TIFTON—When he walked up the steps of historic Tift Hall on the campus of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College on July 1 to begin his 15th year, Dr. David Bridges became the longest serving president in the history of ABAC. As a member of the Class of 1978, Bridges is also the only ABAC president to have been a student at the school.
“My goal for ABAC hasn’t really changed,” Bridges said. “I want us to teach students and give them a life experience they will never forget while they are on our campus.”
The 62-year-old native of Parrott, who also happens to be the longest tenured president in the 26-member University System of Georgia (USG), says he does not spend a single moment thinking about his ABAC tenure.
“I didn’t really think about how long I was going to stay at ABAC when I became president in 2006, and I don’t think about it now,” Bridges said. “When I was a student at ABAC, I never dreamed of being president. And when I became president, I never looked at this job as a stepping-stone to something else.
“It has been fun most of the time. As you can imagine, it has not been all that much fun lately, mainly because of the virus impacting our budget situation.”
ABAC and the other USG colleges and universities finished the final weeks of the spring semester with online classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the virus persisted, online classes continued during the summer term.
ABAC plans to return to in-person instruction when the fall semester begins on Aug. 12. That is a day Bridges is looking forward to with much gusto.
“We want to have students in class, and living safely on our campus,” Bridges said. “That is the highest priority right now.
“To accomplish that, we have to make a lot of changes. I will be stunned if we get to the end of the semester with the plan currently in place, but you have to start somewhere and then be prepared to go to Plan B or Plan C, and then to the next plan that we haven’t even thought of yet.”
Bridges has faced plenty of challenges during his presidency but the battle against the relentless pandemic tops them all.
“This is about survival,” Bridges said. “Most of the things we’re asking people to do deal with the unknown. That is hard for everybody. Everything is short term because plans have to be altered daily.”
Soon after taking office, Bridges was the architect of ABAC’s monumental change from a two-year school to a four-year institution. ABAC began offering junior and senior level classes for the first time in 75 years in 2008. When he considers the accomplishments during his tenure, bachelor’s degrees at ABAC top the list.
“Getting bachelor’s degrees changed everything,” Bridges said. “Everything else falls a distant second to that. We would really be in a lurch if we were not a four-year school.”
ABAC in 2020 looks much different than it did when Bridges participated in the first presidential inauguration ceremony in the history of the college on Aug. 25, 2006.
“I believe we’re in a better place,” Bridges said. “Our mission is more focused. We are better off financially and with our facilities. Our ABAC Foundation is much better off, and I think we have a very strong faculty and staff.”
There have been milestones aplenty during Bridges’ tenure as president.
In 2008, ABAC celebrated its 100th birthday with a year-long extravaganza. In 2010, ABAC took over the operation of the Georgia Museum of Agriculture and made it a part of the ABAC campus. In 2013, the Historic Front of Campus renovation gave new life to the three original buildings on campus, Tift Hall, Lewis Hall, and Herring Hall.
ABAC recorded its highest enrollment ever during the 2018 fall semester with 4,291 students from 30 countries, 18 states, and 155 of Georgia’s 159 counties. The enrollment jump was due in part to a merger with Bainbridge State College which added ABAC instructional sites in Bainbridge, Blakely, and Donalsonville.
During Bridges’ presidency, almost 8,000 graduates have received their ABAC diplomas. For the second consecutive year, ABAC led all colleges and universities east of the Mississippi River in the number of students receiving their bachelor’s degrees in Agricultural Education.
Eleven other bachelor’s degrees at ABAC include Business, Agribusiness, Biology, Agriculture, History and Government, Agricultural Communication, Nursing, Environmental Horticulture, Rural Community Development, Writing and Communication, and Natural Resource Management. When Bridges became president, there was not a single bachelor’s degree offered at ABAC.
Over $84 million in capital projects have been completed or are nearing completion during Bridges’ tenure. Those projects 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 Carlton Center/Fine Arts Building project at $24 million. Road improvements add another $2 million.
“Each of these projects has made this campus better,” Bridges said. “That plays a part in the recruitment of students as well. When students visit ABAC, they like what they see here.”
Students on campus during the 2020 fall term will enjoy the new Fine Arts Building on the front of campus and the revitalized Carlton Center, which will be home to the Baldwin Library as well as The Stallion Shop bookstore. Both projects are just days away from their completion.
Bridges is excited about his record-setting 15th fall semester at ABAC.
“We haven’t had the students on campus since March 13,” Bridges said. “I am ready for them to be back. There’s nothing like the atmosphere on the first day of class for the fall semester.”