University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby announced plans Friday to merge Southern Polytechnic State University into the larger Kennesaw State.
The move, which stunned the polytechnic school’s 6,500 students, acknowledges an austere future in which nothing is off the table as the system looks to keep costs down.
Still, Southern Poly supporters were dismayed. “The emotions I have range from angry to shocked to disgusted,” said student Eric R. Cooney Jr.
Once associated with growth and expansion, the university system has lost almost $1.4 billion in state funding over the past six years because of the recession’s effect on Georgia’s economy. Students, whose tuition payments once helped pay 25 percent of college costs, now pick up more than half the tab.
With that in mind, Huckaby first suggested mergers in September 2011, just a few months after he took over as chancellor. It was part of a large-scale plan to force the system to confront economic realities.
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The plan first went into effect earlier this year, when the state Board of Regents agreed to merge eight institutions into four new ones — setting a historic milestone as the system shrank to 31 colleges from 35.
The latest round of consolidation represents a big win for the upstart Kennesaw State, which grew from a one-time junior college into Georgia’s third-largest public university. A combined enrollment for the merged campus will include more than 31,000 students.
“We obviously think it’s a win-win for both schools,” Huckaby said. The greater resources available at the combined KSU will be a boon for Southern Poly students, he added.
But it is also the end of an educational era in Cobb County, where both schools are located.
Once a loyal sidekick to the better known — and much bigger — Georgia Tech, Southern Poly, founded in 1948, has remained a intimate college campus.
Supporters laud its close-knit feel, with many saying they chose to work at or go to school there because students are able to know each other and can get more time with professors and work with them on real-world projects.
“If I wanted a degree from KSU I would have gone there, but I wanted a degree I felt carried a little more respect and was focused on practical knowledge,” said Cooney, whose family has either worked at or attended the school over the past 50 years.
A technical communications major, Cooney is now set to become one of the last Southern Poly graduates when he gets his degree in December 2014. System officials plan to ask that same month for the approval of the consolidation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accrediting agency, followed by a final vote of the system’s regents in January 2015.
A number of Southern Poly faculty members weren’t particularly surprised, but still were saddened.
Shariar Makarechi, who teaches building technology and often signs emails as being from a “Superior Practical Skills University,” said he was not worried about losing his job but instead fears the loss of the school’s proud history. “We’re going to disappear,” he said.
Southern Poly President Lisa Rossbacher, whose job will be eliminated once the merger is complete, vowed that would not happen.
In an interview after an emotional, impromptu address to students following Huckaby’s announcement, Rossbacher said she does not foresee closure of Southern Poly’s Marietta campus so much as a changed title on campus signs.
“I personally don’t see any way you could close either campus and serve all of these students at one or the other,” she said, noting that Southern Poly has specialized studios and laboratories for its architecture, engineering and science students.
Those details, however, have yet to be finalized. Rossbacher and Kennesaw State President Dan Papp — who will serve as the consolidated campus’ president — are set to meet next week and will begin the work of forming a committee to plan the merger. That planning effort will take nearly a year.
University system officials, meanwhile, will likely spend almost as much time getting an earful from the plan’s critics.
Laura Sherman, a second-year architecture student from Athens, worried that the value of her degree will be diminished. And as president of Southern Poly’s student honors program, she wondered just what she’ll be getting into if her honors course requirements change.
“I was more than shocked when I found out that we were becoming a different university,” said Sherman, who is demanding a meeting with regents. “It’s kind of like a slap in the face.”