Running a business
with a budget of $64 million a year would consume every waking moment of most
individuals. Dr. David Bridges,
president of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, is no exception.
difference between running a business and being the president of ABAC is our
return on investment is very complicated,” Bridges, the longest serving
president of the 26 institutions in the University System of Georgia (USG),
said. “Our return would have to be
calculated over the lives and careers of our graduates.”
Dr. David Bridges just began his 14th year as the ABAC President.
became the 10th president in the history of ABAC on July 1, 2006, over 7,000
graduates have received their ABAC diplomas.
Unlike a company that makes only one product and that product eventually
rusts away or in the case of food, gets eaten, Bridges hopes that ABAC
graduates continue to thrive and build more businesses.
“Students are our
business, and our graduates start businesses of their own,” Bridges said. “During their lives, our graduates generate
economic impact in their communities so the ABAC investment continues to grow.”
statewide economic impact study commissioned by the USG showed that ABAC’s
economic impact on South Georgia skyrocketed to a record $529,838,507 in fiscal
year 2017. The multiplier effect turned
444 jobs at ABAC into 1,382 jobs off campus for a total impact of 1,826 jobs in
“More jobs at ABAC
means more jobs in South Georgia,” Dr. Renata Elad, Dean of the Stafford School
of Business at ABAC, said. “ABAC had a
much bigger employment impact plus the cost of housing went up, and the average
rent in Tifton went up that year.
Personal expenses for entertainment, apparel, and services were also
Elad analyzed the
USG numbers for ABAC and found the ABAC economic impact a monumental 31 per
cent higher than the $369,874,664 impact in the 2016 fiscal year.
“ABAC needs South
Georgia, and South Georgia needs ABAC,” Elad said in her analysis. “With total employment of over 1,800 jobs
directly from student spending activities and an overall labor impact of almost
$66 million, ABAC is definitely a strong partner in regional growth.”
out that those numbers reflect only South Georgia and the college has changed
quite a bit since the study was conducted in 2017. Bainbridge State College merged with ABAC in
2018, leading to a record enrollment of 4,291 students during the 2018 fall
students from 30 countries, 18 states, and 155 of Georgia’s 159 counties during
the 2018 fall term. Because of the
consolidation, ABAC offered classes in Bainbridge, Blakely, and Donalsonville
besides its classes in Tifton and Moultrie.
Many of those
students choose to stay at ABAC to complete one of 12 four-year degree
programs. ABAC offered only two-year
degrees from 1933 to 2008. Instead of
staying two or three years at ABAC for an associate degree, students remain at
ABAC four or five years to complete their bachelor’s degree.
With a bachelor’s
degree in hand, graduates have more to offer the world of work. That expands the ABAC economic impact even
further because graduates find higher paying jobs.
ABAC President David Bridges (r) with ABAC Director of Facilities and Land Resources Tim Carpenter (l) look over plans for the Fine Arts building with Jody Buchan from Allstate Construction.
Besides the $64
million annual budget, there’s also the matter of capital investment at
ABAC. Since Bridges’ presidency began,
over $84 million in capital projects have been completed or are in the
construction phase at ABAC.
include the Health Sciences building at $7.2 million, ABAC Lakeside at $17
million, Historic Front of Campus at $15.5 million, King Hall at $2.7 million,
Donaldson Dining Hall at $4 million, Thrash Wellness Center at $4.5 million,
the Laboratory Sciences building at $7.2 million, and the ongoing Carlton
Center/Fine Arts Building project at $24 million. Road improvement adds another $2 million.
“Each of these
projects has made this campus better,” Bridges said. “That plays a part in recruitment of students
as well. When students visit ABAC, they
like what they see here.”
advantage of every waking moment to promote ABAC. His stamina is legendary as is his ability to
get things done. Since his first day on
the job, he has been on the move with a wide variety of activities, many of
them in the first time ever category.
inauguration at ABAC in 2006 was the first time that ABAC has had an
inauguration ceremony. He kicked a
soccer ball into the net to announce the first ever women’s soccer program. He also pushed a plunger to set off a small
charge of dynamite to open the construction on the ABAC Lakeside student
ABAC President David Bridges at his inauguration ceremony on Aug. 25, 2006. It was the first inauguration ceremony for a president in the history of ABAC.
103-year-old ABAC alumnus Ethel Arnold Talley when she rang the original ABAC
bell at the opening of the Historic Front of Campus project, honored the memory
of ABAC alumnus and Medal of Honor recipient Harold Bascom Durham, Jr., at the
opening of the Freedom Gallery, and used a cross-cut saw on a log to announce
the beginning of ABAC bachelor’s degrees in forestry and wildlife.
