A show of strength

Merger of two Augusta universities would signal huge growth

Imagine if the state had suddenly decided to create a new university in Augusta the size of Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University combined.


Well, guess what: It’s about to.

Look very closely and you might be able to see a downside or two to the proposed merger of the two institutions, expected to be approved Tuesday by the state Board of Regents. We sure don’t see many of them.

In contrast, the big picture is nothing but exciting.

The combined entity will have more political firepower – and friends – in Atlanta, will offer students more diverse and coordinated offerings, will cut down on duplication and, most exciting, will almost overnight create a new research university on the banks of the Savannah that, down the road, can compete for preeminence in the region.

Alone, each university will no doubt inch up in size over the years. Together, the growth potential is limited only by our imagination and the number of building contractors within earshot.

“The positives are enormous,” said one prominent official familiar with the proposal.

“It absolutely strengthens both schools,” another told us.

Augusta shouldn’t just support the merger; we should do so with verve. And, in fact, we already have – through our various political and business leaders who have been studying the issue for some time and whose thumbs-up has given the state the confidence to move on it.

An invigorated and combined ASU and GHSU will increase and smoothen the career pathways for ASU students – likely luring many over from the Atlanta region – and should help GHSU grow its ability to translate research into commercial, life-enhancing products and services, as well as to train more health-care professionals. That’s not a small matter, considering the growing and aging nature of the Georgia population.

Consider, too, the difference between what the state is asking of us and what it’s asking of others around the state: Several other institutions of higher learning are being eyed for consolidation too – but primarily for efficiency’s sake. In Augusta’s case, there will be some savings, particularly in administration, and in the duplicative nursing programs. But mostly, the merger of ASU and GHSU will mean growth – big growth.

In the economy we’ve suffered through the past few years, that sounds pretty good. But economies ebb and flow. The growth and vitality that will be born of this merger will long be with us.

From a political standpoint, consider the added weight a combined institution will have in the halls of power – and how state officials might regard our willingness and even enthusiasm for being team players and jumping at the chance to be the first in the state to create this template.

“They won’t forget,” one local supporter says of state leaders.

We certainly won’t be the first to do this nationally, and that’s an added comfort. Indeed, the majority of the nation’s 136 accredited medical schools are affiliated with undergraduate universities.

“The great strength of a clinical enterprise embedded in a great university is one of the most powerful tools in our country,” says Lloyd Jacobs, president of a combined University of Toledo and Medical University of Ohio.

The Chronicle’s Tracey McManus reports that after the 2006 merger in Toledo, “enrollment at the University of Toledo increased for nine consecutive semesters, and the university created coursework for students after departments became partners, such as collaborations with the College of Engineering and the College of Medicine.”

The best part of the proposed merger, though, may be that it’s coming out of inspiration, not desperation. These schools would be fine apart. Together, they’ll be dynamic.

Last time we checked, that’s a good thing.