ON WEDNESDAY of this week, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia will almost certainly vote in favor of consolidating Statesboro’s Georgia Southern University and Armstrong State University in Savannah.
(Update: The Board of Regents did indeed vote Wednesday morning to approve the consolidation. Read their release here.)
While the stated intent of the merger is to streamline and enhance educational opportunities at both institutions, let’s be frank: Only one will survive.
Sometime in 2018, when the deal is finalized, we’re told the “new” merged university will be called Georgia Southern, and will be led by current Georgia Southern President Jaimie Hebert.
Armstrong will be no more, and will live only in memories—yet another Savannah institution consigned to history.
However, its name will still be on all those degrees on the wall, a constant reminder to graduates that technically their alma mater doesn't exist anymore.
While rumors circulated for months, the Friday news of the impending vote blindsided faculty at both universities.
Even deans didn’t know.
“I now work at Georgia Southern,” one Armstrong professor texted me that afternoon. “Until Georgia Southern decides I don’t.”
“At this point it’s all questions and absolutely no answers,” another Armstrong prof tells me.
Any merger of this nature, in business or in education, will be met with resistance no matter how good the idea might be.
But the very secretive nature of this merger has instilled an atmosphere of distrust and fear.
How secretive was it? A new dean was just hired at Armstrong. How long will she continue to have the job? And another new dean came on just a semester ago.
“My department is in the midst of a job search,” says another Armstrong prof. “How do we hire a faculty member into this situation?”
There’s a backstory. The Board of Regents apparently learned a lesson from the last time Armstrong was involved in merger talks.
In the ‘80s, talks to combine Armstrong with Savannah State University went awry as they became very public, and alumni on both sides pushed back hard.
In the end, both institutions were so firm in their resolve for each to stay intact separately, the merger failed. (Though the idea does still come up now and again.)
The pivotal figure in that fight was former Savannah Mayor Dr. Otis Johnson, not only the city’s most influential Savannah State professor but also the first African American to enroll at Armstrong, then a junior college, graduating in 1964.
The lesson for the Regents: Keep it all under wraps until the last possible second.
Armstrong was always sort of an odd-man-out in the state system. But for Savannah, the Armstrong name is a very personal part of our real history. The names “Geechees” and “Masquers” are part of local vocabulary and folklore.
My parents met while they both attended Armstrong, back when it was downtown just off Forsyth Park. I guess I’m technically an Armstrong alumnus myself, thanks to a single evening class I took years back.
The school’s move out of downtown to the Southside in 1966 marked Armstrong’s transition to what was often pejoratively called a “commuter school.”
But in a way Armstrong was way ahead of its time, as so-called non-traditional students—actually the norm at Armstrong for decades—are now a rapidly growing component of student bodies all over the country.
Ironically, Armstrong State was already well on its way to shedding the commuter label. A huge recent investment in campus upgrades, new dorms, and new athletic facilities seemed intent on bringing the school into the ranks of upper-tier institutions.
That will indeed come to fruition with the merger. But at the cost of Armstrong’s 80-plus year-old identity.
It's interesting that one of the Regents' stated reasons for the merger is that Georgia Southern and Armstrong are "only" 60 miles away from each other, and that because of this proximity it makes sense to combine them.
As a friend points out to me: "Harvard and MIT are just a few miles away from each other and no one talks about merging them. Georgia Tech and Georgia State in Atlanta are basically right next to each other and no one talks about merging them. It's nonsense."
(For that matter, UGA and Tech are "only" about 70 miles away. Why not merge them, Regents?)
Speaking of proximity: The effects of the Georgia Southern/Armstrong consolidation will possibly also be devastating to Savannah State, another key regional player.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the U.S. are already facing severe budget cutbacks, which usually lead to a downward spiral of decreasing enrollment and more budget shortfalls.
The now-peaceful coexistence of Armstrong and Savannah State—two once-totally segregated schools —has been a carefully crafted one. The success of both is a proud and important achievement for Savannah considering the city's history of racial injustice.
But how does SSU survive competing in the same market with Georgia Southern and its increased resources?
So what’s going to happen? No one knows, and in that vacuum of trust comes suspicion.
“For faculty and staff there is real fear,” one Armstrong professor says. “For students, the academic side will stay similar, but athletes and sports programs, student organizations and the budding Greek system are all question marks.”
Indeed, the much-vaunted athletic programs of Georgia Southern will now be Armstrong’s, as Eagles replace Pirates.
(Hang onto anything with a Pirate logo, folks, they’ll all be collector’s items soon.)
But what happens to Armstrong’s national championship tennis program? What happens to students on athletic scholarships? How about sports staff?
And while the Georgia Southern sports brand is going to be a major part of the marketing appeal of the new, combined institution, not everything in the world is about football.
“My study-abroad relationships with foreign institutions are in limbo,” an Armstrong professor says. “How do I craft a memorandum of understanding from an institution that won’t exist soon?”
The answer is you probably don’t. So right away we see an immediate, measurable negative impact on students —the opposite of the stated reason for the merger.
We all know what’s really driving the merger. The same thing that drives all mergers, everywhere: Money.
And Armstrong-to-Georgia Southern is far from the only one, with a series of consolidations across the state over the past several years, most notably Georgia State University swallowing Georgia Perimeter to become the largest school in the state.
Also coming up, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, one of the great old names in Georgia higher education, is set to ingest Bainbridge State College.
So far, the number of state universities and colleges has shrunk from 35 to 28.
Mergers and acquisitions are the way of the world in both the public and private sectors. But regardless of what bureaucrats and businessmen tell you, there’s always a winner and there’s always a loser.
As one Armstrong professor messaged me:
“We’re told the committee from Georgia Southern, Armstrong, and Savannah State will be extremely important in working these things out,” he says.
“But we all know it will be whatever Georgia Southern wants.”