Historic vote merges eight Georgia colleges into four

The State Board of Regents officially merged eight public colleges into four Tuesday, partly in response to continued state budget cuts but also to expand academic programs.

Consolidation represents a historic change for the University System of Georgia, an agency long associated with growth and expansion. Chancellor Hank Huckaby said the mergers are a realistic response to annual cuts in state money and an economy that is slow to recover. The system has lost more than $1 billion in state funding since the 2009 fiscal year.

More mergers are possible. “It is certainly not off the table, but no decisions have been made,” Huckaby said.

Mergers leave the system with 31 colleges, down from 35. The new schools are:

  • Georgia Regents University, a merger of Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities. Ricardo Azziz is president.
  • Middle Georgia State College, a merger of Macon State and Middle Georgia colleges. John Black is interim president.
  • South Georgia State College, a merger of Waycross and South Georgia colleges. Virginia Carson is president.
  • University of North Georgia, a merger of Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University. Bonita Jacobs is president.

None of the campuses will close. Huckaby estimated the mergers ultimately will save about $6 million through reduced administrative costs.

That won’t translate to a savings for taxpayers because the system is redirecting the money to expand academic programs and other services that will benefit students, Huckaby said. For example, Gainesville currently has nine bachelor degree programs but the new college will be able to offer 12 at that campus, Jacobs said.

While state leaders supported the mergers, there was controversy.

Some Waycross residents formed the SAVE Waycross College Community Coalition in protest. They worried job losses would hurt the local economy and feared working students would have to drive long distances for classes. The goal is to expand course offerings at each site.

Fights also emerged over what to name the new colleges. Arguments became especially heated in Augusta, where the consolidating schools are about three miles apart.

The affected campuses teach more than 36,500 students — including more than 4,700 from metro Atlanta – and represent nearly 12 percent of the system’s total enrollment.

After the vote, administrators put on name tags bearing their college’s new name. Campus bookstores are selling merchandise with the new name and discounted apparel with the old name.

Georgia’s mergers have been being closely watched, and other states are expected to consider consolidations, said Richard Novak, executive director of Ingram Center for Public Trusteeship and Governance at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Mergers work better when they are generated by university systems and not from outside forces, Novak said.

Georgia lawmakers and others called on the system to combine campuses for years, but nothing happened. Huckaby suggested mergers in September 2011, just a few months after he took over the system. It was part of a series of changes to make the system confront today’s financial realities.

What’s surprising was how quickly the regents signed off on the mergers. While more work is needed at the campus level, the planning process took about 18 months.

“There were a lot of questions over how to do this and if it could be done so fast,” Huckaby said. “But we did it.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.