In a historic step, the state Board of Regents Tuesday approved merging some colleges to drop the system from 35 institutions to 31.
Leaders have discussed merging campuses for decades, but it never went anywhere until now. Chancellor Hank Huckaby said current economic realities mean the University System can't operate as it always has. The state has cut the system's funding by about $1 billion over the past four years because of the recession, while enrollment has increased by about 40,000 students.
Consolidating eight colleges into four will allow the system to reduce administrative costs. That could save taxpayers millions annually, but Huckaby said it's too soon to say how much. Any savings will be funneled into academic programs so that students in smaller communities will have access to more courses and quality degree programs, he said.
"The easy path would have been to continue down the road that we're on," Regents Chairman Ben Tarbutton said after the vote.
The consolidations will merge Augusta State University with Georgia Health Sciences University; Gainesville State College with North Georgia College & State University; Middle Georgia College with Macon State College; and Waycross College with South Georgia College.
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The mergers are scheduled to be complete by fall 2013. None of the campuses will close. The eight colleges enroll more than 36,000 students, including more than 4,700 from metro Atlanta.
The regents unanimously approved the merger with little discussion. Still, the controversial issue drew a large crowd, forcing staff to open a second room to accommodate the spillover.
While students, faculty and communities leaders in most of the affected regions supported the plan, a busload of Waycross residents came to Atlanta in protest.
Members of the Save Waycross College Community Coalition worried how job losses would hurt the local economy and feared some students would have to drive longer distances to take certain courses. They wore T-shirts with a large W and the slogan "Do your homework."
The group was disappointed the regents didn’t postpone the vote, said the Rev. Fer-Rell Malone, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Waycross.
“We are in favor of what is best for our community but they are telling us what’s best for our community without including us in the discussion,” he said. “We are very disappointed.”
While officials acknowledged the mergers will be hard on some communities, Huckaby said the benefits to students will help different regions of the state.
"Our focus is on the quality of education, on the students, not on preserving administrative structures," Huckaby said.
Many students were just returning to campus as news of the mergers was released last week.
Dylan Brooks, president of the student government association at Gainesville State, said he wished there was more time to discuss the issue with students before the regents voted.
But he said students would be excited over the possibility of increased degree choices. Since Gainesville State is mainly a two-year college, students there will now have access to the bachelor degrees offered at North Georgia College & State University, he said.
Merging campuses won't be easy and the bulk of the work will be handled over the next 18 months. Committees including students, faculty and community members from each college will provide recommendations on everything from the college name to fund-raising efforts, staff and faculty positions and academic offerings at each location.
"It's going to be messy," Associate Vice Chancellor Shelley Nickel said. "There are issues we are not even aware of yet. It will take us time to sort through the issues."
Other states, such as Maryland and Louisiana, have tried merging public colleges but backed off. As a result, Georgia's mergers have received national attention, and there are calls for leaders in Alabama and other states to monitor the regents' steps.
Huckaby first announced his intentions to merge campuses in September, just a couple of months after he started as chancellor. It represented a stark change for a system known for expansion, having just opened Georgia Gwinnett College in 2006.
The mergers are just one piece of a large-scale plan to modernize the system and force it use new practices to better teach students and help the state produce more college graduates. The system plans to grow online and distance learning education and is updating how it expands and approves new academic degree programs.
Huckaby also is studying how colleges use existing buildings to determine if and where new construction may be needed. He also has called for the system office to collaborate more with colleges and architects on construction proposals and designs. Both steps address concerns about growing construction costs.
"This is our mantra to our campuses, to our presidents, to our board, that the current model of funding higher education in Georgia can't be sustained," Huckaby said.
Eight existing University System of Georgia colleges will merge into four. None of the colleges will close, but officials warn of some administrative and staff layoffs. Here are the affected schools:
-- Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities. 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. The colleges are about three miles apart.
-- Waycross College and South Georgia College in Douglas. 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. The colleges are about 40 miles apart.
-- Macon State and Middle Georgia colleges. Macon enrolls about 5,700 students and Middle Georgia in Cochran teaches about 3,425 students. The schools are about 50 miles apart.
-- Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University. Gainesville enrolls about 8,570 students and the college president is due to retire June 30. 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 campuses are about 30 miles apart.