Armstrong, Georgia Southern presidents discuss merger

Armstrong, Georgia Southern presidents discuss merger.
Updated: Feb. 22, 2017 at 6:14 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - For the first time, WTOC is sitting down with both Armstrong State and Georgia Southern University presidents after the Georgia Board of Regents voted last month to consolidate both schools.

Both presidents came to our studio Wednesday to finally answer some very tough questions. Not only about the consolidation process moving forward, but how a lot of Armstrong students felt very betrayed and blindsided when this first happened. Until this interview, many of their questions remained unanswered.

"The notice that was given to the students was pretty equal to the notice that was given to us," said Armstrong President Dr. Linda Bleicken.

Faculty and students at ASU found out just days before the Georgia Board of Regents voted to consolidate both ASU and GS. It's the same process and protocol that's been done with all the other consolidations in Georgia, but many students have said publicly they disagree.

"Do you think that they may need to come up with another protocol to do something like this if there are more consolidations in the future?"

"Personally, I don't think that's for us to say. The University System of Georgia is the oversight group for the institutions within," replied Dr. Bleicken.

But after the merger was announced, questions began circulating about whether President Bleicken knew this was coming back in October when she announced she was retiring.

"A lot of people say you knew this was coming?"

"No. Just as Dr. Hebert has stated, there has been discussion of consolidations of institutions for many years," said Dr. Bleicken.

She says ever since the Board of Regents announced in 2011 their plans to consolidate schools, questions have circulated about whether Armstrong would be one of them.

When Dr. Jamie Hebert took the job as Georgia Southern's new president less than a year ago, he says he knew a consolidation was possible.

"I knew that all universities around the state were being viewed in terms of consolidation but I had no idea when I took this job that six months later we would be in the midst of this process," said Dr. Hebert.

"So, you had no idea it would be the university that you were about to become president of?"

"Correct," replied Dr. Hebert.

Dr. Hebert will be the new president of the new consolidated school which will keep the Georgia Southern University name, but it's a process that takes 18 months.

"So what your main concerns right now?"

"The people and how this impacting personal lives. Impacting our students., minimizing the impact on our students while preserving the ability to offer educational opportunities," said Dr. Hebert.

"But what about faculty and staff and jobs that could potentially be on the line?"

"Losing a single faculty member. I just don't see that happening. I don't anticipate any losses in staff positions as well. The vast majority of the losses in a consolidation like this are at the senior level where we just can't have duplication," replied Dr. Hebert.

Even combining staff and students from universities, Dr. Hebert believes the student to staff ratio will still be balanced enough not to threaten jobs. But when it comes to sports, there are no guarantees.

"If you're an athlete at ASU, there's not a lot of answers right now."

"There's not, but the athletic director there is working very close with their student athletes," replied Dr. Hebert.

It's decisions like these that will be made over the 18-month process. In fact, the consolidation committee kicked off the process Wednesday morning at an orientation meeting.

"The consolidation implementation committee, which was already formed the functional workgroups, the chairs of those and the beginnings of the organizational work groups," Dr. Bleicken said.

Not only will both presidents be working very close over the next 18 months, but so will several work groups represented from both schools to ensure there's a smooth transition as they become the "new" Georgia Southern University.

"Fall 2018. I think what you will see is, organizationally, we will begin functioning as a single institution," said Dr. Hebert.

Dr. Bleicken will retire in June and the University System of Georgia has already appointed Jennifer Frum as interim president. She will work with Dr. Hebert during the remainder of the transition process.

But again, Dr. Hebert will be the president of the new consolidated school.

There is no doubt there will be a few consolidation challenges both universities will face in the next 18 months. They include blending of institutional missions and cultures, ensuring continued strong community and alumni support, and travel. It's about an hour drive between both campuses.

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