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Nickel: Merging colleges like ‘making sausage’

By Walter C. Jones Morris News Service When the Board of Regents voted unanimously to shrink eight colleges down 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 denounciations 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 regent’s meeting room, left T-shirts on the back of each regent’s chair, and quietly 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 crosstown sibling Georgia Health Sciences University. Huckaby, a retired professor-turned state-agency head, had served half a term in the General Assembly before being tapped as chancellor. He gained much of his political savvy long before that when he served as a senior aide to then-Gov. Zell Miller. For instance, when a reporter badgered him after the regents’ vote to come up with an estimate on the savings from removing administrative duplication, he wouldn’t budge. ’No m’am. I’m not going down that road,’ he said. ‘If I give you a number, that’s the only number you’ll remember. I’ve been there.’ Common sense Instead, he 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 are very similar. Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University, while geographically close, are also similar. As significant as the regents’ decision is, much hard work remains. 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.’ What’s next The simple tasks include consolidating payroll systems, revising contracts, updating handbooks, picking mascots and deciding if alumni groups should also merge. The harder chores range from establishing a tenure track for professors, melding the faculty senates to 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. Culture also describes how the employees interact. One campus could have collegial cooperation while another has scholars who look down on colleagues seeking cooperation, for instance. Mergers in the business world are more common than the halls of academia, and a high percentage of business mergers fail because of cultural mismatches. Mergers are rarely equal. ’When you are looking at merging those two universities one of those is going to be subservient to the other,’ said Edward Bouie, associate professor of educational leadership at Mercer University and a key player when Clark College merged with Atlanta University in 1973. People who were used to being the big fish in a small pond may start looking for new jobs. The new stationary and signs go into use by fall of 2013, but full integration is likely to take three years or more, according to Ben Tarbutton, chairman of the regents. In the mean time, Huckaby and the college presidents all vow to make all of the decisions in view of the public. And it’s likely to be every bit as messy as Nickel predicts. Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at, 404-589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.

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