Chancellor: Proposed consolidations are right approach

Long-known for expanding campuses, the University System of Georgia changed course Thursday by recommending eight colleges merge into four. It's part of a sweeping plan to cut administrative costs and funnel more money toward students and academic programs.

The proposal does not include any campuses in metro Atlanta, nor will it affect any of the state's historically black colleges. None of the system's 35 existing colleges and campuses will close, but officials expect some administrative and staff layoffs.

Mergers have the potential to save taxpayers millions, although Chancellor Hank Huckaby said it's too soon to predict how large the savings will be. Should the state Board of Regents approve the plan as expected, the consolidations will affect more than 36,000 students at the eight colleges.

Some local leaders impacted by the plan supported it, saying it will provide a greater range of academic programs and make their communities more attractive to business. But mergers are not popular with everyone. Some worried about layoffs and feared working adults will have to travel greater distances to take certain courses.

Huckaby said consolidations are the "right approach for us to take at the right time." While it won't be easy, he said the system can't ignore the economics of dwindling state support coupled with rising costs. The state has cut the system's funding by more than $1 billion since the start of the Great Recession.

"We are in a new reality and we can't keep doing business the same old way," Huckaby said during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We need to help more Georgians earn a college degree and this will give students access to more programs and allow us to focus more of our resources on how to best help them."

The proposal affects the following colleges:

  • Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University, the state's only public medical school. The colleges are about three miles apart, and Augusta State's president is retiring June 30.
  • Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University. Gainesville's president is retiring June 30.
  • Macon State College and Middle Georgia College. Jeff Allbritten, president of Macon State, will be president of the consolidated school.
  • Waycross College and South Georgia College in Douglas. Waycross has had an interim president since July.

The regents are scheduled to vote on the proposal Tuesday and Huckaby expects their approval. He will then appoint committees to suggest solutions to different implementation issues, such as college name, staff and faculty positions and academic offerings at each location.

It's too soon to say which college in each pair would become the main campus, but Huckaby predicted the consolidation will be done by fall 2013.

Huckaby and the regents traveled across the state Wednesday and Thursday to brief college leaders, lawmakers and local politicians about the changes. Students are still away for winter break so most don't know about the proposal, but some political leaders were outraged.

"I was blindsided by it and I'm disappointed with the whole thing," said Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross. "Waycross College is a vital part of our community and I don't see how this is going to help us. They have not done their homework to tell us how this is a positive move."

Hatfield, who serves on the House Higher Education Committee, worried how layoffs would affect the local economy. He wondered how students, many of whom work full-time and support families, would be able to drive about an hour to attend classes at South Georgia College if a course is not taught in Waycross.

He and other local leaders are trying to rally community members to urge the regents to postpone next week's vote.

Huckaby acknowledged that mergers won't be easy, but he said the end will be a "win-win for all the affected colleges."

Waycross enrollment dropped to 965 students and the college only offers two-year degrees. By consolidating with the larger South Georgia, students will have more classes to choose from and more opportunities to earn a four-year degree, Huckaby said. Students also will have greater access to online learning and distance education programs, he said.

System staff developed the proposal using criteria the regents approved in November. Those principles said the end goal is to improve graduation rates, eliminate duplication of academic programs, provide rural areas with more opportunities and cut back on administrative costs.

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver was "excited" over the merging of the city's two colleges. He envisioned a major university similar to University of Alabama at Birmingham that will attract top-tier students and business to the area.

Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, applauded the system's efforts and predicted it would be well-received in the General Assembly. Lawmakers have long argued that, unlike other state agencies, the University System has failed cut spending during the recession.

"Change is hard, but if everyone will give it a chance I think they will see that Chancellor Hank Huckaby and the regents are taking the right step for our state," said Carter, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Lawmakers encouraged the university system to consider mergers before. The Technical College System of Georgia went from 33 colleges to 25 to save about $7.5 million a year.

Other states, including Louisiana and North Carolina, have discussed merging colleges to save money.

Mergers are just one part of Huckaby's plan to make the entire system more cost-effective. He is reviewing how colleges use existing classroom space and updating policies on campus construction and academic program expansion.

"I'm excited about the opportunities these mergers would create for our students and our faculty," Huckaby said. "This will not solve all of our financial problems, but it will put us on the path of becoming a leaner, more efficient organization."

Merger candidates

The state Board of Regents will vote on a proposal Tuesday to consolidate eight existing campuses into four. While none of the colleges will close, officials expect some administrative and staff layoffs. Here are the affected schools:

-- Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities. This pairing was expected, considering the colleges are about three miles apart. Augusta State enrolls about 6,740 students and its president was already prepared to retire June 30. Georgia Health Sciences is the state's only public medical college and enrolls about 2,950 students.

-- Waycross College and South Georgia College in Douglas. While these colleges are about 40 miles apart, some expected this consolidation because Waycross offers two-year degrees and with just 965 students is the smallest of the 35 existing colleges. The college has had an interim president since July. South Georgia offers four-year degrees and enrolls about 2,270 students.

-- Macon State and Middle Georgia colleges. The schools are about 50 miles apart. Macon enrolls about 5,700 students and Middle Georgia in Cochran teaches about 3,425 students.

--  Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University. The campuses are about 30 miles apart and Gainesville's president already planned to retire June 30. Gainesville enrolls about 8,570 students. North Georgia, which is based in Dahlonega, teaches about 6,060 students and is one of only six senior military colleges in the U.S.

The story so far ...

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spent several months examining how the University System of Georgia spends its money and has reported on campus consolidations since Chancellor Hank Huckaby proposed the idea in September. The newspaper first reported what criteria system staff would use to develop the list of candidates and will continue to follow this issue as it unfolds.