Don't Forget -- Savannah State is Still in Trouble

How the COVID-19 pandemic is making the threat of mergers and consolidations even scarier for HBCUs nationwide.

People have funny ways of telling you exactly what their plans are even in attempts to keep them secret. In March, a Savannah Morning News op-ed from former Savannah Economic Development Authority and Savannah Chamber of Commerce Chair Cliff McCurry outlined how the recently-consolidated Georgia Southern and Armstrong State Universities were primed to explode commercial and economic interests in Savannah, Ga.

With a new president, a new strategic plan, and a new optimism about its future, Georgia Southern is making great progress as an institution, in Savannah and at the Armstrong campus.

Here are some examples of what’s really going on:

* By the end of this academic year, officials expect 29 academic programs will have been developed or expanded on the Armstrong campus in Savannah. This is part of a regional academic plan, which was developed to respond to Georgia Southern’s larger footprint in the Savannah market. Officials worked with businesses and industries in the region to expand program offerings and have invested $2.5 million to date in this effort.

* Georgia Southern is now a leader in the Savannah Logistics Technology Corridor focusing on productive research, education and technology transfer and establishing Savannah and the state of Georgia as a global leader in logistics technology innovation.

* Students can now begin coursework for bachelor’s degrees in computer engineering and construction engineering and master’s degrees in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering and information technology on the Armstrong Campus.

* A new potential partnership (Discovery Center) with Junior Achievement of Georgia has the opportunity to bring approximately 15,000 to 17,000 middle and high school students a year onto the Armstrong campus.

* A new hospitality management program is being developed in Savannah within the Parker College of Business. This will combine a highly sought-after curriculum with immersive management internships and co-op opportunities in collaboration with regional partners and leaders in the hospitality industry.

* President Kyle Marrero is leading a new K-16 education collaborative with Chatham and surrounding counties, in coordination with Savannah/Chatham Public Schools, Savannah State and Savannah Tech. The goal of this partnership is to ensure that every student in this region has been given every opportunity -- from birth to graduation -- to become gainfully employed, enrolled in a local institution of higher learning, or enlisted in the military.

* Savannah is now home to a R2, “high research” university. This designation by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education places Georgia Southern in the top 6% of 4,500 colleges and universities across the country.

Georgia Southern is the emerging economic anchor of Savannah, while its flagship historically black institution continues to suffer from enrollment lapses and strategic vision. Last month, the school made headlines for inadvertently telling thousands of accepted students that they weren’t welcomed to campus in the fall after all.

From the looks of population growth and economic development throughout the state of Georgia, it would be all too easy for Georgia lawmakers to proposed a consolidation for struggling Savannah State. After all, Georgia Southern’s growth as the schools expand shared programming tells us a great deal of what may be to come in the future.

Almost every HBCU in the state of Georgia is within at least 50 miles of a growing predominantly white campus, with the exception of Albany State University which was consolidated with predominantly white Darton State College in 2017. A recent article in the Albany Herald profiling the reaction of the Darton State community to its institutional identity being absorbed, reveals a scary prospect for HBCUs in Georgia and beyond.

“I was certain that this merger was on the way, it just took them a long time,” the [former Albany mayor Tommy Coleman] said. “They really started working on it in the 1980s. Which, if you look at it from a distance, you have two colleges and a technical college now, in a relatively, compared to other places, small community in which the population has declined. So if you look at it that way, it makes sense. But I do have some nostalgia for (an independent Darton).”

Lawmakers and system leaders worked on an HBCU consolidation for more than 30 years, and that plan wasn’t initially designed to make the HBCU a bigger regional entity until DSC faltered in its own enrollment and the threat of federal lawsuits against states for discriminatory support became a real thing beginning in Maryland in 2006.

Consider an article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education over the weekend which profiles the increasing number of public higher education systems around the country that have executed or are considering consolidations and mergers of institutions in the name of fiscal savings.

From the Chronicle:

Georgia cited higher educational attainment and improved access among the guiding principles for its consolidations, and early results indicate the effort may be succeeding. A 2019 study by Lauren Russell, who is now at the University of Pennsylvania, found that consolidation had increased student retention by 1.7 percent overall and had raised the four-year graduation rate for students seeking bachelor’s degrees by 4 percent. Studying institutional data, Russell concluded that “increased spending on academic support (advising), made possible by economies of scale in student services, are likely responsible for the gains.”

While this study doesn’t account for the performance of African American students, it doesn’t really have to; all lawmakers and lobbyists who are working to minimize the attraction or performance of black colleges have to know is that there is a method to reduce them in the name of social good for all communities and at a cheaper price than maintaining them.

While most examples of systems combining schools in the northeast and far west have proven to be less than fruitful, states like Georgia have kicked merger efforts into hyperdrive to reduce spending on executive salaries and benefits and to increase student outcomes.

That last element is the scariest part of why historically black institutions made vulnerable by generations of underfunding and leadership interference by states face heightened danger for consolidation. Add to that a cruel pandemic and betrayal of geography, along with a lack of evolution in academic program development, and the final outlook for several HBCUs across the south is outright dire.

Not too long ago, black lawmakers attempted to head off what appears to be a political locomotive headed straight for a tragic collision with SSU, only to botch the effort with a haphazardly developed and leaked plan to create an HBCU system in the state. One of the state lawmakers involved in that plan, State Senator Nikema Williams, will soon replace former Georgia Rep. John Lewis in Congress in Washington D.C.

If there are two opposing sides on the issue of HBCUs in the State of Georgia, it appears that one side has its stuff together and is moving institutions and resources to support their vision of a state with reduced HBCU influence.

The other side? It is struggling to recognize that a war has been fully underway for generations.