Former Augusta State president tells new university chief fences need mending

The leader of Georgia Regents University will have to mend a lot of fences, both within the new institution and the community, if he wants to succeed, according to the woman who helmed Augusta State University for its final six months.

“At this point, GRU does not share a spirit of mutual respect and responsibility. It will never mature without it,” wrote former ASU President Shirley Strum Kenny in her final letter to Ricardo Azziz.

In the Jan. 9 letter, obtained through an open records request, Kenny provided Azziz with a wide-ranging list of observations and suggestions for “the enormous task ahead.”

Among her many points of advice for the GRU president was to engage the faculty and administration in a massive effort to “break the physical, intellectual, and emotional barriers between campuses” that once formed ASU and Georgia Health Sciences University.

“The University now has to heal, has to get over the sense of a hostile takeover, and there is no use pretending that sense does not exist,” Kenny wrote.

She said the healing will begin when the faculty and staff are encouraged to become invested in the institution’s future and believe that has an important part in creating that future.

“They have to feel this is their place. And that has by no means happened,” Kenny wrote. “It cannot happen by your telling them your perspective of the truth or even listening to their views and then opining on them. It has to happen from within. It is not about you, Ricardo, it is about them. They must feel they are important, valued contributors to a great institution.”

Azziz declined a request to discuss Kenny’s letter, but responded in a prepared statement by saying he placed a “high value on her counsel.”

“With prior experience at the helm of a nationally-recognized research university, I welcome her thoughts on how to create Georgia’s fourth comprehensive research university in Augusta. With the advice and suggestions of Dr. Kenny and other key individuals, we are working to continue to improve on areas such as undergraduate enrollment growth, student services, and enhanced university and community relations,” the statement said.

When reached at her home last week in McLean, Va., Kenny said she would not discuss how Azziz had handled the consolidation and transition, but said there are a lot of differences in the cultures of the two former institutions, and those differences have to be respected.

“I hope that as time goes by the concerns that people felt in anticipation will be relieved,” she said. “There has to be a great deal of sensitivity to these issues.”

Kenny, who served as president at New York’s Stony Brook University for 15 years, said as of now, GRU is a research university in name only. A lot has to happen to change that.

She said if the goal is create a world-class research university comparable to the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech, the obstacles are many and the road will be long.

She said lack of state funding is chief among them.

“You can’t do this without money,” she said. “You can’t pretend that something is a research university. It either is or it isn’t.”

She said as much to Azziz in her letter.

“The notion of doing this without State financial support seems, I believe is, ludicrous. Unless the goal is to acquire a shared name, make the email and computer systems work as one, and then say this is a research university, there is a massive, enormously difficult task ahead.”

Kenny said funding and support has to be focused first on the undergraduate program because that is the foundation and the core of any great university.

“I can’t think of any more difficult conceptual task than actually blending these two institutions into one, much less evolving it into a research university,” she told Azziz in the letter.

“Attracting more and better undergraduates is an important first step in making GRU a research university.”

Kenny recommended paving the way for bright students interested in becoming doctors, dentists and researchers in medical sciences.

She said there ought to be a program that provides qualified incoming freshmen with guaranteed slots in medical school, provided they continue to meet standards through graduation.

She also said GRU should capitalize on Augusta’s military community and become an institution that recruits and attracts veterans seeking higher education.

But raising standards and attracting the best and brightest to GRU means that the university will have to be more than the school that accepts all the local students. Kenny said there can be programs for a few “disadvantaged students with strong potential,” but in the long run, GRU cannot be considered a community college.

“(There) is no way GRU can hew to the old access mission and succeed in its new goals,” she wrote.

Kenny said that stance will not be popular with everyone in the community, but it must be considered seriously.

“There are many people that will not agree with me on that, but I personally believe it will impossible to have a large number of access students and be a research institution,” she said.

Despite that unpopular notion, Kenny told Azziz he would have to gain community support to build the new university.

“There will have to be considerable fence-mending in the community,” she wrote.” The whole town really loves ASU; it was their place; and it has been dissed and discarded in their eyes. The community always really matters, not just the rich people but everybody.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.