The recession’s prolonged impact has given state higher education leaders the chance to consider ideas that would be nonstarters in a better economy, like the proposed consolidation of eight public institutions in Georgia, which was announced Thursday.
The University System of Georgia’s plan would merge four pairs of institutions, reducing the number of colleges in the system to 31 (see factbox). None of the campuses would close under the proposal, but a varying range of administrative operations will be combined and jobs will likely be cut, system officials said.
Campus mergers, however, rarely make it past the proposal phase, even in economic downturns. The two state systems in New York have mulled mergers for decades, with limited success only this year. And the University of Maine System’s 2004 bid to merge three universities quickly tanked.
The few consolidations that do get off the ground are enormously challenging, said several experts who have worked on them.
“It’s very easy to underestimate the differences in cultures” between two colleges, said Ellen Chaffee, a former college president and senior fellow with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. She said merely proposing a merger “creates new problems.”
Even so, states need to find ways to make public higher education more cost-efficient, experts said. And a well-executed consolidation creates economies of scale that can help budgets and, ultimately, academic programs.
Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University
Middle Georgia College and Macon State College
Waycross College and South Georgia College
Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University
Henry (Hank) Huckaby, a Republican lawmaker who became the Georgia system’s chancellor last July, said the primary goal of the proposal is a “more educated Georgia.” He cited the recently approved Complete College Georgia plan in a written statement unveiling the proposal, saying students at consolidated institutions will “see an increase of educational offerings, through traditional classroom delivery and the increased use of distance learning.”
The system also hopes to reap cost savings. The newly larger colleges will share administrative functions. And while all eight institutions will stay open, there may be “workforce reductions” if the system’s Board of Regents approves the plan next week.
While the pairs of institutions are located near each other, only Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University are in the same city. The other pairs are roughly 30 miles apart. The consolidations will build upon existing cooperative efforts, according to the system.
Official statements from the affected colleges have been positive, and stress that consolidations would create new academic opportunities for students. Yet anxiety rippled across the eight campuses when the proposal dropped this week.
The way the news broke also illustrates the political challenge of a college merger.
System leaders had hoped to announce the plan today. But news leaked Tuesday after Huckaby and Ben Tarbutton, chairman of the Board of Regents, had traveled to Waycross, Ga., to discuss the consolidation of Waycross College and South Georgia College with local officials. Those officials, upset about the proposal, promptly held a news conference.
“I’m just flabbergasted by the whole thing,” State Rep. Mark Hatfield, who represents Waycross, told the Associated Press. “That’s a monumental decision and you’re going to roll that out a week before you vote on it?”
'Wave of Panic'
Given the intense public response to the news, it’s understandable that system officials would want to keep the idea under wraps until they could release it in a structured way. So while a looming consolidation plan had been discussed for months, and principles for such a move were approved in November, leaders at some of the eight institutions didn’t get much of a heads-up.
Virginia Carson, South Georgia’s president, was not informed of the proposal until Monday, said Robert Preston, a spokesman for the college. But Preston said that while college leaders were surprised, they think the consolidation is a good move.
“This is going to be a positive for us and for the other institution,” he said.
The Waycross news conference set off nervous rumors on campus, Preston said. But people are calmer now that the system has confirmed the plan. “We decided to sit back and let that initial wave of panic subside,” he said.
Many details about the consolidations, if approved, have yet to be determined. The process will begin with working groups, selected from a “diverse constituent base on each campus,” according to the system.
Over the next 12 to 18 months, those groups and system officials will determine which campus functions to combine and which jobs to eliminate, as well as a broad range of other decisions, perhaps including changes to campus athletics, fund-raising offices and even the colleges’ names.
All eight institutions will be required to conduct comprehensive reviews of academic programs, system officials said, and some offerings may be discontinued or modified.
Historically black colleges in Georgia have been part of merger discussions for years -- and previous proposals in Georgia and in other states have frequently foundered in part because of intense opposition from black college leaders. Georgia's historically black institutions were not among the colleges identified in this go-round.
That was a wise move, said James T. Minor, director of higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation.
Any consolidation should be mindful of the need to maintain “sufficient institutional diversity,” Minor said, on a campus or across the system. And historically black colleges are typically different from their white-majority peers, which complicates potential mergers.
Worth the Pain?
Like those of most states, Georgia’s tax revenues have been hit hard in recent years, and public colleges have felt the pain. The need to be more prudent with limited resources was a driving factor for the consolidation plan, system officials said.
“We need to be organized in ways that truly foster service to our students in the most effective way and that ensure our faculty are properly deployed and supported,” Huckaby said in a written statement.
The system will be following the lead of the Technical College System of Georgia, which has merged 15 colleges into seven since 2009. Those consolidations save about $6.5 million annually, mostly through the elimination of duplicative administrative positions, according to the Technical College System.
Public universities have to be creative about finding efficiencies, said Aims McGuinness, a senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
“There’s no way getting around that things need to be done differently,” he said.
To overcome inevitable resistance to the proposal, and to get real benefits from merged operations, experts said the system must carefully study student demand at each campus, as well as the needs of surrounding localities.
Chaffee was president of Valley City State University, located in North Dakota, when it was merged with Mayville State University in 1989. The two universities, located 75 miles apart, eventually shared nine administrative positions, including the presidency, which Chaffee held. She said it was a long, difficult process. Nine years later, the merger was dissolved.
System leaders in Georgia must be candid and transparent for the process to work, Chaffee said. “Communication will make or break it,” she said. And funds to support the transition would help.
Prolonged consolidation negotiations create “disarray” for students and faculty members, said Thomas C. Longin, a consultant and president of the Society for College and University Planning. Yet that turmoil may be worthwhile, he said, if the process is handled carefully.
Some public university systems may be ripe for mergers. That’s because many systems were built decades ago “in places where the population never grew to support the infrastructure,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability.
Richard Staisloff, an expert on college finances and principal with the RPK Group, a higher education consulting firm, agreed that many public systems have failed to take advantage of economies of scale. After properly studying the impacts of consolidations, he said, colleges can save money on shared courses, insurance, audit functions and in other areas -- all without hurting academic quality.
“It’s time for systems to take advantage of being systems,” said Staisloff. And while resulting layoffs may be painful, “higher education’s mission is not to create jobs for people in higher education.”
Doug Lederman contributed to this article.