Battle of Wills: In Georgia, the Budget Crunch Has Prompted One State Senator to Propose Closing Some Public Colleges, but Not the Ones You Think

By Powell, Tracie | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, January 22, 2009 | Go to article overview

Battle of Wills: In Georgia, the Budget Crunch Has Prompted One State Senator to Propose Closing Some Public Colleges, but Not the Ones You Think


Powell, Tracie, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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Seth Harp speaks with a distinctive Georgia drawl that authenticates his Deep South roots, but also hints at a former life as a captain in the United States Marine Corps.

Despite such bona tides, Harp is a far cry from the stereotypical White, racist Republican that he's being painted as in some media circles.

To the contrary, at least at first glance, Harp appears to be more of a contradiction in terms.

Case in point: Harp calls himself "a conservative Republican who happens to be progressive." And he sees nothing wrong with that.

Last month, as the Georgia Senate chairman of the Higher Education Committee, Harp caused a bit of a firestorm when he suggested merging two of Georgia's historically Black universities with nearby majority White campuses.

But this son of the South doesn't want to shut down the Black colleges; he's going after the White ones.

He calls it, "eliminating the competition."

"There will still be historically Black colleges and universities. I just want to bring the quality of education up and make them very desirable schools," he says. "I can't dilute the history of these schools; the history is written. It's there."

Political Will Versus Economic Reality

Georgia, like many other states, is facing a budget shortfall of about $2.5 billion, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. To help cope with its money woes, the state's university system alone has to make at least $200 million in cuts, if not more.

With a current operating budget of $2.3 billion, this could mean up to 12 percent in cuts for each of the state's 35 public colleges and universities, Harp tells Diverse. Many schools have already identified about 7 percent in cuts through layoffs, increasing class sizes, offering fewer courses and leaving job vacancies unfilled. State education officials have also proposed merging 14 of Georgia's 34 technical colleges, which they say will yield up to $1.5 million per school.

Harp announced in December that he hopes to duplicate similar savings by shutting down predominantly White Armstrong Atlantic State University and merging it with historically Black Savannah State University. Both located in the coastal city of Savannah, the schools are 12 miles apart, less than a 20-minute drive from one another. He also wants to close mostly White Darton College and combine it with mostly Black Albany State University, which are about five miles--or less than a 15-minute drive--away from each other in Albany.

The only reason Harp's proposal hasn't touched Fort Valley State University, the state's third HBCU, is because there isn't another school in close proximity, he says.

Erroll Davis, the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, as well as the presidents of the two HBCUs affected by Harp's proposal are hesitant to talk about a potential merger.

Drs. Everette Freeman and Earl Yarbrough Sr., presidents of Albany State and Savannah State, respectively, both declined multiple requests to talk with Diverse. In fact, Harp says he hasn't heard from the presidents either.

Davis, who joined the university system three years ago, initially appeared not to want to wade into the political fray. Now he is taking a stronger stand. When Harp first raised the proposal during a budget hearing, Davis said: "You can make obvious arguments about the economics of it, but I don't think economics will drive the decision. It's going to be a political decision, not an economic decision." According to news reports, Davis added that if the "body politic" wants the Board of Regents to look at mergers, it will.

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Weeks later, Davis told Diverse in an e-mail that he believes "it would be a mistake to dilute the mission (of HBCUs) in the name of administrative efficiencies." Those efficiencies, he said, "could be captured in other ways. …

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