In memory of Anne A. Skleder: Doing the good work of Brenau

Late President Anne A. Skleder on Pearce Auditorium stage

“Greetings, Brenau Community!”

Dr. Anne Skleder’s heartfelt words opened videos shared weekly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and then monthly as operations returned to normal. More than just providing information, she maintained a sense of connection and togetherness even when the university’s faculty, staff and students were kept apart. The sentiment and energy she infused in those three words became symbolic of her four-year presidency.

Skleder, the university’s 10th and first female president, died Oct. 19, 2023, at age 58 from myelofibrosis.

One of Skleder’s first tasks as president was to launch the university’s next round of strategic planning – and many goals of the resulting plan were achieved during her tenure. Under her leadership, Brenau expanded Brenau’s Downtown Campus, elevated the Lynn J. Darby School of Psychology and Adolescent Counseling and established the Miller Institute for Global Education. She also successfully prepared the university for the decennial review by its accrediting body.

Leading during COVID-19

However, even as the work on these accomplishments got underway, one of the defining elements of Skleder’s presidency – the COVID-19 pandemic – began less than six months after she arrived at Brenau.

“She got started in her presidency and fate gave her COVID to deal with,” Mike Smith, chair of the Board of Trustees, said. “What did Anne do? She used it to create outreach to an entire community. Who in the Brenau community has not gotten a lift from her videos reminding us how much she missed us and to stay safe? She created a way to connect when it was almost impossible.”

A year after the first COVID cases were discovered in Georgia, Skleder was interviewed by Rose Scott on National Public Radio’s Atlanta affiliate WABE to discuss how Brenau had adapted during the pandemic.

“It has been a year like no other,” Skleder said in the interview. “I think what this year did for us at Brenau is showed that we are, in fact, forged in fire and able to continue to be tested by challenges from the external environment. So this isn’t the first challenge, and it won’t be the last. But I’m super proud of how our community is continuing to come through.”

President Skleder bumps elbows with Trustee Chairman Mike Smith

In emails, videos and Zoom calls throughout the pandemic, Skleder always focused on community and dedication to students.

“It’s important for you to know that while many of our day-to-day activities and functions will be different, our warm and caring Brenau community will remain vibrant and our education will remain challenging, engaging and relevant,” she wrote in a June 2020 email to faculty and staff outlining plans for fall. “I am excited about the opportunity to engage in another semester of educating and supporting our students.”

During the pandemic, Jim Eck, Ph.D., provost and vice president of academic affairs, described “her decisive, informed and steadfast leadership” in a letter to the Board of Trustees commending Skleder. 

“Dr. Skleder did not become our 10th president by chance. Rather she was the right leader at the right time, and we had no idea when she joined the university just how much we would need her,” Eck said after her death. 

Expanding the Downtown Campus

Doug Ivester cuts the ribbon on the Downtown Campus in September 2021, with Mike Smith, Mayor Sam Couvillion, and President Skleder.

Even during the pandemic, Skleder ensured the university continued strategically in achieving its mission of educating students. One of the biggest accomplishments was the creation of a Downtown Campus. Ten years after Brenau first began teaching classes downtown in the former Georgia Mountains Center, Brenau Trustee Doug Ivester’s addition of the Gainesville Renaissance building in 2022 was instrumental in creating a campus focused on health sciences.

“The creation of a health science-centric Brenau Downtown Campus has a positive impact for both Brenau and the downtown area,” Smith said. “The Brenau Downtown Campus is an important step in support of our strategic vision for expanding our efforts and programs.”

The Downtown Campus also illustrates the fusion of science and the arts that makes Brenau unique. The three academic programs housed there – the Lynn J. Darby School of Psychology and Adolescent Counseling, Department of Physical Therapy and Department of Physician Assistant Studies – fill regional gaps in health care. The campus also celebrates the arts via spaces often used by the public like the Charles D. Walters Theatre on the Square, the Renaissance Gallery and the Manhattan Gallery.

“Brenau long has echoed many of the themes of the Renaissance period: intellectual accomplishment; appreciation of artistic expression; and a curriculum of liberal arts, scientific inquiry and global awareness,” Skleder said at a September 2022 event celebrating the Downtown Campus. “It is through these avenues that we challenge students to live extraordinary lives of personal and professional fulfillment. … Feeding the mind, body and spirit through the arts and sciences – that is our history, our mission, and our promise to our students and the community.”

Growing the psychology program

The new home of the Lynn J. Darby School of Psychology and Adolescent Counseling in the Gainesville Renaissance on the Brenau Downtown Campus facilitates the expansion of the counseling clinic and academic programs.

Expanding Brenau’s psychology department was an early goal for Skleder, and the pandemic only exacerbated the local and national gaps in access to quality mental health care. From the department’s elevation to a school in 2020 to welcoming its first doctoral students in 2023, Brenau’s psychology program has grown rapidly through Skleder’s leadership and support from the Ivesters and their foundation. 

