This year’s Commencement speaker will be the Illinois College of Optometry’s fifth president, Dr. Arol Augsburger. This honor does not often go to an internal personality, but 2018 is a year of change. For one, Commencement will take place in a fresh location– The Chicago Symphony Center. This change will be followed up shortly by another. Dr. Arol Augsburger is retiring, and the search for his predecessor is well underway.
Dr. Arol Augsburger’s story did not begin in Illinois. He was born in rural Ohio. The oldest of three boys, Dr. Augsburger was raised just outside of Lima. The brothers enjoyed “a lot of outdoor stuff.” Backyard sports took place in Dr. Augsburger’s country neighborhood almost every day. He says his “main three” pursuits were football, basketball, and baseball, because of their inspiring coaches and focus on teamwork.
It was Dr. Augsburger’s love of sports that first got him thinking about optometry. His eyesight forced him to wear athletic glasses, which were uncomfortable under his football helmet and sometimes fogged on the basketball court. “I had enough talent that the athletic department said, ‘You know, we ought to help this guy’s family get some contact lenses,’” says Dr. Augsburger. Shortly after this revelation, he met his first connection to the Illinois College of Optometry: Dean Cortad, OD ’49.
Dr. Cortad fitted Dr. Augsburger with contact lenses- a real innovation in the early 1960s. “They were very large lenses by today’s comparison,” Dr. Augsburger remembers. “They didn’t let any oxygen get through… it is amazing that you could wear them at all!” Even so, the lenses improved his athletic performance.
Dr. Cortad kept journals and books in his office all about optometry. The young Dr. Augsburger got to learn more about the profession with each visit. He was hooked. He loved sports, theatre, his high school sweetheart Stephanie, and optometry.
Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, took notice of Dr. Augsburger’s academic achievements and sports prowess. He left for Earlham with the intention of playing football and basketball. Unfortunately, his mother became very ill. “She had a type of chronic leukemia,” says Dr. Augsburger. He played basketball for a short while, but soon felt he could not justify the time away. He was already juggling roles in college theatre productions like The Fantasticks with a long-distance romantic relationship. This combination of commitments drove him to complete his education closer to home.
As Dr. Augsburger recalls, he had to declare a major the moment he enrolled at a branch campus of The Ohio State University. He had liked his optometrists in his youth, so he visited the college of optometry “kind of by default.” From this moment, Dr. Augsburger was dedicated to becoming an OD.
While still in college, Dr. Augsburger contributed to optometric research. He ironically ended up focusing on contact lens advancements that would have directly benefitted him as a young athlete. Says Dr. Augsburger, “My mentor at Ohio State was a fellow by the name of Richard Hill. He ran research that looked at corneal physiology- the way the cornea ‘breathes,’ particularly after you put a contact lens on the eye. My job was to measure the amount of oxygen the cornea soaked up.” Through his research, Dr. Augsburger played a major role in bringing softer contact lens materials to the market.
Dr. Augsburger married Stephanie, and throughout his life, made every decision in partnership with her. He believes “she’s always right.” For example, when Stephanie was pregnant with their first child, Dr. Augsburger opted out of launching a private practice. Instead, he chose a “short-term” faculty role at Ohio State for the health insurance. “I found out I really liked it,” he laughs. “By the second year, I was running the entire clinical program at The Ohio State University!” Clearly, Stephanie knew best.
Along the way, there were surely many opportunities for Dr. Augsburger to leave academia. Instead, he made it his passion. “There’s a great feeling that comes from teaching and seeing the lights come on when someone ‘gets it,’” he says. As Ohio State invested more into medical optometry, Dr. Augsburger involved himself wherever he could- curriculum, athletics, outreach, fundraising, and legislation. Participating in his first campus campaign, “I Believe in Ohio State,” raised $450 million. “That’s peanuts by today’s standards,” he says, “but back in 1983, that was a huge deal!”
Dr. Augsburger remained on The Ohio State’s faculty for 23 years. In this span, he turned down opportunities at the Michigan College of Optometry and the New England College of Optometry. He made many fond memories at Ohio State, including his time curating a Celebrity Eyewear Collection and meeting President Gerald Ford. When asked what finally inspired a transition, he replies, “Opportunity. Times change.” He became a Dean at The University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1992.
The title of Dean is a challenging one. “You are now expected to be both the academic leader and the administrative leader of the program,” Dr. Augsburger explains. Even so, he succeeded. He took the smallest college on UAB’s campus, and in seven years, made it the second largest. He calls this period “really a lot of fun, a lot of happenstance, and a lot of serendipity.”