The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia is on track to give its final approval to the consolidation between Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College (GPC) in January. But that momentous vote won’t be the starting gun for the massive consolidation that will turn Georgia State into one of the largest universities in the country.
Since the first announcement of a consolidation was released earlier this year, committees across both institutions have been working behind the scenes to make the marriage work. As is often the case in the early stages of a relationship, there have been a few bumps in the road. In working to overcome obstacles, there have been two guiding principles: doing what’s in the best interest of the students, and an awareness that “we’ve always done it this way” is no longer an option.
While the devil may be in the details, Georgia State Vice Provost Tim Renick keeps a close eye on the big picture: student success.
“When Chancellor [Hank] Huckaby announced the consolidation last January, he said explicitly that this is first and foremost about student success, about providing opportunities for students to succeed at levels they are not,” says Renick. “Georgia State has been a national leader in this effort. We have raised graduation rates, conferring more degrees than five years ago, and closed the achievement gap of graduation rates between whites, African-Americans and Latinos, upper- and lower-income students. Few public universities can make that claim.”
At the same time, Georgia Perimeter has not fared as well, Renick points out.
“Students there are graduating at low rates with achievement gaps that need to be overcome. We have innovations that are scalable across both campuses, and we’ll take what we’ve developed to track and support students at Georgia Perimeter in a way that will help them be far more successful.”
A consolidated university will capitalize on connections that already exist between the two, Renick says. For instance, GPC is the largest single source of students enrolling at Georgia State. In the fall 2015 semester, about 7,000 students at Georgia State had taken courses at the two-year school.
Under the one-university umbrella, GPC students will no longer be told they’ll have to achieve certain benchmarks before applying at Georgia State.
“There’s no reason we can’t make that a seamless process, just as it is when a student moves between the College of Arts and Sciences and the business school,” says Renick. “We can collaborate with them more closely to help them move from one to the next, all while being supported with the tools they need to succeed.”
It’s no surprise to Renick that a project as massive as connecting the 100-year- old, 32,000-student Georgia State with the 51-year-old, 21,000-student Georgia Perimeter has sent the rumor mill into a tailspin. But many of the questions have been settled, he said, and the answers aren’t as complicated as some of the imagined scenarios.
Rumor 1: Georgia State degrees will be “watered down” by this consolidation.
“Absolutely not,” says Renick. “We looked at this very carefully and found a number of models for what we’re working to achieve. The University of South Carolina has a number of two-year institutions across the state that feed students to the main campus for their bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degrees. Penn State has the same system. Here in Atlanta, Emory has a two-year college at Oxford, and no one claims Emory’s degrees decline in status because of it.”
However, there will be a distinction between being admitted to an associate’s program at Georgia Perimeter or a bachelor’s or master’s program at the downtown campus, which will continue to be the university’s academic center — a fact supported by the number of students who want to be there: For the 2015-16 year, more than 13,500 applications came in for about 3,800 spaces.
“We do want to continue the momentum of the downtown campus that has become an incredibly desirable location for students,” says Renick. “At the same time, we realize the access role Georgia Perimeter plays in the Atlanta area. We can provide better support for these students so they can maximize their efforts to gain the degree they’re seeking, and at the same time, wisely invest their tuition dollars.”
Rumor 2: Georgia State will make it much harder to get into Georgia Perimeter.
Not so, says Renick.
“I’ve also heard people say [GPC] tuition will be hiked, but that isn’t the plan either. Georgia Perimeter’s tuition will be competitive and comparable to what other state colleges charge for two-year programs. And we’ll support those students with better systems and technology so more qualify to be admitted into a bachelor’s program at the downtown campus.”
Learning support courses will be eliminated at Georgia Perimeter.
Another falsity, says Renick. Learning support for students who need additional help with math, reading and writing is an essential component of an access institution.
“But at the downtown campus, we offer almost none of those classes,” he pointed out. “We have few students who are engaged in learning support, whereas at Georgia Perimeter, the numbers are in the thousands.”
Rumor 3: The Georgia Perimeter faculty and staff will change dramatically.
There are no plans for immediate changes for faculty at either institution as the consolidation moves towards its first full academic year in the fall of 2016.
“That’s not to say we won’t evolve, but the reality is that the consolidation will not have a direct impact on jobs and roles.”
In fact, it’s quite possible that more jobs will be created at GPC to provide better student support systems.
“Right now, they have an inadequate number of academic advisers and support staff in areas like financial aid and counseling,” says Renick. “Our commitment is to bring a higher level of support to these students, and the model will be taken from what we’ve done downtown.”
Rumor 4: Georgia State students will be able to take classes on GPC campuses.
Not immediately, if at all, is the short answer to an issue that Renick says will have to play out over the next few years.
“Students will be admitted to programs that require them to take courses on the campuses where those programs are offered,” he says. “We aren’t going to just mix students together. However, there are recommendations coming forward that will give students some limited options to do that type of thing, but again, the courses have to be appropriate to their program.”
900-Plus Jobs to Do
The massive project of combining two institutions looks a tad less overwhelming when Peter Lyons puts it in the context of tasks to be accomplished. The associate provost for institutional effectiveness has it narrowed down to just a few more than 900.
