By Mike Chason
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.
“The big 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.”
Since Bridges 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.”
The latest 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 South Georgia.
“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 up.”
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.”
Bridges pointed 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 semester.
ABAC attracted 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.
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.
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 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.”
Bridges takes 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.
Bridges’ presidential 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 housing complex.
Bridges assisted 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.
“Rural communities 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.
Bridges, who turned 61 in June, points to the establishment of ABAC as a State College as the proudest accomplishment of his tenure.
“That changed everything,” Bridges said. “Otherwise we would be floundering. The ability to offer bachelor’s degrees changed ABAC forever.”
Most chief 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 like that.
“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.
“The biggest 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.
“Fall graduation 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 college.
“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 every day.
“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 mind.
“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.”
Until that 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.”