Editorial: Augusta Tech president leaving lasting legacy
After 22-plus years, President Elam officially retires Nov. 30
Augusta Technical College President Terry Elam calls it “being rare.”
It’s “when you can do something and you have credentials that say you can do it, and no one else can, or a limited number of people can do it,” he said.
Elam officially retires Nov. 30 as president of the two-year school, whose mission this newspaper has supported strongly. Under Elam’s leadership, Augusta Tech has turned out so many “rare” students that the numbers imply that they’re pretty common.
More than 65,000 credit-earning students have attended the school in his 22-plus years as president. New campuses have sprouted up in Thomson, Waynesboro and Grovetown. The school went from offering 38 programs to 130 - far more than when Elam himself left college as a student.
Elam grew up like a lot of us - thinking that when you graduate high school, you go to a four-year college, then maybe pursue a higher degree, then hit the job market as a highly-sought-after professional. So that’s what he did. He graduated from Paine College in 1971, began teaching at the Academy of Richmond County and started his path toward a master’s degree, which he later earned at the University of Georgia.
But during the stagflation of the 1970s, Elam got a much closer - and realistic - look at the job market.
While working an internship at the Georgia Department of Labor, he saw who got and didn’t get jobs. Often, applicants with four-year degrees would return to sign in and seek work. But applicants from vocational schools - including at that time Augusta Tech - didn’t just sign in. They left with job tickets.
“They actually left with a lead, and most times we didn’t see them again,” Elam said.
That opened his eyes to several realities. Not every intelligent young person is cut out for a four-year college. Four years in college don’t guarantee you a job. And often all it takes is a license or a certificate to start on the path to a high-paying profession.
Sought-after skills, not just degrees, win jobs. And Augusta Tech provides sought-after skills.
“All jobs aren’t ‘professional,’” Elam said. “And many of those jobs pay very well, and they purchase a lot of things in our community. They’re the backbone of our community. And that’s how I wound up here at Augusta Tech.”
In 1982 Elam began teaching at Augusta Tech as a math teacher in the “learning lab,” now called the school’s Success Center. Aspiring students who don’t meet all entry requirements are guided through a curriculum guiding them toward eligibility.
Elam’s skill at teaching and knack for numbers drew the attention of Augusta Tech officials, at the dawn of the computer age, who needed an expert in a new higher-education administrative software called Banner, still used in colleges across the nation today.
That led to a promotion to Augusta Tech’s admissions director, then to the school’s vice-president of economic development. He would help recruit and work with businesses locating in Augusta, from the standpoint of how Augusta Tech and its graduates would enhance the industries’ performance.
In December 1996 Elam emerged from a field of 60 applicants to replace longtime Augusta Tech President Jack B. Patrick.
Elam measures the school’s success not by the raw number of students passing though. As an old math teacher, he’s a numbers guy, so he relies on statistics, And government labor statistics have shown him that 99% of all Augusta Tech graduates leave school and have jobs - 87% of them in their chosen fields of study.
Elam’s honed networking skills with business and industry helps him and his faculty choose what programs to teach. Are the jobs long- or short-term? And what assistance can employers offer?
A classic example: Cyber.
“Both Augusta University and Augusta Tech decided that this was a great opportunity,” Elam said. The U.S. Army Cyber Command began moving to Fort Gordon, and schools offering cyber training had sprung up near its old location at Fort Belvoir, Va. “So we also knew that if we didn’t react, somebody else would,” he said.
Actually, Augusta Tech started teaching cybersecurity 20 years ago. Only about five years ago, when “cyber” became such a buzzword, did the school change the program’s name to cybersecurity. Downtown, at the Georgia Cyber Center on Reynolds Street, 400 students - including 100 still in high school, earning college credits - will go through Augusta Tech’s cyber program.
Another job field in huge demand? Nursing - especially in a booming medical town. Elam places the nursing shortage as starting about 15 years ago. The school has instructed LPNs - licensed practical nurses - practically since its founding, but its registered nurse program is just eight years old, and already poised to expand.
Placement in Augusta Tech’s RN program is highly competitive. Only the academic cream of the crop is selected. Example: The school recently admitted 24 students to study nursing. The 25th student who didn’t make the cut had a 3.5 grade-point average.
Elam’s connection to Augusta Tech and vocational education is about as deep and as real as it gets. His uncle, Ervin Elam, was Augusta’s first black master electrician. Ervin trained one of his brothers-in-law, who became one of Augusta Tech’s first electrical instructors. Another brother-in-law, a machinist, was on the school’s machine shop faculty.
“I saw in my family that most of the successful people didn’t have Ph.Ds, master’s degrees, but they were businessmen,” Elam said. “And every single one had a skill you couldn’t take from them.”
One of the school’s greatest success stories was that of former Augusta Commissioner Andrew Jefferson, who died last November. After graduating, he built a career as an electrician, earned an advanced degree, returned to the school to teach, then rose further to become one of the city’s most respected leaders.
“We need more people like that, and more stories to tell to some young kid who’s being raised in some alley in this community, that there’s a light leading out,” Elam said. “That’s the purpose of education - keeping that light that someone can see.”
Hotchkiss, Joe. “Editorial: Augusta Tech President Leaving Lasting Legacy.” The Augusta Chronicle, The Augusta Chronicle, 20 July 2019, 8:00pm, www.augustachronicle.com/opinion/20190720/editorial-augusta-tech-president-leaving-lasting-legacy.