When it was time for Jada Royal to enroll in college, Augusta State University was the obvious choice.
She liked the small classes, the intimacy of the campus and that she could earn her degree and still live at home.
Now that her liberal arts school is soon to merge with Georgia Health Sciences University, she said some students worry it could become something they didn’t sign up for.
“I know for a lot of people, it will change the identity because they came here to go to ASU, not some new school,” Royal said.
Though she questions the merger, which became official in a vote Tuesday by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, others have different views about a potential identity crisis, with some already missing the comfort of their small school and others taking pride in the possibility that ASU could become a nationally recognized institution.
Proponents for the merger say they envision the new school becoming a world-class university and a destination for students across the country. But yet to be determined is how that growth will affect the sense of home at ASU, where the Jaguars’ golf team brought pride and national attention to Augusta by winning national championships in 2010 and 2011, and where a once primarily commuter school has invested millions of dollars in dormitories so students could actually call the school their own.
“As long as the change doesn’t affect my money or my major, I don’t see it as negative,” said ASU communications sophomore Arthur Chapman. “So many colleges have the initials ‘ASU’ anyway. When I tell them I go to ASU they are like ‘Oh, Albany State?’ and I’m like ‘No, no, no.’ The change might give us more of an identity.”
Others wonder how well a liberal arts school can blend with a medical college and whether ASU’s strengths will be overshadowed by the health science areas.
ASU Spanish professor Jana Sandarg said the fear of losing identity is real. In class, she has overheard students talk about buying up shirts and hats with ASU logos at the bookstore so they can show off being the last generation of ASU.
“We are the Jaguars, we are like family,” Sandarg said. “The fear is that when we get into a huge institution, we won’t have that family anymore. … The fear is we’re going to be swallowed up by the medical world.”
Students pursuing health science-related degrees at ASU are the minority, at roughly 31 percent of the 6,741 students. When ASU combines with GHSU’s current 2,442-student body, liberal arts will no longer have the same weight.
Former U.S. Rep. D. Douglas Barnard Jr., who attended the liberal arts school in 1940 when it was Junior College of Augusta and has a campus amphitheater named in his honor, said he worries the merger will remove some of the hometown pride it has built through the years. He’s also concerned
about whether Augusta’s interests are accurately portrayed on the Board of Regents given that the board has no Augusta-area members.
Of the 18 regents who approved the consolidation, none graduated from ASU or GHSU, previously the Medical College of Georgia.
“We’ve always had, up to now, a member of the Board of Regents from Augusta,” Barnard said. “I think that we do not have the same advocacy as we used to, and I think that’s a shame.”
The last regent with Augusta ties was Timothy Shelnut, who left the board in 2007.
Someone who knows the importance of having representation on state-appointed boards is former Augusta Commissioner Bill Kuhlke, and he has a different take. Kuhlke, who served on both the Georgia Department of Transportation and Economic Development boards, said even if regents are not from Augusta, they often have ties to the area and interests in seeing the city improve.
“I think the potential opportunities it might open up from an educational and economic standpoint could be enormous,” Kuhlke said.
Though there are alumni who are hesitant to let go of what they know as ASU, M. David Alalof, the chairman of ASU Foundation, the school’s fundraising entity, said the alumni on his board are eager to see the university expand.
As the school changes, alumni can actually take more pride in that the merged institution is sure to get national attention, he said.
In reality, he said, it’s about taking identity from the past and carrying it to what the school is gaining – not feeling like anything is being lost.
“Augusta College evolved into Augusta State, which is bigger and better, and ASU will evolve into this bigger institution that will be bigger and better,” Alalof said. “We’re not giving up our business college, we’re not giving up liberal arts. … The identity of ASU will stay intact.”