'Always leave them wanting more'

Before Frank Brown moved into the president's office at Columbus State University, faculty members referred to it as the Führer's Bunker.

Dr. Francis Brooke, a German professor whose aristocratic accent fit his aloofness, inhabited the space for nearly seven years. Shutting the door behind him, he established the rules of higher education while across campus his dog chewed on maintenance workers and his sons disturbed baseball games by playing their music too loud.

Twenty years ago, the deeper conflicts were between the professors and patrician. Bridges were burned and trust was trampled. Critics implored the chancellor in Atlanta for help, and Brooke quelled the mounting unrest by announcing his resignation as the second president of Columbus College.

To the surprise of many, Frank Brown — a lanky vice president whom Brooke had hired — was chosen as his successor, and from the beginning, the campus recognized the contrasts. Brown's office tells the story. In a world that feeds on advanced degrees, no diplomas hang on the wall. There isn't a nameplate on the desk reminding visitors that the man behind it is a Ph.D. The wall is lined with student-created art and a collection of hard hats that represents the groundbreakings at which he presided. A stained canvas bag filled with aging golf clubs made of wood also props against the wall.

This has been Brown's office since 1988. Next June, in Columbus State University's 50th year, he retires. Discussing his departure, he shows the self-deprecating humor that he uses to disarm and disable the people who bring problems to his office.

"They hired me for my good looks, and now that they're fading, they discard me," he said.

Or, he describes himself as a first husband who has died.

"My body isn't cold and she is already looking for her next husband."

Beneath the humor is a practical plan.

"I'm the architect of the plan," he said. "I wanted to pick the transition time. I knew it would be best at a time of success so you're not acting in crisis. As an old vaudeville entertainer once said, 'Always leave them wanting more.’ ”

Brown announced his plans last week, making sure the faculty and staff heard the news before the rest of the community.

"We are going to shackle him to his desk," said Meri Robinson, whose office is two doors down from the president's in Richard's Hall. On the day she heard he was retiring, she shed tears.

A measure of the man

Columbus State's landscape has changed dramatically on Brown's watch. The campus has expanded into downtown and across the traditional grounds are buildings he helped develop. During his tenure, CSU has completed nearly $200 million worth of new construction.

"You don't measure the success of a university by bricks and mortar," Brown quickly adds. "We measure it by changed lives and the number of first generation graduates you have."

Around 54 percent of the community's college graduates were educated at Columbus State.

"People say this is a Georgia town or an Auburn town," he says. "That's football. In Columbus, we're the big dog."

That wasn't the case in 1988, the year he moved from vice president of business affairs into the president's office. University status had not been granted. Enrollment was down. The infrastructure was aging. The faculty needed to be reinvigorated. More than anything, Columbus State sought respect.

Today, enrollment is up to nearly 8,000 and graduates have matured into leaders making decisions affecting the future of Columbus. Mayor Jim Wetherington is an alumnus and so is half of Columbus Council. CSU's influence is felt throughout the community.

Marking its mark

"When I came here, I remember Dean John Anderson saying the city of Columbus needed a middle class and that Columbus State could build one," said George Stanton, a biology professor who was recently appointed vice president of academic affairs. "We have done that."

Stanton came here in 1969, while Thomas Y. Whitley was president. He will be one of the few bridges between Whitley, Brooke, Brown and the new president.

Brown says the middle class that CSU has helped foster represents the masses and that it is society's backbone. He is particularly proud of the first-generation graduates it has produced.

This is something he understands, for he is the first college graduate in his family. His father never finished high school.

But it is not in his DNA to lord over people who didn't have the same opportunities. That's why his office is free of trappings.

"The doctor part bothers me," he says of the title he earned. "I don't have delusions that the person in this office is superior to a person who walks into another office."

That was the perception people had of this office under Brooke. Brown understood this, because as vice president he was charged with putting out fires. It was Brown who had to explain to the president that the fact his dog attacked a worker was serious and had to be dealt with.

Open-door policy

When Brown took office, he scheduled an open forum so people on campus could air their feelings to the man in the "Big Office." This showed skeptics that he wasn't one to hide and that he was interested.

His style has turned him into the longest-serving president in Georgia's University System.

"I never thought I'd stay 20 years," he admits. "I really didn't know if I would want to."

His tenure is impressive when you consider that most college leaders stay in one place only six or seven years.

Around his office are the artifacts of his 20 years, beginning with two bricks from the Shannon Hosiery Mill, CSU's original home. There is a tacky hat given him on the school's 25th anniversary and a rock that symbolizes the amazing public drive that built the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, the home of the Schwob School of Music.

There's even a pig snout he earned in a fund drive for diabetes.

"I got a snout and the winner got to kiss a pig. I never did understand that," he laughs.

These things decorate the room instead of the predictable diplomas. Brown says the items around him "are what got me here."

It is also part of his effort to keep separate his professional and personal side, something he and his family decided to do when he was selected as the school's third president.

Previous leaders lived in a house that sat where the Cunningham Center is located. The Browns chose not to live in such a fish bowl, something he must have learned from the experiences of the Brooke family.

'I have fuel left to run'

Brown is on his final lap as president. He gave Chancellor Errol Morris time enough for him to select a new president without the need for an interim.

Diane Payne of the chancellor's office says the selection process has not begun. Policy doesn't prescribe a timetable so the appointment of a search committee may not come soon.

"He has latitude," she says. "He can do it quickly or take time."

Since 2008 is the year CSU marks its founding, Brown hopes to kick off the celebration of the 50th anniversary with the new president presiding at the finale. He describes a convocation that will include a formal academic procession down Broadway to the RiverCenter.

Brown believes his successor will be grounded in academics in contrast to his background in business. Though many new buildings were built during the past 20 years, he says other facilities will be needed, specifically a science building, a student success center and a student recreation center. An addition to the library might bring additional classrooms.

"We won't wait on state money either," Brown said.

Final decisions will not be made until the man or woman who succeeds Brown is in place. He doesn't intend to do anything that will bind the new president, but he won't be a lame duck.

"I intend to run through the finish line," he pledges. "I have fuel left to run some more laps here but the time is right to retire."

The Columbus State the next president inherits will be in better health than the one Brown found. That goes beyond the additional buildings or the increase in student enrollment.

"We're at peace," he says.