Mon, July 15, 2024

The new chapter begins at Augusta University

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of Dana Lynn McIntyre’s one-on-one interview with the new president of Augusta University, Dr. Russell Keen. Its focus is on where he sees AU today and what he sees as future successes and challenges.

The first full week of new leadership at Augusta University is underway. Dr. Russell Keen stepped into the role as president effective July 1st. He succeeds Dr. Brooks Keel, who retired after serving as president for nine years.

Like Keel, Keen is an Augusta area native. After graduating from Lakeside High School, he attended Georgia Southern University where he received his bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s degree in higher education administration. He earned a doctor of higher education degree from the University of Georgia.

“It is full circle, and I’ve got great memories of growing up here,” he told ABD. “I’m blessed to still run into my first-grade teacher and some of my high school teachers. It’s just a humbling experience for me personally, but also one that I think speaks to our educational system here. Dr. Keel had his K through 12 in Richmond County. I had mine in Columbia County. And we are incredibly blessed by the individuals who devote themselves to teaching and the K-12 environment.”

Keen worked at Georgia Southern from 2001 until 2015, ending his tenure as vice president for external affairs. It also joined him with Keel, who would become his colleague and mentor. When Keel accepted the president’s position at Augusta University, Keen joined him, serving as Executive Vice President and Keel’s Chief of Staff.

He said the university has seen major changes in the past ten years and is still working through a great deal of transition.

“We are really still getting this consolidation cemented in a way that this cross collaboration between what was traditionally liberal arts in Summerville and the Health Sciences here,” he said. “And it’s very important we continue to nurture that. The health system with WellStar and WellStar MCG Health is really just in the first year of making all of that work and really capitalizing on how we as a university, can collaborate with our health system to make some really special things happen for our community, but also for our entire state.”

Keen said, when he arrived in 2015, roughly 74% of the student body came from the CSRA. Now, roughly 50% are local, and much of the other 50% is from metro Atlanta. Fall enrollment in 2023 was 10,564, a number once thought to be unreachable.

That growth coupled with increased staff and researchers create a challenge for the university’s physical plant. It was a conversation he had with students, staff, researchers, and community leaders.

“Our only limiting factor is space and so having these conversations with our researchers, but also with those individuals in our community who can help us step up and from a philanthropic standpoint, help us demonstrate that we’re serious about growing research and infrastructure at this institution,” he explained. “That will help us then go to the state and the federal and to corporate and foundation partners to give back and give us the funds that we need to create a research building.”

Keen said a new research building will cost about $160 million and they need to raise about $30 million of that from private donors. Additionally, the Sanders Research and Education Building on Laney-Walker Boulevard needs renovations.

He said the regional campuses in Brunswick, Albany, Rome, and Savannah are helpful. However, researchers that need wet labs, where chemicals and different types of biological materials are handled, prefer to be close to the Health Sciences campus.

“Then, you have what they call dry lab research, which is more like augmented intelligence, artificial intelligence, bioinformatics, and they don’t necessarily have to be as close to the clinical environment,” said Keen. “So, we can be creative, where we hire and place those researchers because they don’t necessarily have to be so close to the clinical environment. I think it’s a matter of just being really good stewards of what we have, being strategic about what we can renovate and replace and grow.”

Keen said a key factor is for the university to be good stewards of the current physical plant. Even something as simple as how existing spaces and classrooms are currently utilized.

“When I go to the Chancellor and to the Board of Regents, who are absolutely behind our success and pulling for us, I need to be able to demonstrate to them that we’ve been good stewards of what we have. I need to be able to do that to philanthropists who are looking to invest, to show them not only this is your passion, this is your neighbor. Let me show you what we’ve done with what we’ve got right now, and I think that’s going to make a difference.”

Karen Keen (center), looks on as businessman, Nick Evans greets her husband, new AU President, Dr. Russell Keen. (Photo by Dana Lynn McIntyre)

Keen believes one of the university’s strengths is the sense of community it shares with the Augusta area, demonstrated by the Save the A campaign spearheaded by local businessman, Nick Evans. Another factor is the strong advocacy by Jim Hull, the member of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia representing the Augusta area.

Asked to choose the one achievement he hopes to accomplish and give to the person who succeeds him as president, Keen thought for a long moment.

“If there’s one thing I’m giving them, they would have the keys to arguably the best university in America,” he said. “The sky’s the limit, but it starts with the right people around the table, and it starts with getting folks to buy into something that’s greater than themselves. And I think we can do that.”

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