UPDATE: The merger of Georgia Southern University and Armstrong State University has been approved.
This is the original article that appeared in Wednesday's edition of the Coastal Courier.
The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia is slated to vote Wednesday on a recommendation to consolidate Georgia Southern University in Statesboro with Armstrong State University in Savannah, with the overall result to be called Georgia Southern University.
“At this point, the information I have received on it and the discussions I’ve had lead me to believe that it would be a positive development for both Georgia Southern and Armstrong and for our region of Georgia,” Regent Laura Marsh of Statesboro said.
Marsh is still gathering information but sees the vote as the “first step in moving forward to do further research and consideration of combining these two great universities,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Savannah Morning News reported that Regent Don Waters of Savannah is leaning toward voting for the proposal.
Based on Georgia Southern’s 20,674 students and Armstrong State’s 7,157 students in fall 2016 enrollment reports, the result of a merger would be the fourth-largest public university in the state. Georgia Southern is already fifth, and if it held current enrollments post-merger, would surpass Georgia Tech’s enrollment, which was 26,841 in fall 2016.
If university system Chancellor Steve Wrigley’s recommendation is accepted, a year of planning and preparations is expected before a vote to complete the merger. Public input opportunities are promised. But the committee to be chaired by Georgia Southern University President Jaimie Hebert is an implementation team, not a study committee.
One of two
“Creating the new Georgia Southern University will combine the best of both institutions, which are just an hour apart and ultimately serving many of the same students,” Wrigley said in a press release. “Consolidating Armstrong and Georgia Southern will create one institution with expanded regional presence, tailored degree programs...”
In fact, the proposal is one of two Wrigley is recommending. The other would unify Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton and Bainbridge State College in the southwestern corner of the state under the ABAC name.
Seven mergers already
Since the regents adopted a set of principles for consolidations in 2011, the university system has completed seven, reducing its total of colleges and universities from 35 to 28.
Every consolidation recommended by a chancellor, the chief executive officer of the system, has been approved by the Board of Regents.
The largest consolidation made Georgia Perimeter College part of Georgia State University, which with more than 50,000 students is now one of the largest urban universities in the country.
Armstrong, founded in 1935, consists of four colleges: the Education, Health Professions, Liberal Arts, and Science and Technology. Georgia Southern consists of eight colleges and is recognized by the Carnegie Foundation as a doctoral research university.
Both have prominent nursing schools.
“Armstrong is the university system’s largest producer of undergraduate health professionals,” Vice Chancellor for Communications Charles Sutlive said.
It also offers nurse practitioner master’s degrees. Meanwhile, Georgia Southern offers nursing degrees up to a Doctor of Nursing Practice and is also home to the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health.
Besides health education, Marsh mentioned engineering, cybersecurity and military science as areas where she hopes “synergies” could lead to growth.
Georgia Southern could also bring practices that have given it a high graduation rate to Savannah, while Armstrong has won national recognition in its support for students who are veterans and active-duty military, Sutlive said.
“The idea would be you can offer more degrees and programs at, quite frankly, the Armstrong campus in Savannah because of what Georgia Southern brings to it, but Armstrong has this expertise that can then be shared at the new institution, including the Statesboro campus,” he said.
All of the mergers are pursued with the idea of improving efficiency, he said.
“We’ve got to look for opportunities to control costs while also strengthening the programs and degrees we offer for students,” he said.
If the Board of Regents approves the recommendation, the “consolidation implementation committee,” led by Hebert, will be formed from both universities.
The committee will first design a mission statement, then look at the existing programs and then decide “what does the new university look like,” Sutlive said.
The fate of Armstrong State’s sports programs and Pirates mascot will be one possible controversy. Armstrong competes in baseball, basketball, cross-country, golf, soccer, softball, tennis and volleyball.
In other consolidations, the name of the absorbed institution has been preserved in some way.
The implementation team’s work would probably take most of 2017, after which the universities would present their proposal, Sutlive said. Then it would go to the regional accrediting organization, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which meets in December.
“Then, pending SACS, if they approve it, it would likely go before the board again one year from now,” Sutlive said.
If given final approval next January, the consolidation would take effect for incoming students fall semester 2018.
Both Hebert, who arrived in the top job at Georgia Southern last July, and Armstrong State University President Linda M. Bleicken, who is retiring, issued statements Friday.
“The recommended consolidation will combine the best of both institutions, which are just an hour apart and ultimately serve many of the same students coming from southeast Georgia who are seeking higher education,” Hebert said in a message “to the University Community,” posted at news.georgiasouthern.edu.
Georgia Southern and Armstrong State are the two leading public college destinations for students from Bryan, Chatham, Effingham and Liberty counties, Sutlive said. Georgia Southern is also the top destination for Armstrong students who transfer.
The message Bleicken emailed to Armstrong employees and students echoed Wrigley and Hebert’s statements, but added some more specific comments.
“This consolidation will build on our recognized strengths in the health professions and our military partnerships,” Bleicken wrote.
She also told faculty, staff and students: “Like you, I am proud of Armstrong’s history and legacy in the community. Fortunately, Armstrong and Georgia Southern are both strong institutions defined by a shared focus on supporting student success, talented faculty and staff, and a powerful commitment to academic excellence.”
Bleicken’s retirement takes effect June 30. An interim Armstrong president will probably be named as Armstrong continues into the 2017-18 term, Sutlive said.
A Statesboro Herald reporter, Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.