Bridges Begins 12th Year as President of ABAC on July 1

June 27, 2017

As of June 30, Dr. David Bridges will have accumulated 4,015 days as the president of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.  Out of all those days, he readily points to Jan. 7, 2008 as his “best day ever.”  Bachelor’s degree classes came to ABAC on that day to reshape the future of the college.

“The day we offered our first bachelor’s degree classes was my best day ever at ABAC,” Bridges said.  “We have done a lot, renovating the front of campus, opening the Freedom Gallery, and a lot of other highlights.  All those things were great but getting the bachelor’s degrees was transformational.”

Well over half of ABAC’s 3,475 students are now seeking bachelor’s degrees.  That’s at a college that offered only associate degrees for 75 years.  Times have certainly changed.  That’s true for Bridges as well.  He became the 10th president in the history of ABAC on July 1, 2006.  Now he has completed 11 years as president and is the longest serving president in the University System of Georgia.

“I can’t honestly tell you that being the longest serving president gets you anything,” Bridges said with a chuckle.  “I have seen a lot in these 11 years.  It’s a lot different that it was when I started.  From a management standpoint, everybody and his brother regulates you and tells you how to do your job.

“That makes leading the college difficult.  I spend more time on management because of the complexity of the job.”

Because of consolidation, the University System has shrunk from 35 institutions in 2006 to 28 in 2017.  Not one of the presidents that Bridges sat across the table from in meetings in 2006 is still president at that college or university in the System today.

“You have to be a lot more creative as the president today,” Bridges said.  “There’s a lot more chaos in the higher education environment.  In the early 90s, our college was more firmly established.  We knew who we were and what we did.  We were a two-year college that offered classes for the first two years of a four-year degree.

“Now ABAC is a four-year college, and we must figure out how to thrive.  We must be unique.  And ABAC is unique.  We are not the same as everybody else.  We don’t want to be.”

Bridges pointed toward a “mission of excellence” as the key to the success that ABAC has enjoyed in the last four years when it became the only college or university south of Macon to register an enrollment increase in three of those years.

“That’s the funny thing about it,” Bridges said.  “We didn’t focus on enrollment.  We focused on excellence.  The enrollment went up because of that.  You must have programs of excellence that you can sell.

“We are a boutique, not a Walmart.  Now there’s nothing wrong with Walmart.  In fact, we have Walmart prices.  But we have an L.L. Bean product.”

Bridges, who just celebrated his 59th birthday, thrives on change.  He’s not afraid to try something different if he believes ABAC will benefit.

“Every day I try to think of something that we can do to raise the value of an ABAC diploma,” Bridges, the only ABAC president who is also a former student at the college (Class of 1978), said.  “Graduation days in May and December are the best days of the year.  Everybody’s happy.

“I don’t spend much time looking at what we did in the past.  I look at what we can do in the future.  We renovated the three original buildings in 2013 to get more people to come here.  And they have.  Now let’s concentrate on what else we can do.”

Bridges has no opinion on what his legacy at ABAC will be.

“My legacy will be for other people to decide,” Bridges said.  “I think changing the physical face of the campus through the Front Campus Renovation, the Freedom Gallery, the Thrash Wellness Center, and the Foundation Legacy Pool make you proud to be a part of ABAC.  Students appreciate it, faculty and staff appreciate it, and I think ABAC alumni appreciate it.”

If Georgia lawmakers continue to assist with funding, another new building will rise from the ground on the front campus of ABAC in years to come.

“Our focus for 2018 will be to build a fine arts building on the front of the campus,” Bridges said.  “We have the design money this year from the legislature, and I hope we will see construction begin late in the calendar year 2018.  We also want to repurpose the Carlton Center, and we have some good ideas on how to do that.”

Bridges said his second goal for his 12th year in the president’s seat at ABAC is to strengthen new bachelor’s degree programs in agriculture education, agricultural communications, and nursing.

“Adding ag ed to the curriculum last year will have a huge impact on enrollment in the future,” Bridges said.  “It will also have a phenomenal impact on our legacy in agriculture.  The more ag teachers we have out there from ABAC, the more students we will get back.  I believe ag teachers have more influence on the students they teach than maybe any other teacher in high school.”

Consolidation with Bainbridge State College has never been far from Bridges’ mind since University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley announced on Jan. 6 that Bainbridge State will merge with ABAC.

“Things are constantly changing but as far as what we know now, we’ll submit a proposal to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) on September 1,” Bridges said.  “SACS will vote on the proposal in December.  If approved, the Board of Regents will vote on it.

“If all that happens, ABAC would assume institutional responsibility for the Bainbridge campus on January 1, 2018.   Southern Regional Technical College will take over all the technical classes.  SACSCOC will send a team to the site later in 2018.”

Bridges said he is hoping for a modest increase in enrollment when fall semester classes begin at ABAC on Aug. 16.  When the consolidation with Bainbridge is completed, he expects a total ABAC enrollment of some 4,200 students.  Ten years from now, he says that figure could climb to 6,000 students.

“In terms of our identity culture and who we are, I don’t think we’ll be a lot different in 2027,” Bridges said.  “We will be far more settled in our role as a baccalaureate institution.  And I believe we will have a broader selection of bachelor’s degree programs.”

As for Bridges himself, he’s making no promises about his future.

“I don’t have a timetable for my retirement,” Bridges said with a broad smile.   “I still have a few things I would like to do here.  I don’t anticipate doing this type of job somewhere else. When I leave, it will be for something totally different.

“I hope I know it’s time to leave before everybody else knows it.  I have never looked for my next job.  Opportunities always seem to appear.”
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