“That’s what the Board of Regents told us had to be completed to ensure the consolidation was going to work,” he says. “So we set up a system to distribute those tasks around different groups. We’ve had 43 groups and dozens of subgroups working on hundreds of tasks, everything from the governance of the institution and how we merge the faculty senates to how to develop a general education core. We need to integrate technology systems, especially around student data. The recommendations from the various groups will formulate the formal plan, which will be presented to the Board of Regents at their first meeting in January.”
From that long list, certain tasks have higher priority, particularly if they relate to getting students enrolled for the fall 2016 term. Revamping the core of general education classes was one; another was getting those classes into a Georgia State-based system so students can register in the spring.
“Integrating our systems was an enormous task,” says Lyons. “Others that are less critical may spill into the new year, and some will be works in progress.”
Some decisions were made swiftly.
“We know Georgia Perimeter will be a stand-alone college at Georgia State,” says Lyons. “We will have one president, Mark Becker. We will have two centralized administrations, but a number of positions will be eliminated, and those affected may apply for other positions in the new reporting structure. On the academic side, we want to grow the number of students coming through Georgia Perimeter, so we’re not looking at reducing the number of faculty. We also have to keep the place safe, so we’re not looking at reducing policing. And we have to keep the facilities open and functioning, so we need people to do that.”
Throughout the process, Lyons and his staff have been collecting ideas and suggestions from faculty, students and staff about ways to improve experiences at both campuses.
“We’ve heard a lot around Georgia State’s distance education and online programs,” Lyons says. “Georgia Perimeter has a very robust digital platform with lots of online education. How we bridge that to the multiple initiatives we have around those same ideas at Georgia State is something we’ll work on. We’re collecting all those ideas and will review them to find the best way forward for the whole institution.”
Many of the changes to GPC’s structure eliminate duplicated efforts and save money, which was one of the chief goals of the consolidation to begin with. “I think cost savings can be redirected to make a better educational experience for students at both institutions,” says Lyons.
Even when difficult decisions had to be made, Lyons noted that the spirit of doing what is best for the students underlined the process.
“That’s been our mantra,” he says. “People have been very professional and focused on that. I also think it helps that we’re in a different place from other consolidations; where there were two math or two English departments, there was competitiveness. Our departments don’t compete; they’re largely complementary, and that’s made things smooth so far.”
As the associate vice president for facilities management, Ramesh Vakamudi oversees campus planning, design, construction, maintenance and operations. It’s a daunting job, given Georgia State’s 11 million square feet of campus and about 60 buildings spread across downtown, Dunwoody and Buckhead. Now add to that sprawl Georgia Perimeter’s 1.8 million square feet and at least another 35 buildings in five separate locations — some as far as 50 miles from Georgia State’s downtown hub.
“When one of our buildings goes down, I get calls from deans and faculty members, and within a half an hour, we sort it out,” says Vakamudi. “But if a chiller goes out, and you’re 50 miles away, how do you get there and come back in Atlanta traffic? What happens if I can’t even get off the Connector?”
Vakamudi and his GPC counterparts are working on a support system for all locations and a master plan that will pro- vide the framework and footprint for future growth.
“It’s a long, drawn-out process,” Vakamudi admits. “We don’t know yet what needs to be done. [Georgia Perimeter] has felt the impact in the last few years with budget cuts, so we’re taking time to understand their building conditions. They have a relatively good system, with sup- port teams at different locations. Just how to assimilate them into our procedures, well, it’s too soon to make conclusions.”
One of the top priorities the facilities team is getting Georgia State signage in place as soon as the consolidation is officially approved. Design concepts, colors and exact locations are in progress for 13 to 15 new signs.
“We do know the signs will say ‘Georgia State University Clarkston Campus,’ for instance.” says Vakamudi. “Will they be metal, ornamental signs or precast stone? And what about getting the [Georgia] Department of Transportation to change street signs? That’s a process that could take six months alone.”
When the fall 2016 semester opens, Georgia State will have about 21,000 GPC students on the rolls. And just about every one of them will be taking a general education course. Establishing common ground for what those students will learn has been the task of the Arts and Science Consolidation Committee that rewrote the catalogue of offerings in about six weeks.
“Any course offered at either campus had to be in the new catalogue,” explains Lynée Gaillet, who took over as chair of Georgia State’s English department in August. “For instance, our literature surveys are one semester; GPC’s are two. They have a 2000-lev- el creative writing class that we don’t. We had to meet in the middle to come up with course names, descriptions and hours.”
As soon as the consolidation was announced in early January, Gaillet met with her English counterparts at GPC and shared syllabi, catalogues, required textbooks lists and other resources.
“We had to figure out what GPC English will look like and ways to blend, to meet in the middle to get the same outcomes,” she says. “I saw it as a Venn diagram — where did we overlap? In our case, we had a great advantage: Unlike some other consolidations, we weren’t trying to merge two 4-year schools, so there were fewer classes.”
The result is a streamlined set of course offerings that will make a student’s transition from GPC to Georgia State even easier.
“For instance, we won’t have to see if classes count for transfer,” says Gaillet. “The two catalogues now match.”
Gaillet describes the English collaboration as extremely collegial. One contributing factor was that Gaillet served for several years as the Lower Division chair and has a working knowledge of general education courses. In addition, she has taught many of the GPC teachers she met with.
“Two people whose dissertations I directed graduated in the spring and are now full-time tenured faculty at Georgia Perimeter,” she says. “I’ve worked with a lot of the tenured and adjunct people there. It just makes sense to continue to collaborate.”
H.M. Cauley is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is working toward a Ph.D. in Georgia State’s English Department.