Coming Home

If you drive east down Broad Street—through downtown, through Olde Town—just before it curves into Sand Bar Ferry Road, there’s a little crooked finger of a street that you wouldn’t see if you weren’t looking for it. That’s Broad Street Extension, where Brooks Keel lived the first five years of his life.

Now, after an academic career that took him all over the United States, Keel is back home. His address has changed. His boundless love for Augusta has not.

Keel became president of Augusta University in 2015 and is seizing an opportunity few college administrators get—to lead a university merged from both his undergraduate and graduate alma maters. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Augusta College. He earned his doctorate in reproductive endocrinology from the Medical College of Georgia.

In 2013, the renamed Augusta State University consolidated with the renamed Georgia Health Sciences University to become what today is Augusta University.

And in it, Keel sees a world of possibilities.

“I like to tell people we’re a four-year-old university with a 188-year history and that makes people pause a little bit,” Keel says. “What that means is we have a tremendous platform to build on, but we have no preconceived notions of what we’re supposed to be—kind of a blank slate in terms of what this university can become.”

Keel knew what he wanted to become when he was very young. Without question, he wanted to go to medical school. His mother, an on-the-job-trained nurse, worked with some of Augusta’s most respected physicians, including Dr. William W. Battey and oncologist Dr. Daniel B. Sullivan. During breaks in school Keel sometimes would accompany his mother to work and he remembers having a “long, hard talk” with Dr. Sullivan about what it really meant to attend medical school.

By that time Keel had seen more of the inside of a hospital than most kids his age. When he was 5, while on a car ride with his grandmother, a collision hurtled him into the windshield, breaking his neck, jaw and leg. He spent the next six weeks at University Hospital, his neck in traction and his leg in a cast, and he still remembers it vividly.

“As opposed to being an event that may have turned me away from medicine, it for some reason turned me toward it,” Keel says.

When he was old enough to start school, Keel, his parents and two older brothers had moved into a newly built home on Kelly Street, in what was then the freshly developed Highland Park neighborhood near Daniel Field. While his mother worked as a nurse, his father worked as a maintenance supervisor for Columbia Nitrogen.

Keel attended Monte Sano Elementary School and Tubman Junior High School, developing a keen interest in science in general and biology in particular. Upon graduating from the Academy of Richmond County in 1974, he did what so many of his classmates did—he enrolled at Augusta College as a pre-med major.

And like so many young college students, Keel discovered—the hard way—precisely what it takes to be a medical student.

“It’s not easy to get into medical school. It’s incredibly competitive,” Keel says. “My grades just weren’t good enough, let’s be honest. I think I had a different way of looking at things, a different way of thinking, and it wasn’t the type of thinking that would’ve prepared me for medical school.”

Struggling to refocus his academic career, he sought the advice of biology professor Dr. John Bryant Black, who directed Keel’s interest toward undergraduate research. Black had gained national recognition as a specialist in the then-dawning field of in vitro fertilization, and Keel assisted him in several projects on his way to earning his bachelor’s degree in 1978.

Black also encouraged Keel to pursue graduate school at MCG, but he again faced a rocky start. In what Keel describes as “a sobering event,” a cellular/molecular biology professor bluntly assessed his academic chances during a grad-school interview: “He looked at my grades and said, ‘Son, I don’t see how you’re going to graduate from college, much less expect to go to graduate school.’

“And that,” Keel adds, “is when John Black, in his wisdom, pulled me aside and said, ‘You need to think about endocrinology.’”

MCG’s endocrinology department proved to be a much better fit. The professors admitted Keel on a conditional basis—as long as he performed well, he would be allowed to stay in the program. Keel thrived and excelled, earning his Ph.D. in 1982.

Keel’s own academic challenges make him uniquely sympathetic to students’ struggles in college.

“There is no question,” he says. “You know I am so incredibly proud of the really bright kids who come through. They touch a textbook and instantly know it, and they do really well. Those kids are magic and they have a lot of talent, and I have great respect for them. But it’s the student who has a passion for learning and has to struggle at it. Those are the kids I have such great respect for.” υ

After postdoctoral work at the University of Texas Health Science Center and the University of South Dakota School of Medicine, Keel settled in at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Wichita. He spent the next 16 years immersed in the biomedical research of reproduction, fascinated by the advances he witnessed in the field of in vitro fertilization.

In Wichita, Keel’s responsibilities began stretching far across both research and administration—so far, in fact, that he faced a career crossroads: Would he stay in the laboratory or would he pursue a leadership role in higher education?

