It's been almost a year since Dr. Brooks Keel assumed his role as Georgia Southern University's 12th president on Jan. 1, 2010. He's had the tough task of slashing a budget three months into the job, but also the joy of Georgia's Board of Regents approving a full engineering program for the university.
All in all, he said, "it's been a year, frankly, of no surprises."
"...In all sincerity, one of the biggest surprises I've had since coming here is that there really haven't been that many surprises," Keel said. "When a new president takes over a university like this you're always looking for so what did they not tell me when I interviewed. Where are the skeletons here? Where are the dirty spots swept under the carpet? I've discovered there's nothing like that at all. Quite the opposite. Everything that I looked at when I applied for this position has proven true. This university is in fantastic shape. Primarily (due) to the previous administration here."
Looking back over his first year leading GSU, Keel did point to the Regents approval in November of expanding Georgia Southern's engineering program to offer baccalaureate degrees as the highlight.
"Georgia Southern has been working toward this literally for over 20 years now," Keel said. "We've been offering engineering technology degrees for about 30 years. Electrical, mechanical and civil engineering. So we have been positioning ourselves to be able to offer full-fledged engineering degrees in these programs for quite some time now.
"Engineering is such a huge accomplishment for us. It's going to draw a spotlight on Georgia Southern like nothing else could. It doesn't matter what degree your kid may want to seek, for a parent out there that's trying to decide what university to send their child to, for a high school kid trying to decide what university to go to, they're going to look at Georgia Southern differently. They're going to say, ‘Wow, they have an engineering program.' It sets us apart from so many of the other universities not only in this state but in the region. All those Georgia kids that are going to Clemson and Auburn and South Carolina and other schools, they are going to take a look at Georgia Southern. We're going to keep some of those kids in Georgia. And I think it's done so much for the reputation of this university. That will pay off for years to come."
Establishing a school
With the approval, Keel sees a quick turnaround in getting the ball rolling to establish a school of engineering.
"We'll start enrolling freshman students into the engineering program in the fall of 2011," he said. "We already have some students enrolled in the engineering technology program. We want to do everything we can to ensure those students who want to get degrees can get them in that area. There very well may be some students who want to convert over into engineering ... We could potentially start graduating our first class of engineers two years from now.
"We'll probably enroll somewhere around 1,300, 1,400 total once we get the engineering program fully operational. Our goal is to graduate somewhere between 250 and 300 full engineers a year. We should easily be able to do that. I think there's room for expansion on that, too."
Also, Georgia Southern has offered the Regents Engineering Transfer Program and Georgia Tech Regional Engineering Program for nearly 20 years. The program allows students who successfully complete freshman and sophomore level university core and engineering science courses the opportunity to transfer to Georgia Tech to complete their engineering studies.
"I don't anticipate that the arrangement will go away," Keel said. "I think it will change the nature of that arrangement. Certainly we will not offer degrees for all the opportunities for engineers. Aerospace, for example. Biomedical. I don't foresee doing that in the foreseeable future. So I think there's tremendous opportunities to further our relationship with Georgia Tech and for those students who want to pursue those sort of engineering degrees we will not offer, I think we can have a relationship with Tech much like we do now where students can come here for their first two years and transfer to Georgia Tech in those areas.
"I also think we have tremendous opportunities with Georgia Tech at the graduate level. Our plans now are for undergraduate degrees. We don't plan to move to the graduate level in the foreseeable future. Tech certainly has that. I think for those students who want to go into graduate school, we have a great relationship with Tech already and we can provide a pipeline for those students, as well."
Working with Statesboro
Another area Keel said the university wants to grow is in its relationship with the city of Statesboro, in particular, and the region, in general.
The relationship between Georgia Southern and Statesboro is absolutely critical," he said. "I think it's critical both ways. It's critical for the city's long term success to have a strong university. Without question Georgia Southern can't be a strong university without that strong relationship there. We're going to be looking at any and all ways to increase that relationship.
