ATLANTA — The unprecedented merger of eight public colleges was approved Tuesday by Georgia's Board of Regents in a move to reduce costs, shrinking the university system from 35 to 31 institutions.
The plan will consolidate Waycross College with South Georgia College in Douglas; Augusta State College with the Georgia Health Sciences University; Middle Georgia College with Macon State College; and Gainesville State College with North Georgia College & State University. University system Chancellor Hank Huckaby announced the move last week after visiting each campus to talk with administrators face-to-face.
"I think this is a historic moment and the right move in the context of the environment we're in now," he said after Tuesday's unanimous vote.
Consolidation marks a change in direction for Georgia's public college system, which has added many new institutions since it was founded in the 1930's. Enrollment at the schools has also been rising while state support has fallen amid steep budget cuts, leading to large tuition increases even as HOPE scholarship benefits were cut back.
The mergers will reduce administrative costs at the institutions and help the university system absorb some of the $1 billion in state funding cuts that have been made in the last four years, officials said. Huckaby has declined to say how much he thinks the consolidation will save.
The university system began a study this fall to determine whether it should combine some of its institutions to help cut administrative costs. Officials said they hope to have most changes in place by fall 2013.
The university system will not shut down any of the campuses but will instead merge administrative functions at the institutions. It also will give students in smaller communities a chance to study at larger institutions that they might not have had access to in the past, through online classes and shared faculty members.
The merger plan calls for forming committees at each institution that include students, faculty, staff and community members to help make the transition smooth. The committees will be established in coming weeks.
"It's going to be messy," associate vice chancellor Shelley Nickel told the board. "There are issues we are not even aware of yet. It will take us time to sort through the issues."
Dozens of supporters from Waycross College attended the packed meeting, wearing shirts from the tiny, two-year institution. The south Georgia community has been the most vocal about the mergers, saying the university system should do more research before approving the change.
Rep. Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Waycross, said he plans to request a meeting with Gov. Nathan Deal in hopes of halting the merger with South Georgia College.
"I was disappointed," he said about the regents' vote. "I don't think that the issue was given any debate."
Huckaby has urged campus communities not to panic but that hasn't stopped regents chairman Ben Tarbutton and other board members from being flooded with questions over the possible mergers and how they would affect colleges across the state.
"Our focus in on the quality of education, on the students, not on preserving administrative structures," Huckaby said.
Previous efforts to merge institutions in Georgia have failed, mostly because of the politics involved, Huckaby said.
In 2009, a Republican state senator initiated a push to merge historically black colleges in Savannah and Albany with nearby schools that are predominantly white. The plan never moved forward, amid opposition from the legislative black caucus.
There are no historically black institutions on the list of mergers.
Other states, like Maryland, Maine and Louisiana, have tried similar moves with no success.
"These kinds of debates inevitably degenerate into turf and political battles," said Aims McGuinness Jr. with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and expert in higher education mergers.
"The crisis that higher education faces — really increased demand but really virtually no money — an entity like the Board of Regents has got to be taking bold steps," he said. "There's no way the state is going to get more people in the system and have them get a degree without doing things differently."
Follow Dorie Turner at http://www.twitter.com/dorieturner.