During the past few years, I have written often about leadership. In most of those columns, I typically highlighted characteristics that were found in strong leaders. While I still ascribe to the belief that all good leaders have most of those characteristics, such as accountability, empathy, integrity, authenticity, and many others, sometimes, a leader is at his or her best when a leadership situation brings out his or her best traits.
Fortunately, there are times when the right person arrives at the right time, and such was the case when Dr. Brooks Keel took the helm of Augusta University. In recognition of Dr. Keel’s announcing this past Friday that he will be retiring during the summer of 2024, I would like to highlight how Dr. Keel was the right person for the right time at Augusta University.
Dr. Keel’s leadership ability can be encapsulated in how he has handled three important aspects of the life of Augusta University. In each of these aspects, he handled the situations he faced with three key important characteristics of a strong leader: humility, collaboration, and the willingness to do hard work. By applying these important attributes, Dr. Keel was able to successfully navigate the consolidation that resulted in Augusta University, lead the AU Health System, and work well with the University System of Georgia and the Georgia Legislature, to position AU for future success.
In January 2012, the University System of Georgia (USG) announced that the Georgia Health Sciences University (GHSU) would consolidate with Augusta State University (ASU) into a single institution under the name of Georgia Regents University (GRU) in 2013. University consolidations, by their very nature, are messy and difficult, even under the best situations. One of the two institutions inevitably feels like it has been “taken over” and each of the institutions loses some of its long-standing individual identity. When I was at Kennesaw State, we consolidated with Southern Polytechnic State University, under near-optimum conditions in which the institutions were of similar stature and culture, and it was still a little bit of a bumpy ride. At “GRU,” the institutions were extremely different. While GHSU was a more highly selective, research-focused institution, ASU had great access and was more teaching-focused. While both were very good at their individual missions, bringing them together, along with their divergent cultures, was a significant challenge. While I was not here at the time, I do understand that both the institution’s new name and president were not very popular.
So, when Dr. Keel arrived at AU in the summer of 2015, he was faced with the challenge of unifying the consolidated institution. While his background as an alumnus of both of the two legacy institutions and a name change in the works from GRU to AU were important advantages his predecessor did not have, he went to work immediately to overcome the challenges of consolidation. He worked hard and closely with the various constituencies of the institution, including faculty, staff, administration, students, community, and foundations to bring them all together. It was not done with a lot of fanfare, but rather with a collaborative mindset and empathy for all involved. I can say that now, a little more than eight years later, most of the remnants of consolidation are gone. While that may seem like a long time, it took a Herculean effort to bring those disparate institutions and cultures together.
Dr. Keel came to AU after a very successful stint as the President of Georgia Southern University. He was well-known on that campus for his visibility and his ability to connect with Georgia Southern’s many constituencies. I am not sure what Dr. Keel expected upon arriving at AU. I am sure he knew it would not be exactly like Georgia Southern, but I imagine he did not expect that overseeing the AU Health System would take as much time as it did during his tenure at AU. While the quality of care at the Health System is top-notch, it has been a financial challenge during much, if not all, of Dr. Keel’s time here. While I imagine Dr. Keel would agree that his skill set is much more of an asset in terms of running a university rather than a Health System, he did the hard work that was needed to be done to put AU in the position for its recent partnership with WellStar. A leader sometimes has to have the humility to take on a challenge that is less suited to his desires for the good of the organization. Dr. Keel’s ability to do so positioned the Health System for a bright future.
Finally, Dr. Keel has always been a more than willing participant to be AU’s chief advocate with the USG, Governor Brian Kemp, and the Georgia Legislature. Much of this work goes on “below the radar,” but we can thank Dr. Keel, along with his able team led by Dr. Russell Keen, for the appropriate flow of resources to AU and Augusta for such things as the Georgia Cyber Center. Dr. Keel’s ability to collaborate with AU’s stakeholders throughout the state has been a benefit for all of us associated with AU and the Augusta community as a whole.
So, here is a tip of the hat to Dr. Keel. Your contributions to AU and your ability to lead under challenging conditions have made AU’s future bright. We will send you off this coming summer with a hearty GO JAGS and thank you for being the right leader at the right time.