It’s been more than a month since the Georgia Board of Regents voted for “Georgia Regents University” to be the new name for the merger of Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities. And the firestorm created by the BOR selecting that name continues to burn bright.
Sure the Regents, Dr. Azziz and their minions, want this mess to blow over. And they expect the consistent mention of millions and millions of dollars earmarked for Augusta by the Regents to help calm the storm. But here’s the problem: we can’t move on until we have closure, and we have way too many unresolved questions.
Before you think this is solely a naming issue, it is not. This runs much deeper. It’s about the process, the fraudulent way this went down. It’s about honesty. It’s about bureaucratic arrogance. It’s about trust.
The overwhelming majority of our fine community hates GRU. It will be a terrible brand, the same way New Coke, Betamax and the Edsel were terrible brands. The GRU name is an albatross around Augusta’s neck. Actually, it’s worse. Our community was liquored up with optimism, thinking it actually had a voice in selecting a new name. We awoke with a hangover and a GRU tramp stamp tattooed across our lower back.
Now imagine the amount of “ink regret” on the ASU and GHSU campuses. The coaches at ASU sure as heck don’t want it. Neither do the athletes. (And everyone associated with the two-time national champion Augusta State golf program is furious, because omitting the name 'Augusta' from the school's name is sacrilege in the most famous golfing city in the world.) Not that anyone has shown they care about any of them. This is why morale at both places is in the gutter. Staff and faculty on both campuses are afraid to speak out in worry of losing their jobs. Privately, they wonder if the several ASU chairs already being removed are more than just “coincidental collateral.”
Sure, Dr. Azziz has been gracious enough to play host to a couple of local forums, addressing the name change and the consolidation of the schools. He’s worked hard to play the part: He seems to be listening and advocating open, honest communication. But the perception of retribution he’s cultivated carries far more weight. Among all the lessons I hope he learns from this process, this one is paramount: Perception is reality, and that reality is what dictates your staff trust in you.
Dr. Azziz also has a problem with the community’s perception. He’s been portrayed as an emperor with no clothes and lampooned as an uncaring cartoon villain. He’s been called dishonest, aloof and haughty. And what's to say he hasn't earned each of those characterizations?
He wasted more than $45,000 in taxpayer money on a name study that he promptly ignored, only to stencil his favorite name in the place of other preferred monikers. (As an aside: Dr. Azziz wants this new university to be a “world-class” research university, right? But he ignored research himself when it came to the name. How would he feel if his own doctors ignored research in their respective fields?)
That’s a rebuff of our city, community and region. (It also flies in the face of the University System of Georgia’s Code of Ethics – especially the sections dealing with honesty and acting as good stewards of taxpayer resources.)
Then he turned around and placed the crosshairs of blame squarely on the Regents. From the Sept. 7 forum: “There’s been a tremendous exaggeration in the amount of influence I may or may not have had in the process. My job is to advise my Regents about the pros and cons of the names….At the end of the day, the Regents weighed these pros and cons and made a decision, 17-1. At the end of the day, I actually can’t tell the Regents what to do….I don’t know why they made the decision. They didn’t share that with me.”
But at least one Regent has publicly said that Dr. Azziz did push hard for the GRU name (a claim backed up privately by other Regents). In fact, when the time came for the board to vote, the list of three choices – which also included University of Augusta and Georgia Arts & Sciences University – had been pared to show only GRU. (Also, consider this: Of the 18 regents, SEVEN (!) are either currently members of the Georgia Health Sciences Health System Board of Directors or are former members. So Azziz had a direct line to seven regents – almost half the board – to get his way. Conflict of interest, anyone?....And for the record, none of the Regents are on any boards at Augusta State).
Trust me, the Regents are not blame-free in this. Several – including chairman Ben Tarbutton – have vehemently stated the decision has been made and they cannot – will not – revisit it.
But I have a proposition for the Regents, one that would go far in soothing local emotions and calming that firestorm. Why not hold a special meeting here in Augusta in the near future? Take an afternoon and listen to those who are directly affected (you know, those folks that Dink NeSmith cited when casting the lone dissenting vote against GRU). I’ll even suggest a time and date. How about noon, Sept. 26, at the Augusta State amphitheater? We’ll provide lunch. We’ll be hospitable. Just hear us out. (And I'll throw out another suggestion: Keep GRU as an umbrella name for the different campuses, but allow the University of Augusta to represent at least the Summerville campus. It's not perfect, but it's a better solution than the one we have now.)
And there is a rule right there in the Regents' own by-laws that allows them to reassess the naming debacle. According to the University System of Georgia Bylaws of the Board of Regents, under Bylaw V. 1., “A Committee of the Board shall not consider any request for reexamination of matters that have been previously acted upon by the Board within a period of one year unless, upon presentation of new evidence, the Chair of the Committee determines that it should be reconsidered.”
I think that ignored nationwide survey, which included 200 faculty members at other institutions and pointed to University of Augusta as the preferred name in three different rounds, should be evidence enough.
Look, it’s clear that Dr. Azziz and, apparently some others, abhor the idea of Augusta being included in the name. It’s too geographically limiting, they say. Really? Remember when the Augusta National Golf Club recently accepted Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, and the headlines around the globe read, “Augusta adds first female members”? This isn’t Augusta, Maine, we’re talking about. This is the Augusta that James Brown proudly sang about on his tours around the world. Augusta is a name of prominence, and it’s sad these educational empty chairs just don’t get it.
And answer me another question. Why on earth would we to add the name ‘Georgia’ to this next great university? So we can stand out, just like the other 16 institutions in the University System of Georgia with the name ‘Georgia’? So how exactly is Georgia Regents University going to distinguish itself from say Georgia Perimeter College or East Georgia State College or Georgia State University or Georgia College and State University?
I am calling on the Board of Regents to make a good faith effort on behalf of Augusta. Show us that you can take the faculty, staff, students and citizens into account when you make a decision. Show us that everything that is secret can be brought into the light. The window is closing fast. The new name goes to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) next month. If approved, the tattoo becomes permanent. And who really wants “Georgia Regents University Jaguars” as a tramp stamp anyway?