Brenau Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President David Barnett

Walking Boss

Throughout his career Brenau Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President David Barnett has addressed needs of nontraditional students. He now oversees the biggest expansion project the university has seen in decades: the $6.7 million development of the Downtown Center. But what often keeps him awake nights is a leaky roof.

At his home in Watkinsville, Ga., 50 miles from the main Brenau University campus, David Barnett got the call early one Saturday. A sorority house roof failed to withstand a week-long deluge of spring rains, rendering the facility uninhabitable at least for the rest of the school year.

That was a sour enough end to a weekend away from the office, but before Barnett saw his next day off: The manager at one of Brenau’s fast-growing campuses resigned; he helped put finishing touches on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract for marketing and student support services; fire trucks rolled onto campus one night to check out reports of a strange odor emanating from a worn-out air conditioner motor; and top officials from city government called to complain that heavy equipment on a Brenau facility nearby was literally shaking the foundations of City Hall. In between were the day-to-day “scheduled” issues related both to academic affairs and administrative operations of the $48 million a year university.

On New Year’s Day Barnett officially assumed the role as Brenau University senior vice president and chief financial officer, a key member in the cabinet of President Ed Schrader. What that means, explains the quiet, jovial, good-natured Barnett, is that “I’m the guy people are supposed to call when an alarm accidentally goes off on a campus building in the middle of the night or if a roof leaks anywhere.”

Campus security reports to Barnett as does facilities and maintenance. Contractors like Aramark, which runs food services on campus, and Barnes & Noble Campus Booksellers fall under his purview. He manages budgets and keeps spending in line. He administratively oversees university investments and cash management. When there is a new project, like the Brenau Downtown Center project, he wears the construction supervisor hat.

Schrader hand-picked Barnett about a year ago when it was clear long-time friend and most-trusted colleague Wayne Dempsey would not be able to continue in the position due to illness. However, the president says, Barnett’s background and extensive experience in higher education perfectly meshed with the strategic plans Schrader had for the evolution and growth of the institution.


Nontraditional beginning

Barnett began his Brenau career in Norcross, Ga., as director of the North Atlanta campus, a rapidly warming incubator for nontraditional students who pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees. He subsequently became overseer for all campuses and online academics, and he helped manage key elements of the university’s decennial accreditation reaffirmation process. When the university abruptly found itself without a dean for the College of Education, the Barnett head found itself with another hat: interim dean.

As a nontraditional undergraduate, Barnett had what he describes as “a short-lived and unimpressive baseball career at Mercer University’s Atlanta campus and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies in 1979. He has a Masters of Divinity in religious education from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

“When I was growing up, the only two professions I ever heard discussed were school teacher and church minister,” Barnett remembers. “I wasn’t called to the ministry and I didn’t really want to teach K-12. But I became very interested in how people learn as they progress through life, so that led me to a career involving adult learning.”

He earned an education specialist graduate degree and subsequently a Ph.D. in educational leadership and organizational development from the University of Louisville. Before finding his way to Brenau, he served in academic and administrative roles at other institutions in Kentucky and Georgia.

Like about 60 percent of the Brenau nontraditional students, the Smyrna, Ga., native was the first in his immediate family to go to college.

“My father grew up in a town where the cotton mill was everyone’s employer,” Barnett says. “My mother’s family were seamstresses and furniture upholsterers.” The cotton mill closed after shipping its work overseas. Workers who lived for generations in pretty Craftsman cottages sold their homes so they could get money to move away.

“My father started his own delivery business. My mother got a bank teller job. But older relatives fell into that twilight where workers are forced to grab whatever jobs they can, hoping to hold on until social security.”

Barnett believes that just such displaced workers today swell the ranks of nontraditional students throughout the United States. In recovering from arguably the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, many of these adult learners simply seek a means of improving their lots in life by increasing their employability through higher education.


Work in Progress

For Barnett, Brenau University is very much a work in progress. Although there are certain bragging rights associated with having a building on your campus that dates to the 1880s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, such splendor belies a 130-year-old maintenance headache. That was underscored on the early spring day of his “hell week.” In addition to the sorority house roof damage, he dealt with other less-serious storm damage on campus and replacement of the leaky front lawn fountain.

The big thing on his plate, however, is the work that will continue until 2014 on renovation of the former 2,500-seat arena of the Brenau Downtown Center to create classrooms, laboratories and offices for proposed physical therapy and other graduate health care professions, part of a $6.7 million administrative and academic initiative. In addition to physical renovation, the university has to continue its academic renovation into a doctoral-degree-granting institution by getting approvals for new programs from various accreditation agencies.


Barnett shares a laugh at a recent university event with a recent "nontraditional" Brenau alumna — his wife, Kimberly.
Barnett shares a laugh at a recent university event with a recent “nontraditional” Brenau alumna — his wife, Kimberly.


The Social Network

One aspect of the Brenau Downtown Center development will be installation of technology in the building that will connect all Brenau campuses and online students around the world. Barnett, who recently completed a whistle-stop tour of all those campuses with Schrader to hear specifically from the nontraditional students in those locales, says the new connectivity will help address one of their students’ major concerns: the lack of connectivity and communication with the rest of the university.

Surprisingly, this amorphous student body needs a little more administrative structure. Even if you get past issues of scheduling required classes each semester and getting faculty comfortable in dealing with the online environment, earning a degree in a nontraditional environment can get lonely. Students told Barnett and Schrader that they yearn for social support as well as academic help.

“That social component in often overlooked,” Barnett says. “When students decide to go back to school online, they sometimes find themselves in an identity crisis. Whether they want to reinvent themselves in a new career or make themselves more employable, they are wondering whether this new path is one they really want to take. A nontraditional student may look at her classmates in their 20s and wonder whether they can understand her challenges. If nontraditional students had study groups and meetings outside of class with others in their situation, they would feel less isolated.”

Part of the solution, Barnett believes, will be the multi-million-dollar, multi-year contract recently negotiated with an adult higher education consulting company, Institute for Professional Development in Phoenix, Ariz. The firm works with accredited not-for-profit institutions like Brenau not only to enroll students for nontraditional programs but also to help take better care of them after they get there. IPD plans to use social media as a way to offer information about online classes Brenau offers as well as financial aid options and one-on-one student support activities. Barnett expresses a hope that social media – Google hangouts, Facebook postings and Twitter parties – might provide some ways for students who are physically distant from Brenau campuses and from each other to meet and make human connections, even in the virtual social network environment.

But enough of this musing on what could be. There are the what must be’s that command Barnett’s attention this fine spring morning. He’s got to get back to the main campus for a meeting with the insurance adjuster about a sorority house roof.

And a thousand other things.


Additional reporting and writing by David Morrison.

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