Divided regents expand UGA's engineering programs

After months of debate, a divided state Board of Regents narrowly approved allowing the University of Georgia to expand its engineering programs and offer degrees that have historically been found at Georgia Tech.

In the same 9-8 vote Tuesday, the board approved letting Georgia Southern University morph three existing engineering technology degree programs into engineering degrees.

The approval surprised some lawmakers who have questioned the wisdom of expanding the second most expensive degree programs as the state struggles financially. Since the discussion began, some lawmakers raised objections in editorials, as well as phone calls and discussions with regents.

Most of the furor was focused on UGA. The board was supposed to vote on that plan last month but tabled it after Gov. Sonny Perdue urged the regents to slow down and build support. UGA's new degrees in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering will overlap with what is offered at Georgia Tech. The two are the state's most respected and renowned public institutions and attract some of the same high-achieving students.

"I'm very supportive of Georgia Southern's programs, but that's a completely different kettle of fish than the startup at UGA," said state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who heads the committee that oversees college budgets. "I don't want to hear a word from UGA about any cries over budget cuts. They have the money to do this. They must have found a pot of gold to afford this expensive program. As long as I'm chair of the committee, they won't get a dime for that engineering program."

UGA President Michael Adams said the college will implement the programs using existing money. UGA's proposal said it will spend about $3 million to run the programs by fiscal year 2016.

"I'm thankful for the vote because I do believe it is ultimately best for the state," Adams said. "We're not oblivious to those [financial] concerns ... but I think five years from now, you will see new graduates."

UGA’s civil engineering program would begin in fall 2012, with the other two beginning the following year. UGA projects to enroll 500 students in the programs by fall 2015. Georgia Southern's changes could begin next fall.

Supporters said the new degrees are needed because the state doesn't graduate enough engineers to meet workforce needs. They said the programs provide more options for students who can't get into Georgia Tech.

Adams said a research institution like UGA should offer these engineering degrees and that the programs will give them access to additional federal grants and research money. UGA's proposal said it would return to the regents in coming months to request starting graduate degree programs in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering. Georgia Tech already offers graduate degrees in those areas.

UGA established a school of engineering in 1866, but after the Great Depression, state leaders decided most of the training would take place at Tech.

Over the past decade, UGA has rebuilt an engineering program. It established the Faculty of Engineering in 2001. The university offers degrees in agricultural, biological, biochemical, environmental and computer systems engineering. None overlap with Tech in a meaningful way.

Georgia Tech President G.P. "Bud" Peterson left Tuesday's meeting shortly after the vote and was not available for comment.

In a statement, Peterson said Georgia Tech respects the regents' decision: "We will continue to work with the regents, our state leaders and all other institutions in the state to ensure that we are able to serve the people of Georgia while providing the best possible education for our students."

Peterson and others have questioned whether the state needs more engineers. They have also argued that Georgia Tech -- one of the nation's best engineering schools -- was in the best position to expand any degree programs.

The regents who voted against the expansion had their own concerns.

"I believe more engineers are desperately needed, but I feel I've been rushed into a decision," Regent Doreen Stiles Poitevint said. "I see no reason for why we're doing this vote today."

Regent Ben Tarbutton said the board could have benefited from an independent report conducted by an outside group -- a step taken before the regents expanded medical education programs. He also questioned how UGA and Georgia Southern will be able to implement the programs without asking for more money.

There were also concerns that the new programs could hurt the University System of Georgia's relationship with lawmakers. The regents have the authority to approve programs, but lawmakers allocate money to the 35 colleges in the system.

Perdue won't be in office when the new legislative session begins in January, but his spokesman questioned how the regents and lawmakers will work together. Ehrhart said he doesn't blame the entire system for the vote and that there will be no "retaliatory action."

The regents who voted for the expansion said this wasn't the first time the board and lawmakers disagreed. They said the plans from both colleges were carefully developed and vetted.

Regent Kessel Stelling reminded members that the proposals were approved by the board's academic affairs committee. He told regents they must do what's in the best interest of the state and not be divided among college ties.

"Are we kidding ourselves? Is this vote that hard?" Regent Ken Bernard said. "We've allowed politics and stuff to be thrown about and polarization to occur. ... At the end of the day, a decision has been made and we need to move ahead."

How state Board of Regents voted

In a 9-8 vote, the state Board of Regents approved new engineering degree programs at the University of Georgia and Georgia Southern University. Regent Vice Chairman Felton Jenkins was not present. Here's how the board voted:

For: Ken Bernard, Jim Bishop, C. Thomas Hopkins, Don Leebern, William "Dink" NeSmith, Chairman Willis Potts, Kessel Stelling, Richard Tucker and Larry Walker.

Against: Fred Cooper, Larry Ellis, Bob Hatcher, W. Mansfield Jennings, Jim Jolly, Doreen Stiles Poitevint, Wanda Yancey Rodwell and Ben Tarbutton.