Eight institutions of higher education would merge into four – including the consolidation of Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities – under a University System of Georgia proposal, a state lawmaker said Wednesday.
Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, told The Associated Press he found out about the merger proposal from Henry “Hank” Huckaby, the chancellor of the University System, and Board of Regents Chairman Ben Tarbutton during a meeting Wednesday at Waycross College, which is proposed to merge with South Georgia College in Douglas.
Huckaby is expected to make an official announcement Friday, and the Board of Regents is expected to discuss the proposal during its meeting next week, according to the AP. The agenda for the meeting has not yet been released.
The chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, confirmed to Morris News Service that ASU and GHSU are on the list of schools scheduled to consolidate and that Augusta business leaders had requested it. He added that he expects the merger legislation to pass the General Assembly with little problem.
“It’s going to show a cost savings, and it’s going to be good for all involved,” he said. “The reception that I’ve gotten has been mostly positive.”
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver told The Augusta Chronicle that the idea of an ASU-GHSU merger is not a new one, but in the past year, momentum has been building to make it happen. He said there have been discussions with state and local officials to develop feedback and build consensus for a plan that could result in a new regional university in Augusta.
Copenhaver said the economic downturn has been a big incentive to state officials to seek ways to save money and build for the future.
“My hope is that this could become a huge economic engine for the area as a whole,” he said. “Ultimately, I would like to see the development of a major university with a national reputation that would be a huge benefit to the community.”
Copenhaver said that any merger plan will face some difficulties but that he believes the political will is present to make it happen. He said the community needs to consider what will happen 20 years from now and how a merger has the potential to transform Augusta.
“You have to be nimble and willing to change in this world or you will be run over or left behind,” he said.
In September, Huckaby announced the system would explore consolidating some of its 35 institutions to save money and improve efficiency, but he did not specify which schools would be targeted.
State Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, told The Chronicle on Wednesday that he expects to hear recommendations from Huckaby within the next few weeks and to see progress on the merger of the Augusta schools in the upcoming legislative session.
If consolidation is OK’d, Davis said, it would “create a stronger institution that is able to provide undergraduate as well as a pipeline into graduate-level courses … this creates an opportunity in Augusta for students across this country to now see this as a destination.”
Members of both universities’ communities have talked about consequences of a merger for months, although opinions vary on what it would mean for students. Some say it would save money and help improve Augusta’s reputation; others worry the junction would put ASU in the shadows.
Retired ASU professor Michelle Benedict said the priorities of each school are too different for merging. GHSU is a medical school, and ASU focuses on liberal arts and sciences. Benedict said the arts and humanities could suffer by being blended with an institution with such a different focus.
“The small view is, it’s like close one eye and squint with the other and you might think you’ll save money,” she said. “But it’s either going to cost money or kill ASU altogether.”
Clay Boardman, the chairman of Georgia Health Sciences Foundation and a local businessman, said he sees the merger as part of a long-term plan to bring Augusta’s medical resources together and give the city a national reputation for top medical care. Instead of people looking to other cities and institutions such as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Boardman hopes people look to Augusta.
“I think we could provide a model for the state,” he said. “I have yet to hear any resistance to the idea.”
Boardman said he was not privy to details of any Board of Regents proposal but could envision a plan having GHSU President Ricardo Azziz as the merged university’s head, with provosts running the two branches.
The ASU presidency will be vacant at the end of this academic year because William Bloodworth announced he would step down to return to teaching. The search for his successor has not yet begun, adding fuel to the speculation that Azziz could move into the leadership with a merger. Bloodworth and other ASU officials declined to comment Wednesday.
An administrative change such as a consolidation would need to be taken before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the accrediting body for ASU, said commission spokeswoman Pamela Cravey. She said she had not seen a request to make such a change.
According to the commission’s policy on “substantive change,” a site committee visit is required within six months of initiating a merger or consolidation to ensure the university is still in compliance.
Merging two universities isn’t as simple as combining two banks or stores, said Edward Bouie, an associate professor of educational leadership at Mercer University. He was involved in the meshing of Clark College and Atlanta University in 1987.
In that case, one was primarily a graduate school and the other undergraduate, so they fit together well, he said. Putting together a school such as Augusta State and a research university such as GHSU would be trickier.
“The first thing is the mission issues,” Bouie said. “Those two have very divergent missions.”
The schools also have different types of students. ASU has students who need tutoring and guidance on study habits and time management, while GHSU students won’t, he said.
Despite the uncertainties, the idea for consolidation has garnered initial support in the community, said state Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta.
“Everyone that I have talked with said, ‘Gosh, this is a great idea; why haven’t we done it before?’ ” Sims said. “I don’t know that anybody is opposing it.”
ASU Alumni Association member and former ASU golfer Nick Evans said the merger would enhance the student experience and give the growing college the attention it often misses.
“Being together and putting the vision of both schools would strengthen the opportunity for both schools and for the student experience and for our community,” Evans said.
Besides the institutions in Augusta and Waycross, the University System proposes combining Middle Georgia College with Macon State College, and Gainesville College with North Georgia College and State University, according to the AP.
Staff Writer Tom Corwin contributed to this article.