With a great sense
of pride in his alma mater, Bridges watched fireworks explode over the campus
at the conclusion of ABAC’s 100th birthday celebration. He guided the process when the former Georgia
Agrirama became a part of the ABAC campus as the Georgia Museum of Agriculture
and Historic Village, headed up the consolidation with Bainbridge State
College, and served as Interim Director of Georgia’s first ever Center for
Rural Prosperity and Innovation.
have very tangible benefits to offer society as a whole,” Bridges said of
Georgia’s Rural Center. “The Center has
a statewide mission and one of the tenets to that mission is to find a path to
prosperity for rural communities.”
All these projects
took mammoth amounts of time for the ABAC President whose day often begins in
the pre-dawn stillness with breakfast at the Northside Café in Tifton.
During the past 13
years, Bridges has enlisted the support of legislators under the Golden Dome
for ABAC projects, spoken to civic clubs and community groups far and wide,
accepted the award as the Arts Citizen of the Year for Tift County, and
received the USG Gold Outstanding Customer Service Leadership Award.
turned 61 in June, points to the establishment of ABAC as a State College as
the proudest accomplishment of his tenure.
everything,” Bridges said. “Otherwise we
would be floundering. The ability to
offer bachelor’s degrees changed ABAC forever.”
operating officers develop their own management style or try to duplicate the
style of other successful leaders of organizations. Bridges believes his style hasn’t changed
much since 2006.
“In some ways, I
am a little more patient now than I was when I first became president,” Bridges
said. “In other ways, I think I’m less
patient. General George Patton said,
‘lead, follow, or get out of the way.’ I
“My role is to get
people to have a vision of where ABAC needs to go. Ultimately, most people know the right thing
to do. It’s just a matter of getting
them to do it. Sometimes they need to be
nudged a little bit.”
Dealing with the
many complexities of the job is often the most difficult part of being the head
of a major corporation or in Bridges’ case, a college.
challenge is meeting the expectations of people,” Bridges said. “In our case, that means students, parents of
students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, friends of the college, and the
public. Sometimes people come to the
table with totally unrealistic expectations.
“Take students for
example. Some students expect to breeze
through college just the way they breezed through high school. College is different than high school. Students and parents come to understand that. Sometimes it takes a while.”
When asked what
provides him with the most satisfaction as the ABAC President, Bridges points
to two days every year.
and spring graduation,” Bridges said.
“The graduates have cleared that hurdle. They have diplomas. Our expectation is that they will go out and
do something with those degrees.”
When he left the
tiny town of Parrott in Terrell County in 1976 to attend ABAC, Bridges had no
idea he would meet his wife, Kim, in Rosalyn Donaldson’s English class and that
one day he would become the only ABAC President who was once a student at the
ABAC President David Bridges spends countless hours speaking on his favorite topic, ABAC.
“It was never my
dream to become president of ABAC,” Bridges said. “In fact, I never really thought about
it. Even when I was 40 years old, I
hadn’t thought about it.
“I have had
opportunities to leave but I always asked myself, ‘is that a better fit for me
than ABAC?’” Bridges said. “ABAC has
been a pretty good fit for me.”
Bridges has far
surpassed the average tenure of seven years for a college president. In fact, he is now the second longest serving
president in the history of ABAC. George
P. Donaldson was the ABAC president for 14 years from 1947-61. Bridges has 13 under his belt and is steaming
full speed ahead into his 14th year.
“Lucky 13 is over,
and now we’ll see what happens in 14,” Bridges said.
Is being president
of ABAC in 2019 harder than being president of ABAC was in 2006?
“Oh yes, a lot
harder,” Bridges said. “Now, everybody
wants to tell you how to do your business. In 2006, we didn’t have to worry
about cyber-security threats. I didn’t
have so many people looking over my shoulder.
“People in our
society today tend to be less self-reliant, more contentious, and more
self-absorbed. There seems to be tension
about everything, particularly when it comes to political correctness. People are hyper-sensitive about being
offended. It becomes more pervasive
“It keeps us from
focusing on our central mission because we’re dealing with all this other
stuff. My goal is to get something done
and make ABAC a better place.”
But one day, there
will be a life for Bridges after his ABAC career is completed.
“Sure, that day
will come,” Bridges said. “When it does,
I want to continue to be active in the public service sector but in a less
prominent way. I’ll go back to the farm
and be a part of something that’s not seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
Bridges owns the
family farm in Terrell County and retreats there as often as possible. But wherever he goes, ABAC is always on his
“I don’t worry
about the day-to-day operation because we have great people to carry on,”
Bridges said. “But it’s always
something. It’s usually an external
factor that can cause the wheels to come off fairly quickly.”
retirement day comes, Bridges finds it easy to motivate himself to stay true to
the ABAC mission every day.
“We have made great
progress,” Bridges said. “But there’s
still a lot to be done.”