Russell Keen, Augusta University's new president. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News
Russell Keen, Augusta University's new president. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News

Augusta University’s new president looks forward to role

Russell Keen’s path could’ve taken a much different course.

“Most of my family learned a trade or joined the service. I was learning a trade in high school,” said Keen, who took over as Augusta University’s new president July 1. He succeeds Brooks A. Keel who retired June 30.  

But the newly minted HOPE Scholarship, which debuted the year before Keen graduated, and the encouragement of teachers at Lakeside High School opened Keen’s mind to different possibilities.

 At Lakeside, he was on student council, and he enjoyed that interaction with the students.

 One project he worked on was a student exchange.

“I remember at the time there being some very strong rivalries at football games. I can’t remember if there was some fighting at some of the games at these different schools,” he said.

Retiring president Brooks A. Keel says a few words to his successor Russell Keen before he leaves on June 28. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News

 After school, Keen worked bagging groceries at Kroger on Columbia Road; and his co-workers went to multiple schools in the area. They got along at work and were “great people,” he said.

“That was really an idea. How can we break down some of these barriers? Yes, we’re rivals, but we’re also people. You might be the Knights. We might be the Panthers. You might be whatever the case may be, but at the end of the day, we’re all just students,” he said.

 Students spent one day swapping schools and seeing that while their lives had differences, they also had many similarities.

“I don’t know what kind of impact it might have had on a broad scale. But I know for those that were part of that program, it was a fun day. I don’t know that we changed the world through that program, but at that moment as a student in high school, it was like – ‘what can we do to make a difference?’ I think it did make a difference. It made an impression,” he said.

Keen’s desire to bring different groups of people together for a common goal was furthered while a student at Georgia Southern University, where he worked with other students from markedly different backgrounds and belief systems who shared a love of the university as well as a genuine love of people.

“That experience working with those students and being exposed to so much that was going on on campus really helped me grow my passion for higher education,” he said.

While at Georgia Southern, he worked as many as three jobs to make his way through school and he kept his HOPE Scholarship for four years.

A few of his summers, he returned to Augusta to work in the trade he’d trained in. He even worked one job soldering some of the pipes in the Medical College of Georgia Dental Lab, little knowing that his career would bring him back to head that institution.

Keen majored in finance as an undergraduate and got a job in banking. While the money was good, his heart wasn’t in it. He was considering taking a job in Atlanta he didn’t want when two other events once again changed his course. One was a phone call from the Georgia Southern president’s office asking him if he’d like to help the school raise money for scholarships and the other was a blind date with his wife, Karen. Keen said he knew she’d be his wife from that first date. She’s been a true partner, and they do everything together.

“I stayed in Statesboro to accept that opportunity to raise money for scholarships,” he said. “I could talk about it.  I could talk about what it did for me, and philanthropy – what it can do to transform students and their trajectory.”

Russell Keen, Augusta University’s new president. Charmain Z. Brackett/Augusta Good News

Keen said he was glad to have the opportunity to return to the Augusta area and join Augusta University. His two children are both graduates of his high school alma mater.

He most recently served as Executive Vice President of Administration and Chief of Staff to the President, where he managed the day-to-day operations of the Office of the President and provided executive leadership to multiple Augusta University departments.

He said he and his wife are now empty nesters with both of their children in college, and they are looking forward to immersing themselves in their new roles.

The university is two years into its current strategic plan, which Keen helped architect. Many developments are on the horizon.

He sees that enrollment will continue to grow. The university boasted an enrollment of 10,546 students. And there are expansions within programming and curriculum.

 He’s looking forward to new partnerships such as the one with WellStar, which cares for one in six Georgians.

“When I look back on what my career has been like and my life experience has been like, I just see God’s hand in all of it. It’s very humbling. I’m very honored to be serving in this way to help advance what we’re’ doing here to change lives through education, but in this instance in Augusta, the research, the clinical translational bit that is not just educating and changing lives but literally saving lives. It’s very humbling but exciting what we get to do,” he said.

As the president of a university with a diverse student population and workforce, Keen still holds the ideals he did as that Lakeside High School senior.

 “Helping people understand that we have a heck of a lot more in common than we do differences, I think it’s something the world could use a lot more of right now. I think taking that same mindset – It sounds cliché, but love one another, honor one another, respect one another. The more people get to know each other and take the time to ask questions — instead of forming opinions based on what your perception may be — is important,” he said.

Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News and Inspiring: Women of Augusta, has covered Augusta’s news for more than 35 years and is a Georgia Press Association award winner. Reach her at Sign up for the newsletter 

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