College football Saturdays this fall will find Dr. Brooks Keel wearing blue and cheering for his beloved Eagles as they shoot for a second straight Sun Belt title. A perfect union, however, of a personal and professional opportunity is calling Georgia Southern University’s president to Augusta, so while his rooting heart may remain True Blue, he will be cheering from about 80 miles north of Statesboro.
The Board of Regents, which oversees Georgia’s university system, named Keel on Wednesday president of Georgia Regents University in Augusta. He starts his new position a week from Monday, officially ending his five and one half year tenure as Georgia Southern’s 12th president.
Among many accomplishments, Keel’s legacy includes strong capital growth, a blossoming engineering school, football’s move to FBS, a stable enrollment when many state universities are seeing declines and breaking down the walls between the president’s office and the student body. Keel’s accessibility and easily-approachable nature made him a highly popular figure around Georgia Southern.
“I made a conscious effort to be seen on campus,” he said. “When I go to Starbucks it’s not only because I’m addicted to Starbucks, but it’s an opportunity for me to walk across campus. The staff knows not to schedule things for me before 9 a.m. so I can do that. I intentionally have lunch in the dining commons so students can see me. So staff can see me. It gave me a chance to interact with both on a more personal level.”
Keel came to Georgia Southern in January 2010 from Louisiana State University. Under his leadership, GSU launched the Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering and Information Technology and the Institute for Interdisciplinary STEM Education. Also, the state of Georgia transferred the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center to management by Georgia Southern two years ago.
Keel became the face of the university. But when Georgia Regents University President Ricardo Azziz resigned in January to take a one-year sabbatical, the job Keel describes as ‘the opportunity of a lifetime” came open.
‘Opportunity of a lifetime’
“There are personal reasons and there are professional reasons (for accepting the Regents University presidency),” Keel said. “For me, having been born, raised and educated in Augusta. When I say educated, I mean all the way from the first grade through Ph.D. in that city, in that town. To have my parents be from that area. To have a lot of family still there. I have two older brothers still there. I’ve got a son in Augusta. Several nieces that actually work at (Regents University). It was the personal opportunity of a lifetime. And when you go into the sciences especially, or anytime you graduate with a degree out of necessity takes you away from home, you always say ‘Well wouldn’t it be nice to go back home,’ but you never really think you’re going to have that opportunity. But sometimes you do get the opportunity to go back home. So, personally, it was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
“And professionally, it’s an opportunity I would be crazy to pass up, as well. It’s one of the four research universities in the state. It’s the only public medical school. It’s the only dental school in the state. It is the biomedical research environment that I spent a vast amount of my career personally doing. I had my own (National Institute of Health) funded laboratory. I still keep tabs on what’s going on in the field of reproductive biology. I still maintain my certification as a clinical lab director. And to be back on a biomedical campus and all the outstanding things going on in bio-medical research is a tremendous opportunity for me.
“Each one of those reasons alone would be reason enough for me to seriously look at it. But when you put them all together, it truly was the offer I couldn’t refuse.”
And Keel sees “tremendous opportunities for collaboration between Georgia Southern and Regents University,” particularly in the field of biomedical engineering.
“The opportunity for Georgia Regents and Georgia Southern to work together in medicine and engineering will be there,” he said. “I’ve got a little bit of an inside track there in knowing the strengths this university has here in Statesboro and we would be foolish not to explore the opportunities to collaborate from that perspective.”
Accomplishments at GSU
In looking back at the university’s accomplishments under his leadership, Keel credited his team of vice presidents, faculty and staff for the successes.
“There are some incredible things that we have accomplished together in five and a half years,” Keel said. “Getting the ability to offer a bachelor’s degree in engineering, to me, was one of the most significant things to happen to this university since attaining university status.
“The attention it drew to Georgia Southern. The prominence it instantly gave us. The recognition it gave us in the state and the region and the opportunity to really take that and capitalize on it to create unbelievable opportunities now and in the future with manufacturing engineering coming on board, for example.”
Also, working successfully with Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature in Atlanta played a key role in expanding the campus
“Right here in Statesboro and Bulloch County, Georgia Southern has the best legislative delegation in the entire state,” Keel said. “And because of that, we brought in over $95 million of capital outlay programs. The new biology building. The health center. The shooting sports education center. The military sciences building and now the academic classroom building. And to get all that done in five and a half years I think is more than two-thirds of the activity in the past 10 or 15 years. We’ve accomplished a heck of a lot and it has been accomplished together.”
The Board of Regents named Dr. Jean Bartels, provost and president for academic affairs under Keel, interim president for Georgia Southern while a national search for GSU’s 13th president is undertaken in the coming months. Bartels is Georgia Southern’s first woman president, interim or otherwise.
“I am delighted that Dr. Bartels was appointed the interim president,” Keel said. “I was secretly hoping that she would be. She’s been the No. 2 here all along and because of that I can leave with great confidence and great pride that what we’ve accomplished together will not skip a beat. It’s going to continue on this trajectory and even accomplish greater things.”
‘The hardest thing’
The tragic accident on Interstate 16 in April that claimed the lives of five university nursing students, Keel said was not only the hardest professional event he has had to deal with, but personally, too.
Nearly three months after the accident, Keel was overcome with emotion for several minutes Friday when recalling the circumstance of that horrific day.
“Without question the hardest thing that the university has faced in a long time,” Keel said. “Still one of the hardest things anyone of us has faced. It is without question one of the most difficult things me and (my wife) Tammie (Shalue) have had to face. It’s also been one of the most amazing things we’ve seen. That out of such tragedy so much love and affection could come. This community came together in ways I don’t think anybody could have predicted. It speaks to the heart of this place. It speaks to what a family this place is and how even in the worst of times, this university comes together.”
Interaction with students
And for Keel, everything comes back to the students. He said he will treasure his interaction with Georgia Southern students since arriving on campus in 2010.
“For students, the No. 1 thing they want to do is get a selfie with the president,” he said. “In fact I just had two students just show up and I told my staff if students come who want to have selfies, just interrupt me.
“To have that sort of recognition with your students has got to be the most satisfaction I’ve got from this job. Because when it really comes down to it, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got football. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got engineering. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got all these fantastic buildings. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a great staff. If you don’t have people who care about students, you lose sight of why we’re here. And that’s what all this stuff is about. It’s about students.”
And, as for what Keel will carry in his heart about Georgia Southern to Augusta, he again points to students.
“When you walk on this campus, there is a feeling,” Keel said. “It’s magic. I wish I could be more scientific about it. But that’s what it is. And that magic feeling comes from 107 years, 108 years now, of people working here that care about students. And that’s what makes this place special. And that’s what I’m going to miss most.”