"Georgia Southern was responsible for $795 million of economic (impact) in this city and this region. We take that job and that role very seriously and we'll do whatever we can to try and expand that.
"What we really want to do is to find a way to get more of our students to go downtown. To improve the foot traffic, if you will, downtown. It certainly would strengthen the economy of the downtown area. It would give our students an opportunity to take part in things going on downtown."
Keel said Georgia Southern's effort to extend its presence began with opening an office in September on East Main Street, next to City Hall.
"We wanted to do two things," he said. "We wanted to establish a Georgia Southern beachhead downtown. We've done that with this office. It's very small, but it's a start. The second thing we wanted was to try to increase the economic development of the region through increasing businesses. Helping businesses get established. Helping them be successful. Having some of our business college faculty in the downtown area I think will offer the local businesses advice and suggestions. We'll have a small part of the bookstore downtown. So, if our loyal Eagle supporters want to buy t-shirts, hats, paraphernalia, we give them a place where the easily and conveniently can do that and spread the word around for us. It's a great opportunity for us. It's very small, but it's a start and we hope to expand."
Budget going forward
While budget cuts initially threatened by the Legislature in March didn't turn out to be as drastic as first feared, substantial cuts were needed and Keel thinks more cuts are on the way. But he remains hopeful.
"If I had to choose a word it would be caution," he said. "It's clearly too early to determine now what the budget will look like even four months from now ... The good news is if you compare (state revenues) the last six months with the previous year's same six months, we're headed up in the state in terms of revenue. That bodes well for what the economy looks like down the road ... I remain optimistic, always have. I think we'll see budget cuts. I don't think there's any doubt about that. I'm optimistic they won't be as bad as some think they might be. But even if we do have serious budget cuts, we're positioning ourselves now to deal with those."
Any potential further cuts, however, do worry Keel about the impact that would have on faculty, staff and students.
"The biggest concern I have is our faculty and staff here have worked so hard for so long without pay increases, without cost of living increases," he said. "The health insurance premiums have been increasing, which translates into a reduction in take-home pay. But they still after all this time continue to do outstanding jobs. But you can only push that so far and so long and our biggest challenge right now is to maintain that student-centered approach with increasing enrollment and decreasing budgets and we're going to do everything we can to do that."
Keel does not anticipate Georgia Southern's trend in growing enrollment to change in the near future.
"We should be a tad over 20,000 (students in Fall 2011)," he said. "I think probably about 20,000 for our current budget and current staff is about the sweet spot for us. There's still plenty of room to expand that if we have resources to put towards additional faculty. As I said, our biggest challenge is to maintain our student-centered approach and that really translates to having a faculty-student ratio that's small enough that our faculty can give the students the individualized attention that our students crave. That's why they come to Georgia Southern. We take great pride in providing that sort of attention to training and mentoring in their education. So if we begin to start expanding beyond 20,000 without addressing the faculty issue I'm fearful we'll lose that touch."
2011 and beyond
In looking towards 2011 and beyond, Keel said a lot is on the table, but pointed towards two areas of particular importance to Georgia Southern
"We've been approved for a completely online bachelors general studies degree," Keel said. "This was a goal of mine when I came here. I've been incredibly impressed with all our staff and faculty in that effort. This (allows) individuals across the state, and across the world, for that matter, to get a Georgia Southern degree completely online. I'm very excited about what that will do for our non-traditional students, our military and a variety of folks who can't afford to take off from their job and come to campus.
"Also, we're mounting a large capital campaign. Obviously, to move this university forward, we need scholarships, we need buildings, we need a variety of support mechanisms to make our students successful and we've got to find a way to pay for that. Fundraising is central to that."
Ending his first year, Keel said his wife Tammie Shalue and he have enjoyed living in Statesboro and becoming part of "Eagle Nation."
"I make a point of walking across campus as often as I can," he said. "Students recognize me and stop to talk. That's what it's all about. That's why we have jobs here. This university is all about the students. Always has been, always will be."