The move to merge eight colleges and universities, including Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities, was highly scripted and heavy on secrecy but short on analysis, at least in records turned over by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.
In response to an Open Records request from The Augusta Chronicle, the system turned over its plan for a confidential and tightly planned disclosure designed to keep the move secret until just a few days before it was to be voted on. The system also supplied reams of data on enrollment, student transfers and course offerings that it said it relied on to make the decisions, with little evidence of how it was analyzed. In one of the few rankings supplied, Augusta State is exactly middle of the pack – 17th of the 35 USG institutions – in terms of first-time freshman retention from fall 2010, according to the records.
The consolidation idea was broached by Chancellor Hank Huckaby in September. When the Regents met in Augusta in October, rumors that the Augusta schools would be combined were already flying, although Huckaby said at the time that the committee to study the issue and the criteria had not been established yet. On the records supplied to The Chronicle, the only date is Nov. 17.
THE MOST DEFINITIVE timeline, is seen in how the system chose to inform others of the decision, and it was heavily staged. On the “Chancellor To Do List” dated Dec. 30, is a script for Huckaby to follow during a call to the “Impacted Presidents.” It includes lines such as “I believe this is a good move for your campus. (Explain campus leadership situation).” That is followed by “Please keep this confidential!”
Next on the “To Do List” is a call to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is the accrediting body for most of the system’s schools, and a call to Speaker of the House David Ralston, whom Huckaby is told to “remind of confidentiality.”
The following Tuesday, Jan. 3, Huckaby was to call Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams. The next two days were a tightly scheduled series of meetings with the affected schools and communities, attended by Huckaby; Regents Chairman Benjamin J. Tarbutton III, of Sandersville, who represents Augusta on the board; and system personnel involved in the decision. In its instructions to the presidents, the system tells them only to invite those the board specifies on a list because “it is a private meeting. A formal announcement will be made on Friday,” Jan. 6, just prior to the Regents approving the merger Jan. 10. The system also gave Tarbutton talking points for the community meetings. “We will work closely with you and with your campus leadership to implement this consolidation,” the script reads. “It will be complicated at times, but we will be transparent.”
After the Regents voted Jan. 10 to approve the mergers, Huckaby sent out the same letter to the eight presidents affected, saying, “Thank you for agreeing to lead this important effort.” It closes by again thanking them for their leadership and adding, “I understand the enormity of the task at hand, but have faith in your ability to carry it out successfully. I sincerely appreciate your support.”
HOW THE SYSTEM identified the eight schools is unclear from the records provided, with a few exceptions. On a sheet titled, “Data Review,” the system listed 14 categories, from “Mission” to “Existing Partnerships.” Data in some categories were provided only for the eight affected schools and in many cases the system personnel just pulled existing records or printed data from the schools’ Web sites. Spokesman John Millsaps said those involved in the analysis relied on those records.
In the case of North Georgia College and State University and Gainesville State College, which are merged under this plan, someone put check marks next to their first-time freshman retention rates, where North Georgia ranked seventh and Gainesville ranked 22nd. Check marks also were placed next to three courses the schools have in common, bachelor of science degree programs in early childhood education, biology and psychology.
In the rest of the data, such as enrollments and student transfers, Augusta State appears to fare no worse than its peers among regional universities. For instance, in the fall 2011 semester enrollment report, Augusta State suffered the biggest drop among regional universities at minus-2.6 percent but Armstrong Atlantic State University, which was not targeted for merger, was a close second at minus-2.5 percent.
IN ITS FORMAL presentation to the board seeking the mergers, the system noted opportunities in Augusta such as creating “a 21st century research institution that provides high quality and comprehensive undergraduate programs and top-tier health education and research that meets regional and statewide needs.” It also acknowledges “challenges,” such as “significant differences exist in institutional mission, organization, and governance,” as well as “branding and identity issues.”
Why the system decided to have the schools face those challenges, however, is still unclear from its own records.