On Saturday afternoons, when Georgia Southern is playing, what are you going to be doing and how soon can Georgia Regents University expect to have a football team?
Keel: Let me answer the last question first, not in my lifetime. Saturday afternoons I’m going to be watching Georgia Southern go at least 9-3 and hopefully 8-0 again. I hope they’re better than that.
Keel: There’s something special about this place, and just because we’re moving on to the next opportunity, that doesn’t mean we have lost our love for it or have become any less of an Eagle than we already were. We’re going to continue to watch things develop here on the athletic field, in the classroom and everywhere else. And you know the beauty of where I’m going is that it’s only an hour and a half away, and I’m still going to be in the same system. Being that close, there are tremendous opportunities for collaboration with Georgia Regents. I’ve got an inside track. I know the strengths that this university has here in Statesboro, and it would be foolish for us to not explore the opportunities to collaborate from that perspective.
What made this the offer you couldn’t refuse?
Keel: Well, there are a lot of reasons, obviously both personal and professional. For me having been born, raised and educated in Augusta – and when I say educated I mean all the way from the first grade all the way through PHD in that city, that town. It was the personal opportunity of a lifetime. But professionally it’s an opportunity I’d 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. To be back on a biomedical campus and all the outstanding stuff that’s going on in biomedical research is a tremendous opportunity for me. But the real drawing card professionally also ties in with the personal. I don’t know of any other president in history that has the opportunity to go back, and at the same time be president of his or her undergraduate college and graduate college, unless they happened to be at the same place where they got their degree.
As you reflect back on your time here, you have to be incredibly proud of some of the things you put in place here, the progress the school has made in your five and a half years.
Keel: I am incredibly proud. But I’m not incredibly proud of what I’ve done, because all I’ve done is had the real privilege to be the cheerleader for all the things everyone else has done. It’s a fantastic team here. All the vice presidents are outstanding in their own right. Those are the men and women and all the faculty and staff that work with them have really brought this university to where it is now. But there are some incredible things that we have accomplished together over the past five and a half years. 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 getting university status, and I really mean that. The ability to work with our friends in the legislature and again right here in Statesboro-Bulloch County, GSU has the best legislative delegation in the entire state. Bar none. Because of that we’ve brought in over 95 million dollars of capital. To maintain enrollment these days, when enrollment is declining and for us to have increased it and maintain is phenomenal and that all gets down to how the staff treats the students, how the faculty treats the students. That makes students want to come here because of that.
Dr. Bartels is now the first woman in our presidential history. What do you think that says about women leading the way for higher education?
Keel: That fact cannot be overlooked. That is a monumental part of our history now, something I am incredibly excited about and proud of. I’m proud for Jean Bartels because she’s a woman, I’m proud for Jean Bartels because she’s Jean Bartels. In over 108 years she is the first female president of this university, and I think that speaks volumes about where Georgia Southern is and where Georgia Southern is going to go. I think it does open the door, and I know that fact is not lost on her. I know she is very proud of that, too, and she is in a position to establish her own legacy. There will be a search for a president here some point in time but she’s not going to sit back and hold on. She’s going to be making great progress here, and I think that’s going to be fun to watch.
Is there any advice that you are going to give her?
Keel: I’m going to give her all kinds of advice, and I hope she doesn’t pay attention to any of it. She doesn’t need any advice from me. I knew as soon as she was appointed that this university was in great hands.
Highest of highs and lowest of lows. What would be the peak that you remember, what is the worst situation you remember?
Keel: Well the peak is a little hard to answer because there have been so many. Engineering was certainly one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve been a part of here without questions. Moving our athletic program to the FBS, and the success we’ve had there. And I know a lot of people think I paid too much attention to athletics, but I did so intentionally, and as I’ve said it’s the front porch. We used it to get us on the national scene, and we’ve done that. There are a lot of great things that I’ve been a part of here. Without question the hardest thing that this university has faced in a long time, one of the hardest things I think that any of us has faced, [the loss of Georgia Southern University nursing students]. It is without question for me and Tammie one of the most difficult things we’ve had to face. But it has also been one of the most amazing things we’ve seen and been associated with. That out of such tragedy so much love and affection could come. This community came together in ways that I don’t think anybody could predict and 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. It’s a very, very special place. And I mean that, and I think that whoever is sitting in this office here is going to have a real privilege of being in a very special place and leading this university to great things.
