ATLANTA — When the Board of Regents voted unanimously Tuesday to shrink eight colleges to four, it pulled off a near miracle in public-policy terms.
Consolidation of some of the state’s 35 schools has been kicked around for decades with no result because of the political sensitivity. Just floating the idea in a legislative committee hearing in 2010 led to public denunciations and demonstrations.
Georgia isn’t unique. Other states have had serious merger proposals bog down and die because of political opposition or public outcry, including Maryland and Louisiana in recent months.
There were groups objecting to Tuesday’s decision by the regents, especially civic leaders from Gainesville and Waycross. On the day of the vote, two busloads of Waycross residents wearing “Swamp Fox Fever” T-shirts descended on the regents’ meeting room, left T-shirts on the back of each regent’s chair and looked on in stony silence as the unanimous vote took place with no debate or discussion.
Chancellor Hank Huckaby’s orchestrated event went off without a hitch, partly because he only announced his proposal days before the vote. It was simply not enough time for opponents to get organized, much less make their case.
Besides, civic leaders in Augusta were pleased with the idea of merging Augusta State University with Georgia Health Sciences University.
Huckaby said he and his staff used “common sense” to form the plan. First, he avoided targeting the three historically black schools even though they share ZIP codes with predominately white colleges. Past attempts have failed repeatedly, and those schools’ alumni are already geared up to fight the battle again.
He selected the state’s two smallest schools, Waycross College and South Georgia College an hour away in Douglas. Macon State College and Middle Georgia College in Cochran are also small, nearby and very similar. Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University, while geographically close, are also similar.
Shelley Nickel, the former interim president of Gordon College and one of Huckaby’s two aides spearheading the project, offers a colorful description of what lays ahead.
“I liken it to making sausage,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff in there. It’s going to be messy. These are the issues we know about. There are a lot of issues we don’t know about.”
Simple tasks include consolidating payroll systems, revising contracts, updating handbooks, picking mascots and deciding whether alumni groups should merge. Harder tasks include establishing a tenure track for professors, melding the faculty senates and settling on a name and school colors.
The biggest issues are what can be called cultural. Consider merging a research university, where faculty focus as much on research as on teaching outstanding students, with a community college where teaching average students is pretty much the only mission.
GHSU draws students from across the state and farther while ASU pulls mainly from three counties. On the other end, Waycross and South Georgia are both geared toward average or even so-so students from the same handful of counties.
The new stationary and signs will go into use by fall of 2013, but full integration is likely to take three years or more, according to Ben Tarbutton, the chairman of the regents.
Huckaby and the college presidents have vowed to make all of the decisions in view of the public. It’s likely to be every bit as messy as Nickel predicts.