Woman and man in front of Brenau University's Pearce Auditorium

A Legacy of Leadership and Service

Have passion for the mission. Be knowledgeable. Do your homework. Ask the right questions. Stay involved and keep your fingernails dirty.

These are some of the valuable lessons longtime Brenau trustee and former board chair Pete Miller says he has learned over his 20-plus years on the board — 16 of them as chair — during times of hardship and phenomenal growth. And, adds Miller who knows a thing or two about good board governance, “always be cognizant of the line between governance and management.”

Miller, who currently heads the board’s Finance Committee, says that when these attributes are present, board members are aware of the details that drive the institution without getting into the management piece. He believes this approach helps to keep board members involved and engaged to the point that they are making a difference.

“Every trustee on any board or director on a corporate board should feel that their presence is making a difference,” Miller says. “So part of the chair’s and the president’s responsibility is to create an environment through which every trustee has the opportunity to make a difference. It’s the board member’s responsibility to take that environment and do something with it.”

Miller is quick to say that the biggest responsibility of a board of trustees is to ensure that the right leadership is in place, and that starts with the president. “During my time on Brenau’s board we brought on Ed Schrader and then Anne Skleder as presidents. Both of these actions I would pick out as being the most important work we’ve done as a board.”

Brenau University President Anne Skleder says she has benefited greatly from Miller’s counsel and leadership. “Having Pete Miller as board chair when I came to Brenau was indeed a gift for me,” Skleder says. “His counsel during my early days was invaluable, and he continues to be a great resource for me and the university. Brenau’s board is a strong one, and that is in no small measure due to Pete’s leadership. We are so grateful for his willingness to continue his significant contributions as a trustee and chair of the board’s Finance Committee.”

Passion for the mission

While passion for the organization’s mission is important, it was an assignment to look after the investment his employer at the time, First National Bank of Gainesville, had made in the then cash strapped university that got Miller connected to Brenau.

“First National wanted to make sure they
had somebody on the board, since they and a couple of other Gainesville banks stepped up, and fortunately so, with financial support. I was chosen to go on the board, and I really knew little about Brenau.”

Miller says that he took his assignment seriously and began to grow as a board member. His wife, Catherine Cox Miller, BU ’99, was a school teacher before they had children. Both have always been committed to education, especially women’s education, partly because of his corporate experience. He retired in 2010 as a regional bank president where he oversaw all banking operations in five Southeastern states. At the time banks had very few women in leadership positions.

“I always thought it was such a shame that we did not have more women in leadership because it brought a different perspective,” he says. “It brought critical thinking. It brought a whole lot of positive things to the leadership team. I think between my experience in trying to bring that kind of diversity to First National and later Regions Financial Corp., and my growing relationship with Brenau, my interest in Brenau piqued a little bit more and more and more. That’s how I got involved.”

While remaining steadfast to the mission of The Women’s College, then-President Ed Schrader and the board began to explore ways to financially strengthen the enterprise. Miller remembers many conversations that he and Schrader had. As a banker, Miller’s background was steeped in risk management and the need for solid details, skills he regularly employed when discussing the university’s future with the visionary Schrader. “We didn’t always agree by any means,” Miller says, “and we had some heated discussions. He’d be on one side as a visionary, and I’d be on the other side as risk manager.”

Schrader, who was granted the title of president emeritus by the board following his retirement in 2019, says that Miller was a great partner and friend during Schrader’s years as president.

“Pete’s predecessor and longtime board chair John Jacobs told me when I started at Brenau as president that he was only going to serve one more year as chair of the board,” Schrader says. “I settled on Pete Miller as my choice to succeed John before the board leadership and I ever approached him because of his intellect and his abilities. As Pete considered our request, I also let him know that ideally I wanted him to serve in that capacity through all my tenure at Brenau. He eventually said he would, and to his credit, he stuck with it. The tension between risk taker and risk manager provided great results for Brenau over the years.”

Their conversations and many more with other trustees and university staff eventually led to the university’s expansion into the health sciences. Building on the foundation of its nursing program, today the Ivester College of Health Sciences includes the doctoral-level Mary Inez Grindle School of Nursing, the Lynn J. Darby School of Psychology and Adolescent Counseling, the School of Occupational Therapy, the Department of Physical Therapy and the Department of Physician Assistant Studies, which welcomes its inaugural class in January. The college also offers a range of graduate and undergraduate programs in mathematics, sciences, applied gerontology, exercise science and preprofessional health care programs.

Brenau’s expanded in-demand programs generated additional funds that strengthened The Women’s College that continues to flourish. “Today, we are offering a different experience that provides young women a pathway to be successful, however they choose success,” he says. “These students leave Brenau being prepared, as Ed would always say, to live that extraordinary life. And I think we’ve redefined what that extraordinary life can be through The Women’s College.”

Woman and man in graduation regalia.
President Anne Skleder, joined above by Pete Miller at Brenau’s winter commencement Dec. 13, 2019, credits Miller’s passion and commitment to international experiences as “the bedrock of our internationalization efforts.” (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

International experiences an investment for tomorrow

Miller and his wife also have a passion for Brenau students to have international experiences. He says this is partially due to what he perceives as America’s diminishment within a growing global environment. He was instrumental in forging a partnership with Anhui Normal University based in Wuhu in southeastern China that includes a variety of joint degrees, having made many trips to China with Schrader on behalf of Brenau. Through this fall semester, 205 Chinese students have participated in the partnership.

“Unless you’ve had that international experience,” he says, in China for example, “dealing with a culture and understanding the people as I think they understand us, how are these young people going to be adequately prepared in whatever their chosen profession is to compete in this global society?” Miller’s passion and commitment to international experiences is “the bedrock of our internationalization efforts as we look to move forward,” Skleder says. “We wouldn’t be there without him.”

Miller has been heartened by the experiences of Brenau student mentors who visit Chinese students bound for Brenau. He says any of their preconceptions are challenged and their worldviews expanded through the experience of having spent a couple of weeks there.

Miller believes that the wants, desires, expectations and aspirations of young Chinese people and their parents are no different than they are in America. He also knows that these experiences are an investment for the future. “I know I won’t see it in my lifetime,” Miller says, “but maybe in my grandkids’ lifetimes, if there’s only one or two or three or four that take that international experience and it makes a difference in their lives that ultimately makes a difference, not competitively, but maybe more importantly, socially, this world will be a better place.”

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