On his first day as Georgia Southern University’s president, Jaimie Hebert, PhD., said what he most wants to be remembered for is expanding the university in important ways without changing its essence. Enrollment growth above the 20,500-student plateau is a goal, he said, but as a statistician, he wouldn’t forecast a number without data in hand.
He also sounded ready to take up the pompoms from Brooks Keel, PhD., president from January 2010 until July 2015, as head cheerleader for the “Eagle Nation.” Hebert comes to Georgia Southern from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, where he was provost and vice president for academic affairs.
When you leave Georgia Southern, in however many years, what do you hope people will say you accomplished?
“I hope what people will say was that I was able to recognize the heart of this culture, expand the breadth of the institution, in a way that didn’t disturb that core, to take what we really are and expand upon it – not to change it, but to expand upon it – and to bring some national notoriety to our academic programs.
“In the same way that our athletic programs have national notoriety, I want us to be recognized as an overall institution of higher education. Dr. Keel used to say it’s the greatest university in America, and I believe it is, but I want other people saying that, not just us.”
As another part of his legacy, Hebert added, he wants the university to be a catalyst for economic development.
“I think Southeast Georgia is just ripe for economic development, and I think that a university, particularly a university like Georgia Southern, can serve as the catalyst that you really need to push that over the top.”
What have you learned already about GS and its hometown?
“I learned very quickly that the pride here is not superficial. Every (alumnus), every friend of the university that I visit with, talks about the culture, talks about how important this university has been in their life, and really talks about the people that made a difference in their life at Georgia Southern. I find this same thing in the community, a lot of people are proud of this community, and I have to tell you, growing up in a small town in Louisiana, this place already feels like home. This community is just fabulous. Statesboro is a remarkable community.”
What do you most hope to accomplish your first year?
“To continue to understand deeply the culture and the roots of the culture within those first 100 days, I think listening is one of the most important things I do at the very beginning. This is an extraordinary university, and when I look at this university in the beginning, in my research, there aren’t weaknesses, there are opportunities, and I want to make sure that we’re strategic and we’re deliberate as we move toward higher and higher echelons of success.”
How will you approach communal ambitions for expanded research, more doctoral degrees, or even the addition of a medical or other professional school?
“It’s all about balance. You know one of our primary missions at Georgia Southern is always going to be affordable access for undergraduate students. The impact that we have, particularly on first-generation students, at Georgia Southern, is phenomenal. It really is. I think one of the great services that we do for society is opening up opportunities for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to higher education … and I think having research opportunities and having doctoral opportunities enhances the academic culture of the institution, but we can’t forget that we’re enhancing that culture for undergraduates as well, and it’s all about balance. It’s really about maintaining that balance, which is what I mean by strategic and deliberate growth.”
On Dr. Keel’s watch the Eagles moved into the Football Bowl Subdivision, and he referred to sports as the university’s “front porch.” How do you see sports fitting into the university’s overall mission?
“It’s an integral part of the overall institutional culture. There’s not a doubt. It’s extremely important. It provides us with some national notoriety that we otherwise couldn’t get. Monetarily, fiscally, it would be very difficult to get … that kind of national stage …. But it gives us an opportunity to open the door and show the rest of the world, the rest of the nation, all of other excellent things that we do here, particularly our academics at Georgia Southern. So it’s an opportunity for the entire institution when our athletic programs are succeeding that way.
It doesn’t hurt to be a rally point for morale on campus, either.”
Enrollment has been hovering at about 20,500 students for several years. Is it more important to grow programs and facilities first, and is enrollment growth even a goal?
“Oh, it’s always a goal, for a couple of reasons. Number one, our ultimate mission and our obligation to the state of Georgia and the citizens of Georgia is to provide access to higher education, so enrollment growth is an indication that we’re doing a better job. … But if you look at our facilities right now and our programs now, there is capacity for additional growth.
“So we can handle enrollment growth, maintain our fabulous culture here Georgia Southern, without having to build more, without having to expand more programs. Of course on the flipside of that is, with more buildings and with more program offerings within our curriculum that enables us to grow that enrollment a little more. So again, it’s all about balance.”
From Abbeville to @pres …
Hebert, 52, originally from Abbeville, La., attended the University of Louisiana-Lafayette for his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate, all in statistics. He taught as an assistant professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., for five years before going to Sam Houston State as an assistant professor in 1995. He remained at Sam Houston 21 years, advancing through full professor, department chair and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to become, in 2011, that university’s provost.
Active on social media, Hebert sent his first tweet from @pres_hebert at 7:45 a.m. Friday. He then toured the GS campus with Jeremy Mack, a senior and political science major from Columbus, Ga., who is member of the Southern Ambassadors, a university-sponsored student volunteer group.
Editor’s note: Questions have been restated, most answers have been edited for length, and the first question and response printed here actually occurred later in the interview. A video version is posted on www.statesboroherald.com and on the Herald’s Facebook page.