Fact is, it was as damning a letter as a genuine gentle lady could probably bring herself to write.
Former interim Augusta State University President Shirley Strum Kenny’s exit letter to her old boss, Georgia Regents University President Ricardo Azziz, was a scholarly, cultivated, thoughtful attempt to help Augusta on her way out the door in January.
But rest assured, her seven-page, single-spaced missive, which The Augusta Chronicle obtained through an open records request, was a stunning rebuke of what she clearly believes has been a badly bungled and poorly planned merger of ASU and the former Medical College of Georgia under the name “Georgia Regents University.”
In cerebral language perfectly befitting a respected former university president – who once ran Stony Brook University in New York, more than twice the size of GRU – Dr. Kenny nonetheless paints the emperor bare. The merger has created massive upheaval and unrest, she notes, yet has produced largely cosmetic changes – and has left the Augusta community feeling “dissed and discarded.”
“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,” she wrote to Azziz. “A research university is not a health sciences center jammed together with an undergraduate program.”
Dr. Kenny also points to a huge leadership vacuum at the former ASU, suggesting that the college deans there are excellent and motivated, but that they “cannot effect the necessary changes alone.” She gives “my highest recommendation” to creating a kind of “super dean” to head the former ASU under Azziz, “a dean of deans in effect.” She calls such a position “indispensable,” but adds that the right person is essential to fill it.
She also pointedly reminds Azziz that almost all of his closest subordinates – staffers known as “direct reports” – come from the former MCG, not ASU.
Kenny notes the need for better planning, suggesting a five-year plan. And she feels the need to tell Azziz that “people must be engaged” in such planning – a recommendation no doubt owing to Azziz’s penchant for top-down leadership.
Notably, tellingly – incredibly, really – Kenny then feels the need to school Azziz on the fact that universities must be collaborative incubators, “communities of scholars,” where professionals are respected.
“A university is a community of scholars; traditionally it is a place in which shared governance is the foundation of decision-making,” she writes. “Medical schools and hospitals operate top-down, but universities operate with respect for faculty and staff as well as administrators. They are not businesses; there are no bosses. They are, I repeat, communities of scholars. At this point, GRU does not share a spirit of mutual respect and responsibility. It will never mature without it.”
Ask yourself why she’d feel the need to say that. And what it says when there is no “spirit of mutual respect and responsibility” in one of Augusta’s biggest and most important institutions.
The university and community now need healing, she writes, “to get over the sense of a hostile takeover, and there is no use pretending that sense does not exist. It will take huge effort to make the faculty and staff feel like ‘us’ instead of ‘us and them.’ The administration and faculty will have to build a commonality that does not now exist. They will have to
participate in massive efforts to break the physical, intellectual and emotional barriers between campuses. ... None of this can begin to be accomplished by yoking the email system or the computer systems or using a new name or giving out new T-shirts; it will happen because the faculty and staff, but particularly the faculty, become invested, believe in the future, and believe they are important to what happens here. They have to feel this is their place. And that has by no means happened.”
In the letter’s most direct reproach to Azziz’s leadership, Kenny adds that the healing and
cohesion she speaks of “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. ...
“There will have to be considerable fence-mending in the community. The whole town really loves ASU; it was their place; and it has been dissed and discarded, in their eyes.”
This woman gets it, in ways this state’s leadership has yet to.
We realize the Chronicle has more than once challenged the handling of the merger and its aftermath – including the ludicrous, hurtful decision by someone at GRU to use a computer to remove signs of Augusta State from recent years’ photographs of the school’s champion athletes. Even Azziz admitted it was a blunder. Moreover, we know some leaders and friends in the community wish the newspaper would back off. We hear you.
We just can’t do it.
For one thing, we’re not making this stuff up: It wasn’t our idea to alter those photos or foist the clunky name “Georgia Regents University” on the city and then dismiss out of hand the widespread opposition to it – and we certainly didn’t dream up Dr. Kenny’s constructive treatise out of our own heads.
Further, we take no pleasure in passing along unpleasantness or misguidedness. But it is absolutely central to the core of a journalistic enterprise to do so – and is intended solely for the long-term benefit of the community, as is Dr. Kenny’s letter.
In contrast, turning a blind eye to such goings-on is anathema to a free press and a free people.
The truth is, while Azziz reportedly never bothered to acknowledge her sage advice, and wouldn’t talk to us about it, Dr. Kenny’s considered opinion ought to be spread about more than it already has been – particularly to the halls of power in Atlanta that set this debacle in motion.