The University System of Georgia’s planned consolidation of eight public campuses into four has sparked some concerns in the affected communities. Here are those of state Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross.
By Mark Hatfield
“We discussed a number of options. We had a number of ideas that were suggested to us. We had ideas come from several of you, we had ideas from legislators, we had ideas bubble up from the communities. We had ideas that came from other sources, and we took all of those and talked about them because we felt like it was important to take anybody’s idea and think about it and look at it.”
These words from Dr. Steve Wrigley, Executive Vice Chancellor of Administration for the University System of Georgia, made at the Jan. 10 Board of Regents’ meeting during which a proposal was unanimously approved to merge eight different public colleges around the state, would initially suggest that the merger decision was reached through much openness, transparency, diligence, and deliberation as to the relative merits of approving or disapproving the proposal.
While transparency is, and ought to be, demanded in the functioning of government, the University System’s claims of transparency thus far in the merger process simply fall flat. I reach this conclusion, along with a great many other citizens of Southeast Georgia, after having witnessed a complete refusal by University System officials to allow the residents of Southeast Georgia to have any input with regard to the consolidation of our local school, Waycross College, with South Georgia College in Douglas, an hour’s drive away.
Waycross’ local officials were first asked to meet with University System officials in a “private” meeting at Waycross College on Jan. 4. At the meeting, Chancellor Hank Huckaby and Board of Regents Chairman Ben Tarbutton, along with staffers, met with our local leadership and notified us that the chancellor was seeking to merge Waycross College into South Georgia College. However, we were shocked to learn that the Board of Regents intended to vote to approve the proposal at its next meeting, less than a week away, although an “official” announcement would not be released by the University System for two more days.
While we were told that the proposed mergers of eight colleges around the state were made necessary by budgetary constraints, and that the mergers would necessarily result in job losses in our community, we were absolutely stunned that the chancellor admittedly had no financial data or analyses to support his decision to move forward with the proposal.
Over the next few minutes, local officials and I raised to the chancellor our concerns about the proposed merger of Waycross College. We explained that Waycross College pulls its student population not just from Ware County, but from a 40-60 mile area and numerous counties around Waycross. We offered that many of Waycross College’s enrollees are non-traditional students who may be older and who may be simultaneously going to school, working a part- or full-time job, and raising a family. We advised that there are many area high school students who are dually enrolled at Waycross College.
Finally, we pointed out that Waycross College is a major factor in boosting economic development in Waycross and Southeast Georgia. For each of these reasons, and for others, we respectfully explained to the chancellor that a change in the status of our college campus, in the course offerings, or in the location of classes may well be devastating to individuals and families in Waycross and Southeast Georgia, as well as to our area economy.
All we asked of the chancellor was just a delay in the Regents’ scheduled vote – a delay to allow our community to be informed of what was happening and to properly state our case.
Our request that morning, as well as the same request made by countless citizens of Waycross, Ware County, and Southeast Georgia over the next few days, fell on deaf ears. The decision had been made, Southeast Georgia was told.
Transparency it seems, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog