On Monday, Aug. 31, Dr. Gretchen Caughman, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, wrapped up 35 years of dedicated service to Augusta University.
Honoring her distinguished career, President Brooks A. Keel, PhD, hosted a virtual retirement celebration on Thursday, Aug. 27.
And ensuring Caughman’s work continues long after her retirement, Caughman and her husband, Dr. Frank Caughman, have established the Drs. Gretchen and Frank Caughman Honors Scholarship Endowment to provide scholarships to deserving undergraduate students enrolled in the Augusta University Honors Program. Learn more by visiting the Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement website.
When Dr. Gretchen Caughman, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, announced her retirement plans in January, people initially made a point of congratulating her.
By March, many of those same well-wishers were begging her to stay.
As the COVID-19 pandemic turned the second semester of the 2019/2020 academic year upside down, many hoped Caughman, with her 10-year tenure as provost and 35 years with the institution, would stick around longer than her planned June 30 exit to help lay the groundwork for the 2020/2021 academic year.
She agreed to stay on until Aug. 31.
“As we got into the middle of March and then April, things were just getting so critical, and it was clear that there was going to be so much work over the summer that I was thinking that I really needed to see it through, that I couldn’t close the door on this and leave it in such chaos.”
The decision to stay is consistent with a career spent supporting others at the institution that has been her professional home since the mid-1980s.
“I just felt like there were things I could do that would really mean a lot more than what two months would mean to me anywhere else,” she says.
To understand the scope of Caughman’s impact, it helps to know what a provost really is.
“In the contemporary parlance of the academic world, it’s the chief academic officer,” Caughman says. “But one of the things I love to tell people is the word actually has some deep roots. One definition is the keeper of a prison. I like that one. Maybe sometimes it feels like that.”
Currently, the university uses what’s called a strong provost model, which means the position is in charge of all academic affairs, the colleges, the deans, the research enterprise, student affairs and enrollment management, among other things.
“It’s about all the missions of the university proper,” she says. “That affects faculty, that affects students, that affects research initiatives as well as things like the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.”
Someone once told her that a provost is like a shock absorber: Above, you’ve got the president, who’s the face of the university, and below, you’ve got the deans, who are the faces of their worlds. A lot flows up, and a lot rolls down, and not everyone sees the value of absorbing the shock in between. People understand what a president does, and they know what a dean does, but they don’t understand why those aren’t enough.
“You kind of have to check your ego at the door a lot of times,” she says. “You have to have enough ego to believe you’re the one to do the job, but it can’t be about you.”
When announcing her retirement, President Brooks Keel expressed his gratitude for her years of service, noting that her 10 years as provost are marked by some of the university’s most monumental successes, including the opening of a student housing complex and breaking ground on new facilities for The Dental College of Georgia, the Medical College of Georgia, the College of Science and Mathematics and the School of Computer and Cyber Sciences.
“I’m grateful to Gretchen for all that she’s done to advance Augusta University,” Keel said. “My time as president has been made better because of her, and I will certainly miss her passion, her wisdom and her commitment to our students.”
Caughman is the longest-tenured provost currently in the University System of Georgia — and undoubtedly the one with the most caveats.
“I was the last provost at the Medical College of Georgia, the only provost at Georgia Health Sciences University and the first provost at Augusta University,” she says. “All that by staying right here in Augusta.”
For someone so grounded, Caughman grew up surrounded by aviation.
“I was born in Bermuda and grew up in Greenville, South Carolina,” she says. “We always knew how to tell people how to get to our house because it was the one with the plane in the front yard.”
Her father, who flew B-29s for the Air Force, had an active pilot’s license for more than 60 years. Though only one of her three siblings ever actually got a pilot’s license, all of them spent time in the air.
She went to college at Clemson University, where she met her husband, Frank, in the bacterial genetics lab.
“We met over a petri dish,” she says.
A year ahead of her, he was a microbiology major while she was a biochemistry major. He went on to dental school in Charleston, and three weeks after she graduated, they got married.
After spending time in Charleston at the Medical University of South Carolina and at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, they ended up in Augusta, where they’ve been ever since.
“Though neither of us were from Georgia, we both grew up knowing the reputation of MCG and the dental school, and we thought this would be a great opportunity,” she says. “In cases like this, it can be a challenge, looking for positions for two people, but we were fortunate to get something that worked.”
Caughman’s career trajectory has been filled with the kinds of movement and opportunities you expect to see from a retiring provost — just not one who’s been in the same place for 35 years.
The first move up the administrative ladder came after a number of years of being a researcher and a faculty member, not only in Dentistry, but also in Medicine and then the Graduate School. At that time, Matt Kluger was coming in as the new dean of Graduate Studies and vice president for research, and because his focus was going to be more directed toward the VP of Research, Caughman says they were looking to create a position for an associate dean to manage the day-to-day operations of the Graduate School.
She was approached for the role and thought it sounded like a good idea.
“So I went into that role, and then, about five years later, when he moved on to another opportunity at a different institution, I went in as interim dean and was subsequently made dean.”
Later came the arrival of President Ricardo Azziz and the retirement of Dr. Barry Goldstein, who had been MCG’s provost for nearly 20 years.
“Again, they were looking for an interim, and through that process, I was selected with the idea that I could be a candidate if I decided I wanted to be,” she says. “I was really turned on by the things that were going on, the overall vision and things I felt I could contribute toward, so I said I’d go in as a candidate, went through the national search process and was ultimately selected.”
Then came the consolidation that joined Georgia Health Sciences University and Augusta State University, which brought with it the opportunity to become a provost at an entirely different kind of university. Given her background, which had always been at a health sciences university, it was an unexpected opportunity to say the least.
“I never would have thought that anyone else would consider me for a more comprehensive, typical undergraduate institution, and to have that opportunity and to be able to grow into it and be able to craft the mission has been tremendous,” she says. “You’ve got to understand, the last time I was on an undergraduate campus was when I was one.”
“Over time, those of us who’ve stayed a long time have seen a lot of new faces and old friends go on to other things,” she says. “But there’s still a permanence to an institution like this, even when it flourishes — and I will say that: flourishes, not just survives — after a seismic shift like the consolidation of the two legacy institutions. Both of them had very deep roots, very deep histories, very deep allegiances. Each became something different, but the something different is really special.”
She’s particularly proud of the growth in academic programs.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind that we were very lean at consolidation in terms of a research university’s academic profile,” she says. “We’ve grown from 111 majors to 160 in a really short time. For people who aren’t in the field, it may not sound like much, but it’s really a heavy lift — not just by me, of course, but by faculty, who are always at the heart of that.”
There has also been considerable growth in the graduate programs, doctoral programs and nursing graduate programs going back to when she was dean of the Graduate School.
During her time as provost there has also been a lot of movement related to student success and the removal of barriers that prevented students at the undergraduate level from finishing in four years. Moving the needle there has required a culture change, not just among students, but also among the people who advise them, the faculty who teach them and the parents who support them.
She’s also proud of some of the important initiatives that were stood up under her watch, like the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, with a vice president — now the Chief Diversity Officer — reporting under her; the Institute of Public and Preventive Health; and the university’s blossoming cyber presence, which includes the formation of the Cyber Institute, being recognized as an academic center of excellence from the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security and ultimately, the creation of the School of Computer and Cyber Sciences.
“It’s just been really good to see all those things come to pass,” she says.
Cut to early August, when the word virtual has inserted itself in front of every major event.
Virtual Commencement. Virtual Fall Kick-off. Virtual Convocation.
And let’s not overlook the virtual meetings.
“One of the things about working from home — and this is true for many people — is that you’re never really off,” she says. “I’m always answering emails, and because you live in the same place with your computer and you can meet up on Microsoft Teams so easily, there are no boundaries. ‘We need to get together? Let’s meet at 7 p.m. Just Teams me.’”
And when you’re shepherding the academic mission through a time like this, the meetings never stop.
“It was just incredible, with so many things coming so quickly and decisions people needed right now,” she says. “Because Augusta University has a strong provost model in terms of the position’s breadth of responsibility and because of my long tenure in it, when people come to me to ask ‘Is this what we can do’ and ‘Where can that happen,’ I can evaluate it against the backdrop of what the USG’s expectations are. I’m the person to do that. This position is designed to be that interface.”
Though she has 35 years to look back on, any reflection going back further than the last five months is almost impossible right now. And when she looks back on that, what stands out is the commitment of others.
“At no time has anybody wavered,” she says. “It’s not ‘I can’t do this anymore’ or ‘I’m checking out.’ It’s ‘OK — let’s show up again and get this done.’”
And though the last few months have been exhausting, she’s happy she stayed on.
“For someone who’s been sort of Type A all her life, it’s a good way to go out,” she says. “It’s a terrible thing that’s happened and it certainly wasn’t what I expected my last months to be, but there is a great deal of satisfaction to know there was a job that needed to be done and that I could contribute.”