Keel chose administration—a decision he never regretted. In his many administrative roles over the years, he helped direct successful research in ways he could not have if he had stayed in his own field of study.

“I gave up my labs,” he explains, “but I gained 800 more.”

The leadership track took Keel first to Florida State University, as associate vice president for research, then to Louisiana State University, as vice chancellor for research and economic development. Those positions opened his eyes to how a comprehensive university operates.

And it prepared him for his first position as a chief executive—in 2010, he became president of Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. By the time he left GSU in 2015, the school encompassed eight colleges serving more than 20,000 students. Under Keel’s administration, a combination of research and community outreach helped expand the university’s educational offerings for both undergraduates and graduate students.

One trait Keel became known for at GSU was his genial accessibility. Folks were more likely to find him on campus among the students than in his office. Taking a “selfie” with the president became a social media badge of honor among the student body.

Keel refers to it as being “an external president” and he embraces the Augusta University campus the same way. He gets his morning coffee at the Starbucks on AU’s Summerville campus. When he eats lunch, it’s likely at the school’s cafeteria. He walks the halls whenever he can.

His wife, Dr. Tammie Schalue, feels the same way. Like Keel, she is a scientist focused on reproductive biology. But as AU’s president and first lady, Keel says both of them “need to be outwardly focused.” Sometimes it means just walking the campus. Other times it’s playing host to an Easter egg hunt at the president’s house.

“If I’ve got to spend all my time behind a desk, I don’t have a good staff. It’s important to be out and about,” he says. υ

What Keel sees while he’s out and about is a campus bursting with opportunities. Drawing out AU’s many strengths is a crucial step to market the university in an environment where attracting students can be extremely competitive.

“You can’t just open up your doors and say ‘y’all come’ and expect a whole bunch of students to show up,” he says.

The number one priority for facilities development is moving the College of Science and Mathematics from Summerville to the Health Sciences Campus. That, Keel says, will put the science, technology, engineering and math students “right in the middle of all the white coats.

“They can get to know the professors who are going to be making the decisions about entrance to medical school and dental school and all that,” he explains. “It’s extremely competitive and what we want is, if a young person wants to go into one of those fields, we want him or her to realize, ‘I could go to a big university if I got the grades and the SATs, but if I really want to increase my chances of going to medical school, Augusta University is the place for me to be.’”

Moving that college downtown will free up space on a Summerville campus that essentially is built out. The other colleges then will be able to expand—and garner much-deserved notice.

AU’s arts and humanities programs, for example, are “a secret we don’t need to be keeping,” Keel says. Artwork created by AU faculty and students graces both his office and the president’s home.

“It’s great to be able to show off the art and it is the university’s house, after all,” Keel says. “But when we entertain people, and you’re talking to somebody over dinner about giving money to the university, you can show them something tangible. This is what your money goes to.”

The merged university also presents unique opportunities for artists and scientists to collaborate and thrive. Music professors are working with the university’s cancer center to pursue music therapy. The medical illustration department is joining other artists and scientists in developing new prosthetics for patients who have undergone devastating head surgeries.

There’s no preconceived notion about how artists can’t interact with scientists because you can’t think alike,” Keel says. “Our artists and scientists say, ‘We want to interact with each other because we don’t think alike.’ And the things that could spring from that are going to be incredible.”

Keel also envisions big developments for AU in the field of cyber security. In April the university signed an agreement with the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, pledging to increase cyber education at AU.

This town is going to explode and it’ll explode with us or without us. And we’ve got to be ready to explode with it,” Keel says. “The training opportunities we have for cyber security are going to be phenomenal. It’s a huge developing field as you know and, if a young person wants to go into this field, we want him or her—I don’t care if they’re living in Martinez or Morgantown, West Virginia—we want them to think about coming here to get that training because the opportunities here are greater.”

Keel’s enthusiasm for what he does, and where he is, rubs off on just about everyone he encounters. You’d be hard-pressed to find another person who loves a job more. As a part of Augusta University’s past, Keel relishes the opportunity to guide the school toward a thriving future.

“Being a university president is without question the greatest job in the world. It is the greatest gig you can imagine regardless of whether it’s a large institution, small institution, liberal arts institution, research institution—it doesn’t matter,” he says. “If you’re around young people and you get the chance to interact with young people, you get to see—this is going to sound corny—you see the promise that we have in terms of the future.

“It doesn’t get any better than that. It really doesn’t.”

This article appears in the June-July 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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