“Overall, our goal is to continue improving and expanding the services that we offer to community members as well as the experiences that we offer to students. This increases our visibility in the community and our ability to attract the best and most qualified applicants to our programs,” Dr. Julie Battle, Fuller E. Callaway Professorial Chair of the Darby School, said. “This, in turn, contributes to our long-term goal of increasing access to mental health care in our community.”

Feeding the mind, body and spirit through the arts and sciences – that is our history, our mission, and our promise to students and the community.

Anne A. Skleder, Brenau University President

The Melvin Douglas and Victoria Kay Ivester Foundation also funded the Darby Scholars program. The scholarship program, in partnership with the Gainesville Police Department, also provides field training for future mental health clinicians responding to calls with law enforcement. Brenau soon will launch a certificate program to provide mental health training for law enforcement officers – another program Skleder worked to make happen.

“The Darby Scholar’s Program is exactly the kind of innovation that can come from the partnership with Brenau, the city and the Ivester Foundation,” Gainesville Mayor Sam Couvillon said. “That innovation is leading the way for mental health solutions and demonstrating the cooperation that our communities need. I could not be more proud of this program.”

Establishing the Miller Institute

A group poses for a photo at the launch of the Miller Institute

Skleder’s vision to expand Brenau’s international reach, which is key to various aspects of the strategic plan, is facilitated by the Miller Institute for Global Education. The institute, funded by longtime Brenau Trustee Pete Miller and his wife, Cathy, represents an expansion of the Pete and Cathy Miller Family Endowment focused on study abroad. 

“As we move into the future, Brenau will continue to meet the changing needs of our community and the world,” Skleder said in February 2022 when the institute was announced. “Thanks to the generosity of Pete and Cathy Miller, one of the key ways that we will accomplish this strategic goal is through the Miller Institute for Global Education. I’m excited about the possibilities the institute will provide to send Brenau students around the globe and for the university to bring the world to the Gainesville and Hall County area.”

Dozens of students and faculty have studied abroad since the institute’s creation, including  Annabeth Vandiver, WC ’22. She said the experience working with children at a rural public school in Panama was life-changing.

“Working with the children in Loma Bonita was incredible and eye-opening,” Vandiver said. “I constantly found myself comparing the school, teaching styles, students and staff to my experiences in the American schools.”

Brenau also has hosted international students from around the world, including more than three dozen through a partnership with Panama’s federal aid agency started in 2021 by Skleder.

Alberto Ortega, a finance major in his junior year at Brenau, in 2021 talked about his excitement upon learning he had been selected for the program’s first cohort.

“When IFARHU’s Director Bernardo Meneses told me that I had been chosen for this scholarship, I was so excited that I couldn’t breathe,” Ortega said. “Nothing that is worthwhile is easy, and I know that this will be the biggest challenge I have ever faced. With determination and faith, I will persevere.”

‘Continue the good works of Brenau’

The accomplishment of several aspects of her strategic vision will be part of Skleder’s legacy, as well as how she guided the university through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her student-first philosophy will be remembered as well. Skleder kept Brenau students – who she called “our reason for being” – at the forefront throughout her four-year tenure, which included establishing a scholarship for first-generation students shortly after arriving here. 

Debra Dobkins, Ph.D., dean and assistant vice president of The Women’s College at Brenau, talked about Skleder’s legacy during a Celebration of Life event held in November to honor her.

“She leaves an indelible legacy here, not only for breaking gender barriers and for being an outstanding president, but for leading with love and joy, great hope and unshakable faith, and limitless potential of Brenau students,” Dobkins said.

“She loved this campus, and the diversity and the uniqueness of the students, faculty and staff. She loved Brenau’s students, and the students loved her back.” 

Mike Smith, Chair of the Board of Trustees

At the memorial, Smith also talked about Skleder’s dedication to Brenau and her tireless work ethic. 

“As board chair, I often would ask: ‘Are you getting enough ‘me’ time?’ … Her normal answer was: “I love what I do. I don’t really want to not be doing Brenau,’” Smith said. “She loved this campus, and the diversity and the uniqueness of the students, faculty and staff. She loved Brenau’s students, and the students loved her back.” 

President Skleder and a student look at artwork together

As a collaborative leader, Skleder shied away from taking accolades for herself, instead crediting the leadership team, faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors who supported Brenau. As she bravely fought cancer, she urged the university community to “continue the good works of Brenau” during her absence. Now, the university prepares to do so under David L. Barnett, Ph.D., named Brenau’s 11th president by the Board of Trustees in February. 

As executive vice president and chief financial officer, Barnett served closely with Skleder throughout her tenure and, at her direction, led the institution during her illness.

“The tragic passing of our president came on the heels of the university beginning its recovery from the effects of a global pandemic. Both were unchosen circumstances, yet both accentuated Dr. Skleder’s concern for the university and its community,” Barnett said. “Her personal guidance of the university during the pandemic ensured students’ progress and faculty engagement continued under some of the most trying circumstances imaginable. By planning for the future of the institution regardless of the uncertain outcome from her illness, she likewise ensured the university was continuing, without suspension, to focus on its mission of challenging students to live extraordinary lives of personal and professional fulfillment.”  

This story originally appeared in the spring 2024 edition of the Brenau Window.