrollment broke through what had been seen as a glass ceiling with 10,546 new students enrolling.

Keel also knew he was returning home to Augusta amid a controversy.

“I had heard that folks in the community were a bit upset, probably an underestimate to say a bit upset, about the name change,” he told ABD.

In 2011, MCG’s name, which had been used since the mid-1880’s, was changed to Georgia Health Sciences University (GHSU). Soon after, GHSU and then-Augusta State University merged. The name was changed to Georgia Regents University, angering residents and alumni who launched a “Save The A” campaign led by Nick Evans, a local businessman and member of the Alumni Association.

“I don’t even think folks like Nick Evans, who I have such a great admiration and love for, truly understood how many folks he represented by being the sort of the mouthpiece for the entire community in that way,” said Keel. “One of the first meetings I had was with two very prominent individuals in the community about that very issue. So, I knew it was an issue. What I didn’t, to be honest, fully appreciate was how deeply seated and rooted that whole issue was. To this very day, I get stopped in the grocery store or at Home Depot or Lowe’s or wherever I am. People, just common folks, will come up to me and say, ‘I just want to thank you for bringing the A back or changing the name or instilling pride,’ all related around getting the name to change.”

Keel credited the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (USG) with hearing the discontent and choosing a name to reflect the community support for the university.

“Much to their credit, took a lot of courage for them to go back on themselves and change that name. But they voted unanimously to change it in September,” Keel explained. “It did a couple of things for us as an institution. First, again, it satisfies some real deep-seated anger, for lack of a better word, within the entire community about the choice of the name. But it also gave us a chance to completely rebrand the university and to unify the brand of the university in very creative ways.”

Those years also saw a major change coming to the Augusta region.

The U.S. Army announced plans to relocate the Cyber Command headquarters to Fort Eisenhower, joining the Cyber Center of Excellence. The moves brought thousands of new residents to the Augusta area.

It also opened the demand for skilled personnel to fill job openings.

“It’s the government contractors in the industry and businesses that support that cyber command that was going to be coming to Augusta. If we weren’t ready for it, it’s going to go somewhere else,” Keel recalled.

Georgia rose to the challenge by investing $100 million to build the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Facility. The two buildings off 12th Street, with 320,000 square feet of space, brought together business, industry, government, and academia.

“It’s like Disneyland for cybersecurity,” chuckled Keel. “You’ve got soldiers walking around in fatigues, Fortune 500 business executives there. You got us and you got Augusta Tech. The only facility I’m aware of where you have TCSG (Technical College System of Georgia) and USG actually in the same facility, creating a seamless pipeline for students.”

AU has also increased the number of courses offered geared toward training the cyber specialists needed across multiple disciplines, including cybersecurity and the need for ever-growing data processing demands. While the university has added classes with an engineering component, Keel doesn’t anticipate mechanical or chemical engineering courses in the future, but can foresee electrical engineering and other fields relating to computer science.

As his days in the president’s office wind down, ABD asked Keel to look back over his tenure and what one accomplishment he is most proud of.

“The thing that has really brought this campus together is a singular focus on our students and our patients. And primarily, in terms of enrollment. We have had year over year increases in enrollments,” he said, adding Fall 2024 looks like it will follow that track.”

“So, we see no end in sight, which is a great thing. It’s also a scary thing, because you have to keep the things that all the students need. You got to have enough professors to provide the classes, dining facilities, residence halls, those sorts of things. But the campus has really rallied behind the 16 by 30. Getting 16,000 students by the year 2030.”

What Keel identified as a personal disappointment is a familiar regret. Time.

“Personally, I didn’t get enough time. I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to with students, especially the undergraduate students,” he said. “So, if I had to leave with any anything I would change I would have carved out more time to make sure I could spend time on this campus with young students.”

The search for Keel’s successor is underway (www.augusta.edu/president/search.php) and he had words of advice for the next person in his chair.

“Don’t mess it up,” he said with a hearty laugh. “We’re on a trajectory now that takes advantage of this great strength two legacy institutions bring to the table. We’re still only 13-14 years old. What I think is going to be exciting is for a president that comes in that understands that history, understands the culture we have here, understands the stuff that we went through, to not repeat history, but to take advantage. We built a great foundation here. Now, it’s time for somebody to come in and be able to take that foundation and build on it and take us to the next level.”

Keel and his wife, Dr. Tammie Schalue, will move to Florida for their next chapter. He said they leave with gratitude for the Augusta community.

“Thank you for taking me back in and thank you for just the unwavering support that you have given this institution. And for embracing a wayward son to finally come home.”

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