Is there anything left on your to-do list?
Keel: Absolutely. There’s a lifetime of stuff left on the to-do list. The great excitement about being in a place with an upward trajectory is that you never know what opportunity is going to be in your office the next day.
Is there going to be one particular thing you are going to miss the most about being here at Georgia Southern?
Keel: It really is the people. The staff care so much about these students and each other and it shows. The faculty cares so much about these students and it shows. There’s such great rich traditions that make this place so unique. Those things set us apart. When you walk on this campus you feel it. There is a feeling on this campus. It is magic and I wish I could be more scientific about it, but that’s what it is. And that magic feeling comes from 108 years of people working here that care about students. That’s what makes this place special and that’s one of the things I’m going to miss the most. I’m going to another institution that cares deeply about its students and we’re going to make great strides there, but we’re going to learn from Georgia Southern. And I’m going to take that knowledge and that expertise that I have gained here and apply it there, too, and help that university do the great things it can do.
Why do you think that your connection with students has developed into what it is now?
Keel: Part of that is intentional. I made a conscious effort trying to be seen on campus. 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. I intentionally have lunch in the dining commons, I get a chance to interact with the students and the staff, too. And how can you not be passionate about being the so-called leader of an institution so special like this is here? There is one thing I did that really made a difference: when I started getting engaged in social media, more specifically with Twitter. I had fought that for four years, kicking and screaming, but it’s been the most fun I think I’ve had because it gives me a chance to interact with students. I can interact with them 24 hours a day no matter where I am. It also gives me a chance, again, to cheerlead about Georgia Southern, the accomplishments of our faculty and things we are doing here – not just sports, but that part of it, too. It’s become the number one bucket list for students now to have a selfie with the president. I’ve told my staff that if students want to have selfies to interrupt me. That’s important.
Do you remember what your first selfie was, who you took it with or where you were?
Keel: I don’t remember, but I will say that every single one of my tweets has been from me, not any staff.
How many selfies do you think you’ve taken?
Keel: Gosh, who knows? If I had to say “what’s your greatest accomplishment?” being able to have that recognition with students has got to be the biggest personal satisfaction I’ve gotten from this job. When it really comes down to it, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got football or you’ve got engineering, doesn’t matter if you’ve got all these fantastic buildings or a great staff, if you don’t have people who care about students, you lose sight of why we’re here. That’s what all this “stuff” is about: giving students a the best education the can get, not just inside the classroom but outside the classroom, too. And we’ve got some great kids.
What’s something that you’ve learned about yourself and the student body from your time here?
Keel: I have learned that you can be yourself.
How would you define what it is to be a Georgia Southern Eagle?
Keel: All the taglines that we use, from an administrative point of view being student-centered, it means that. From a university point of view of being large-scale, small-feel, it means that. From being True Blue, it means that. From being the Greatest University in America, it means that, too. This concept of Eagle Nation, I just can’t over-emphasize how powerful that is. It’s one of those things that you really can’t describe–and if you think about it, the best things in life you can’t put into words because you’ve got to experience.
Do you have a goodbye message you want to convey to the students, faculty, staff, community you are leaving behind?
Keel: Tammie and I have just been so overwhelmed with how we have been accepted in this community and this university. We’ve been amazed every single day at really how special this place is. I’ve said how this is the Greatest University in America. I still mean that and I will mean that for the rest of my life, no matter where I go because it is. It’s that Eagle Nation. Eagle Nation is a special term, a special place–it doesn’t matter who is sitting up here as president. I just want people to know that I did not want to leave Georgia Southern. Tammie and I did not want to leave this university. We would have been very happy staying here for the rest of our lives. What we wanted was the opportunity that presented itself. We’re going to try to get out of here pretty quick because I want to get out of the way of Dr. Bartels and the progress she is going to make. We are always going to be Eagles, and we are always going to be pulling for you, and we’re always going to be watching the great things that are going to happen here. And the only other thing I’d like to say one more time is Go Eagles!