When Brooks Keel started as the new president of Georgia Southern University this month, students, faculty members, elected officials and others wondered what kind of leader he would be.
You could search for clues in his previous jobs at Louisiana State University and other institutions. You might ask the 54-year-old about his Augusta upbringing and the lessons he learned at present-day Augusta State University and the Medical College of Georgia. You could look for hints in his scientific research.
But the best answer might be found underwater.
Keel, an avid scuba diver, completed 100 dives to become a certified instructor in 2001. He enjoys diving and teaching, but there was something else driving him.
“I don’t believe in doing anything halfway,” Keel said.
Keel vowed to continue the Statesboro school’s tradition of focusing on students with small classes and close interaction with professors. He shared plans to create more opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in research while expanding graduate programs and weekend and online classes.
Samantha Young, president of the Student Government Association, said Keel was students’ favorite among the finalists. “Waiting for him to get here was like waiting for Christmas,” she said.
Students expect Keel to quickly become part of student life, she said. During Keel’s first week on the job he went to a men’s basketball game. He plans to meet with Young once a month and wants to have lunch monthly at the student union.
Young said students worry about the budget and will look to Keel to preserve the university’s traditions.
“We’re worried about class sizes growing,” said Young, a senior majoring in history. “Classes that used to have 20 students now have 30. Our enrollment is going up but budget cuts make it hard to hire extra faculty. We enjoy having close relationships with our professors. That’s why we’re here, and that isn’t something we want to lose.”
Georgia Southern, about 200 miles southeast of Atlanta, started in 1908 as the First District Agricultural & Mechanical School. In 1924 the mission shifted to focus on preparing teachers, and the university remains a top destination for those interested in teaching. Georgia Southern enrolls about 19,000 students, with about 35 percent from metro Atlanta.
The campus is a mix of historical red brick and white columned buildings and contemporary structures with sharp edges. The focal point remains Sweetheart Circle, which resembles a park with lush lawns and historic oak trees. It’s where male and female students traditionally would meet, and legend has it if you walk around the circle three times with your sweetheart, you’ll get married.
The school has grown rapidly over the past decade. Enrollment reached 19,086 in the fall — a jump of nearly 35 percent since 2000. Keel predicts Georgia Southern will enroll more than 20,000 students next fall and imagines reaching about 25,000 students by 2020.
He wants undergraduate students to have more opportunities to participate in research or creative works, such as writing and performing a music composition. The goal, Keel said, is to create additional ways for students to gain knowledge.
Keel was introduced to research as an undergraduate by his academic adviser, John Black, who is now president of East Georgia College. Black involved Keel in reproductive endocrinology research.
“He has done so much wonderful research and maintained it over the years,” Black said. “He is an excellent scholar and I think students will find his message about research inspirational.”
Junior Charles Minshew said students hope Keel will provide them with more opportunities. Minshew, editor in chief of the student newspaper, said he isn’t sure whether students want to participate in research.
“It’ll make us more prepared for graduate school and make us more competitive for the work force,” Minshew said. “But students also want more resources and more professors.”
Keel said he would probably hold off on hiring until the university makes it through the next budget cycle.
Michael Moore, moderator of Georgia Southern’s faculty senate, said Keel will be watched to see how he deals with budget cuts. Moore, a literacy professor in the education college, said some professors wanted assurances that Keel, whose background is in science and technology, would treat all departments fairly.
Keel said he learned the value of liberal arts through a mandatory art and music appreciation class he took as a college freshman.
At first he didn’t like the class but then he heard an organ piece by Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
“Even today, after hearing it many, many times, it still causes chills,” Keel said. “I had been missing out on something significant. It gave me an appreciation for a well-rounded, high quality education.”
While Keel is a scientist, he is more well-rounded than most people would expect, LSU Chancellor Michael Martin said.
“Brooks understands crossover and the different parts of a university and is able to inspire people to do their best work,” Martin said.
Martin said that as vice chancellor for research and economic development at LSU, Keel created an annual black-tie gala to recognize the university’s top researchers and faculty. The honorees were nominated by department chairmen and deans, and Moore said the event created buzz on campus.
Keel said the banquet was also a way to stimulate competition.
“It did upset some people because it wasn’t fair,” he said. “But it wasn’t about being fair. It was about being better. We always have to strive to be better.”
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