AU president Keel says school ready for upcoming challenges

Augusta University is poised to take on a number of challenges – from preparing to grow its cyber offerings along with growth at Fort Gordon to finding millions to build new hospitals to increasing health care access in rural areas around the state, President Brooks Keel said Friday.

 

In his first State of the University address, Keel said the institution is in a unique position to go from 189 years of tradition through Medical College of Georgia to the reality that AU itself is only five years old.

“We have a blank slate in front of us,” he told faculty, staff and students. “We don’t have a whole lot of stuff holding us back.”

And it can result in new and interesting partnerships, Keel said. A recent push for an opera program not only involved the Department of Music but science programs in kinesiology and ear, nose and throat medicine, he said.

“What a beautiful example of collaboration, blank slate collaboration,” Keel said.

The university overall is seeing growth in students, with its fall enrollment at 8,824, exceeding its goal of 8,792, and with 50 percent of its freshman class coming from outside the Augusta area, he said.

“And that’s only going to increase as word spreads” about the university, Keel said. AU also has to be ready for what he has been calling a “cyber tsunami” as U.S. Army Cyber Command moves to a new headquarters at Fort Gordon and brings a host of contractors and other related businesses with it.

“We’ve got to be prepared for it,” Keel said. “It is going to shine a major spotlight on Augusta and Augusta University.”

While the school’s Riverfront Campus will see the opening of the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center next year, which will house its School of Computer and Cyber Sciences and a Cyber Range, “this is just Phase One,” he said, with room on that campus for two more buildings of similar size.

While MCG is the eighth largest medical school by class size, it has a relatively small faculty supporting, particularly for clinical faculty but officials are trying to change that, Keel said.

“We are making one of the largest recruiting efforts that I think the Medical College of Georgia has ever seen, probably since its founding,” he said.

The university is looking at $160 million to build a new hospital in Columbia County, an effort held up so far by a challenge to its state license to build there, and around $350 million if it replaces a downtown hospital building, Keel said. The university may need more state support to help it grow, he said. The university is planning to ask for $49.5 million for a new College of Science and Mathematics building next year as well.

But as the state’s only public medical school and academic health center, AU needs to look at addressing the “two Georgias,” the relatively doctor-rich Atlanta area and the rest of a very rural state, Keel said. Nine of the state’s 159 counties don’t have a physician and three don’t have an ambulance service, he said.

“We’ve got to do something about that,” Keel said.

The university is looking at a five-year strategic plan that includes educating and preparing a diverse student body, increasing research, improving its clinical care through its patient- and family-centered care approach and putting more into outreach and economic development, he said.

“It’s exciting,” Keel said. “It’s doable.”

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com

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