Ga. regents will approve college mergers

Some schools, communities already express objections

ATLANTA — University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby said Thursday he is confident the state Board of Regents will vote next week to approve consolidating eight colleges into four.

The mergers, while not a popular idea with some, will reduce administrative costs at the institutions and help the university system recover some of the $1 billion in state funding cuts that have been made in the last four years, Huckaby said. He said he is unsure how much money could be saved with the changes.

“Our ultimate goal is to improve the quality of education,” Huckaby told The Associated Press. “This makes us, to some degree, a leaner, more efficient organization. We can focus our resources where they need to be focused.”

The proposed consolidations involve merging Waycross College with South Georgia College in Douglas; Augusta State College with the Georgia Health Sciences University; Middle Georgia College with Macon State College; and Gainesville State College with North Georgia College & State University. The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday.

Officials at Waycross and Macon State declined comment, referring calls to the university system office. Officials at Gainesville State and Augusta State did not immediately return calls for comment.

News of the possible mergers was first reported by the Waycross Journal-Herald on Tuesday after Huckaby and regents chairman Ben Tarbutton met with officials in the south Georgia city. Waycross officials — upset over the possible consolidation — held a press conference after the meeting and gave out the list.

Huckaby and members of the board were traveling Wednesday to Augusta, Gainesville and Dahlonega to talk with officials at each campus, he said.

“We understand these will not be easy, and we will be relying on strong community support and leadership,” Huckaby said. “We’re confident that this is going to be a win-win for all the areas affected, and we’re very excited about it.”

The campuses were chosen based on several months of study by the university system staff. The Board of Regents agreed on a set of principles that included avoiding duplication of programs, improving access to classes in rural areas and cutting back on administrative positions.

The mergers are expected to be complete by the fall of 2013, Huckaby said. He said the regents will choose which names are kept for the consolidated colleges with help from an advisory committee at each location.

Rep. Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Waycross who serves on the House Higher Education Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, said he was blindsided.

“I’m just flabbergasted by the whole thing,” he said Wednesday night. “That’s a monumental decision and you’re going to roll that out a week before you vote on it?”

Huckaby told Waycross officials there will be job losses from the mergers, Hatfield said. Huckaby declined to comment on any layoffs.

The Technical College System of Georgia has saved about $7 million a year by reducing its number of campuses from 33 to 25 by eliminating administrative costs.

In 2009, a Republican state senator initiated a push to merge historically black colleges in Savannah and Albany with nearby predominantly white schools. The plan never moved forward, amid opposition from the legislative black caucus.

There are no historically black institutions on the proposed list of mergers.

Consolidation would mark a change in direction for Georgia’s public college system, which has added many new institutions since it was founded in the 1930’s. Enrollment at the schools has also been rising while state support has fallen amid steep budget cuts, leading to large tuition increases even as HOPE scholarship benefits were cut back.

The consolidation study is among the first initiatives Huckaby introduced after he was named head of the university system in May. The former state lawmaker and longtime university administrator was charged with repairing the tense relationship between the Board of Regents and state lawmakers, partly due to a perception that the university system wasn’t doing enough to cut back spending as the state economy tanked.

“I don’t think all of our institutions are delivering value,” said state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the higher education budget. “You have to make decisions based on financial realities sometimes. I think that’s what the regents are doing. I’m very pleased with results so far.”

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