ATLANTA - It was standing room only at last week's Board of Regents meeting as students, faculty and administrators from eight University System of Georgia institutions waited with bated breath to find out the fate of their universities.
Less than an hour into the Jan. 10 meeting, the proposed college mergers became official.
Gainesville State College will join with North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, Macon State College with Middle Georgia College in Cochran, Waycross College with South Georgia College in Douglas and Augusta State University with Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta by fall 2013.
"This is going to be an amazing opportunity for our entire region," North Georgia President Bonita Jacobs said. "This gives us tremendous opportunities to explore a lot of options, so that's what we'll do: Roll up our sleeves, get to work and figure out the best way to implement all of this that works for everybody."
The consolidations will begin before the month is out.
Presidents are being asked to turn in nominations for implementation committees, which will examine challenges and opportunities.
Challenges that Associate Vice Chancellor Shelley Nickel mentioned include accreditation, combining athletic programs, tuition, financial aid, names for the new universities and changing the mascots and colors.
Key issues for the local implementation committee are merging missions and cultures, finding the right tuition and fee structure, dealing with faculty issues and creating clear admissions standards - which Gainesville State President Martha Nesbitt said would likely be different for the four different campuses being joined together.
"One of our big questions will be what are we going to teach on each of these campuses and how does it all fit together," Jacobs said. "Most of the baccalaureate programs, all of the masters' and doctoral programs will be taught by the faculty on the Dahlonega campus. Where they teach those is a secondary question."
Executive Vice Chancellor Steve Wrigley said the consolidations were based on several factors: The principles of consolidation announced at the November board meeting, new opportunities for students and where cost savings can happen.
"It will be a complex interplay as we look at cost savings," he said. "We certainly see savings from administrative efficiencies and eliminating administrative overlaps. ... We might have to add or expand a function at a particular institution."
Any money saved from the mergers will go back to faculty and instruction, Wrigley said.
How much money, however, has yet to be seen.
University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby said at one point recently that no feasibility study had been done for the proposed mergers. He spoke differently to representatives from Waycross College on Jan. 10, however.
"The word that we received was that there was not a feasibility study done. We ended up talking with the chancellor this morning. He said there was a feasibility study, he's not been able to share that with us yet," said the Rev. Fer-Rell Malone, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church in Waycross.
Regent Philip Wilheit said the regents have steered away from setting an exact savings figure.
He did say there would be a more balanced salary, as state college faculty are on a lower pay scale than those at universities.
"I've been involved with a lot of mergers over my time ... I have yet to see the highest benefit package drop to the lowest. It's almost always the other way," Wilheit said. "As far as the faculty's concerned, if they think they're underpaid now, I think they're going to see an increase."
Wrigley said the University System looked at academic performance, enrollment patterns, degree offerings, student origins, transfer patterns, economic impact, budgets, faculty credentials and existence of current partnerships to see where mergers were possible.
Wilheit said Gainesville needs a four-year college.
Without the merger, it would take 10 years and millions of dollars to make that happen, he said.
"It's a growing area of our state; a place where we really need to apply higher education opportunities for the growth we hope will continue to take place there," Nickel said. "It would be very difficult to grow organically in Gainesville the opportunity that the combination of these two will provide."
Jacobs said what she's heard most at "first blush" is excitement and anticipation, though she knows there are hurdles to cross.
"We want the campuses to be involved helping to identify and address issues that can possibly happen," Wrigley said. "We are committed to a transparent process as we work through the implementation issues."
Malone doesn't believe the regents have been transparent this far, however. Neither does the Waycross community: Students and representatives brought T-shirts with the slogan "Do Your Homework" on the back to encourage the board to rethink the consolidation. The community gathered 2,000 signatures requesting last week's vote be delayed until a later meeting.
"We recognize that budget cuts are going to happen. Our problem is transparency, due diligence and process," Malone said. "If this is a good thing, then why not share it with us and allow us to have input? I'm all for anything that's going to make the institutions better, but a consolidation of what for us is a major college without community input is our main concern."
Malone's concern is that the information was "dropped on us rather suddenly" when it was leaked to the media.
He said when potential issues are brought up, he's told "those things you've got are just lies."
"But in the absence of them communicating on the front end, it leaves the open door for anything to come up," Malone said. "Had they done proper due diligence by involving the communities that were concerned, I don't think they would have gotten that much of a pushback. If the feasibility study does exist, then sharing the results on the front end would have been extremely positive."