This fall has been a challenging one for Albany State University, a historically black institution in Georgia.
In October, the university fired four financial aid officials after a state audit found misconduct involving federal funds dating back to 1985. Also in October, the university announced the "deactivation" of 15 academic programs, including the elimination of undergraduate majors in English, history, speech and theater, music, music education and science education. Then on Thursday, the University System of Georgia released data on this fall's statewide enrollment (up 1.7 percent) and for individual institutions, and the college with the largest drop was Albany State, down 10.7 percent to 3,492. No other institution saw a decline larger than 3.2 percent.
Then on Friday, the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Hank Huckaby, announced a plan to merge Albany State with nearby Darton State College. He said the combined institution would be stronger, and would preserve Albany State's mission as a historically black institution.
Under Huckaby, Georgia -- far more than other states -- has been pushing mergers within a large higher education system. Currently, three pairs of institutions are in various stages of being consolidated, bringing to six the total of consolidations in the state in recent years. While those mergers have not been without controversy, none involved a historically black college (of which the state system has three). In other states, proposals to merge historically black colleges have been contentious and sometimes defeated.
In 2009, Haley Barbour, then the Republican governor of Mississippi, proposed merging the state's three public black colleges (Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State Universities) into one. The plan was defeated. In 2011, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, proposed merging historically black Southern University in New Orleans with the predominantly white University of New Orleans. That plan too was defeated.
It's too early to say whether the Albany State-Darton State merger will meet a similar fate. But there are some signs that it may have a better chance than the attempts in Mississippi and Louisiana. Both of those plans were met with immediate opposition from black political leaders, while the reactions in Georgia have been more muted, with legislative leaders talking about wanting to see details. There is also the fact that Albany State -- with its enrollment declines and financial aid scandal -- may not be in a strong position to fight right now. Further, Georgia -- by pushing mergers first at non-HBCUs -- may escape some of the criticism of other merger proposals in which black college advocates felt their institutions were unfairly made targets for consolidation.
The Georgia proposal also appears to have been crafted in ways that pre-empt traditional criticism of black college merger plans: that they erase the historically black institution and end up with nonblack leaders. The new merger proposal specifies that the combined institution would operate under the Albany State name and that the current interim president of Albany State, Art Dunning, would lead the new institution. These parts of the proposal are attracting support from some who are normally skeptical of mergers involving black colleges.
Faculty and student leaders did not respond to email messages seeking comment.
On social media, comments indicated some opposition to the merger from students at both campuses, but also expressions of support from some Albany State advocates -- conditional on the plan resulting in a bolstering of Albany State.
While 90 percent of Albany State's students are black, not a surprising proportion for a historically black college, Darton's student body is diverse. According to the latest Education Department data, 49 percent of students there are white and 45 percent are black.
Some critics of the way Georgia has treated its public black colleges have in the past said that the state, by building up Darton, undercut Albany State.
One issue that appears to be behind some of the negative student comments is that the two institutions have different missions. Albany State, while it is moving away from many traditional liberal arts disciplines, is a regional university. Darton, while it offers a bachelor's degree in nursing, is primarily a two-year college focused on associate degrees.
There is also a backdrop for this discussion of a sense many supporters of black colleges have -- that states are not treating them well.
"I am typically suspect of Southern governments and higher education boards as to their sincerity in dealing with HBCUs and treating them fairly. History tells us to be very, very cautious," said Marybeth Gasman, professor of higher education and director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, via email.
But Gasman noted some elements of the Georgia proposal that differentiate it from other plans. "I’m not a big fan of HBCU mergers unless absolutely necessary. However, in this case, Albany State retains its name and its president. That’s a different approach than many have taken. If there are budget issues and the institutions are close and the HBCU doesn’t have to succumb to the white institutions, I think this can work. However, it is important to note that the alumni situation is very difficult and for a good while there will be separate alumni groups."
Gasman also said it was important that the merger preserve and elevate Albany State's mission, not move it away from providing a range of bachelor's and graduate offerings.
"I think there are a lot of risks and one is just trusting the Board of Regents in Georgia. Given the location of ASU and the service that it provides in the surrounding area, it’s important that the institution offers a comprehensive curriculum," she said. "I do worry that the curriculum could be watered down and that it might not be enough for those in the region -- thus causing them to go elsewhere and damaging the chances of the new institution. This is a strategy used by other Southern states in the past."
Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which raises money for public black colleges (including Albany State, which is a member of the fund), said he hoped Darton and Albany State would combine to produce "a stronger HBCU."
Taylor noted that since Darton has substantially more students than Albany State, Huckaby might have proposed going with the Darton State name and leadership. So, Taylor said, "hats off" to Huckaby for proposing to keep the Albany State name and "committing to the HBCU mission."