Written by Loretta Brandon
In July, 2015, Georgia Southern University named a 16-year veteran of both faculty and administration as interim president of the university. Today, Dr. Jean Bartels stands tall as the first woman president in Georgia Southern’s 110-year history, not only because she’s a woman, but because her education, her experience, and her passion for learning make her perfect for the job. She is the voice and face of Georgia Southern, and has taken that job description to heart. From doing all of her own tweeting, to being presented with the first game ball, to being baptized in Eagle Creek (a nurse should know better, she says!), her story is a good one.
The Nursing Educator
In February 1999, Jean Bartels left snow-covered Milwaukee and arrived in warm, sunny South Georgia for an interview to become chair of the nursing department at Georgia Southern University. Although she readily admits that the good weather was great, she accepted the position for much more than the weather.
“I fell in love with the faculty, a really good faculty that understood nursing education,” she said. “They were already making good progress when I got here.” When Bartels saw that Em Olivia Bevis, who was considered the “mother” of nursing curriculum in the United States, was the founder of the Georgia Southern School of Nursing, she knew it was the place she wanted to be.
Today, she is very pleased she made that decision sixteen years ago. In her fruitful career she has made Georgia Southern a premier, nationally recognized site for nursing education. Along with development of a long-awaited new nursing building in 2005, Bartels worked to make the nursing curriculum increasingly evidence-driven, leading to a high-quality program that admits only the brightest and most committed students.
Prior to coming to Georgia Southern, Bartels served two rotations as a board member of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). While at Georgia Southern, she became secretary, then president-elect, and finally president of the AACN from 2004-2006. During her tenure as AACN president, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) became the terminal degree for nursing, and she was able to gain this permanent credential program for Georgia Southern in just two years.
It’s testimony to her versatility that Bartels was asked to serve, in turn, as interim Dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences (CHSS) for a year, then interim provost for a year, then named Dean of CHSS. Finally, in 2012, Bartels was named Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost, a “nuts and bolts” job focusing on assessment of student learning and student learning outcomes, and a job for which she was eminently well-prepared.
Bartels, a native of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, credits her love of education, and particularly nursing, to two people who played a major role in her life: her father, a WWII medic and an emergency medical technician; and her grandmother, a single parent and a teacher in a one-roomed school.
“My grandmother was part of women’s liberation before the movement began,” said Bartels. “She was a really good educator who would sit with me to help solve academic problems.”
After three years of working in Milwaukee’s Columbia Hospital in the morning, going to classes, working in the hospital for the rest of the day, and working there on alternate weekends, she earned her nursing diploma from the hospital in 1970.
“That’s how most nurses got their education in those days,” she explained. One week after graduation she went to work in the hospital’s intensive care unit—a newer phenomenon at the time—and stayed there until she married Terry Bartels, a locomotive engineer working on freight trains in the Chicago area. She was happy being married, and she and Terry had a son and a daughter, but she dreamed about going back to school.
Bartels finally took the big step of going back in 1977 for a bachelor’s of science in nursing, a degree offered at Alverno College in Milwaukee. An all-women’s college, Alverno’s program was ability-based, outcome-focused, and its mission was to advance women’s voices. Not only was it a great school, it offered child care—a necessity for Bartels—for only 35 cent an hour.
“Alverno focused on developing abilities in communication, problem-solving, analysis, valuing, social interaction, effective citizenship, global perspective, and aesthetic engagement,” said Bartels. “The performance-based assessment made a dramatic difference in my education.”
After graduation she moved on to a master’s of science in nursing at Marquette University, but continued to work as a teaching assistant at Alverno. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in nursing at the University of Wisconsin, and eventually became chair of the nursing department at Alverno.
“There is no doubt that Alverno College’s teaching made me passionate about education and what good education looks like,” said Bartels. “I want to get students to think differently about their learning.”
How did she end up at Georgia Southern in 1999? Eventually, Alverno College offered her the position of provost, but she didn’t want the job. When she looked around at nursing programs, she knew Georgia Southern was a place she could develop assessment opportunities based on the Alverno example, so she came to Statesboro.
The Community Leader
Ever since they arrived in Statesboro, Jean and Terry Bartels have been active and invested members of the community. For Jean, the organization that matters most is the Ogeechee Area Hospice. She has been a board member for most of her time in Statesboro, and served as board president 2002-2006, 2009-2010, and 2010-2013.
“The Ogeechee Area Hospice is dear to my heart and an outstanding community gift,” she said. “I was president through the campaign to build the inpatient facility. It is solely the property of the community, and the community supports it. I’m not on the board now, but when my responsibilities change, I plan to return.”
Jean has been installed in the Statesboro Rotary Club. Along with Terry, she supports the Averitt Center for the Arts and the Georgia Southern Botanic Garden, an organization that matters a great deal to Terry.
“Within the first week after he retired in 2001, Terry became a volunteer, and he works there every Wednesday,” she said. “It’s another community treasure, and great people work there. We’ve placed a swing dedicated to my parents at the Garden.”
The Wife and Mom
The person who has made some of Jean’s accomplishments possible—her husband Terry—gets high praise from Georgia Southern’s interim president.
“He grounds me,” Bartels says, “and he brings me down to earth. He’s been my champion, whether it’s at home doing child care or traveling. He has always been a very nurturing father and a wonderful husband.” This year the couple has had fun traveling to Georgia Southern’s away games, something they seldom did when she was provost.
When Bartels retires—and it will be in Statesboro—she says you’ll find her at the Botanic Garden, with a picnic basket, reading a book, or maybe involved in the Statesboro Regional Library’s literacy work. And you may also find her behind the counter at Pladd Dot Music, the downtown business owned by her daughter and son-in-law, Chris and Ashlee Mitchell. She and Terry will undoubtedly travel to see their son, Justin, who lives in Chicago, and his wife Jeanne, and their grandchildren.
“We’ll travel, and we’ll take family vacations as we always have,” says Bartels, “but Statesboro will be our home.”