‘We do not have every answer:’Emotions run high at consolidation town hall

Emily Smith, Editor in Chief

Panelists at the Consolidation Town Hall Meeting answer questions Thursday, Jan. 19. Photo by Tanner Levi

The first consolidation meeting drew a huge crowd to the Fine Arts Auditorium last Thursday, Jan. 19. Tensions ran high as officials attempted to keep the disgruntled audience in check after being unable to definitively answer several questions .

The meeting’s panelists included Bleicken, Georgia Southern President Jaimie Hebert and USG vice chancellors John Fuchko III and Shelley Nickel.

University System of Georgia official Shelly Nickel was met with boos and opposition after suggesting early in her introduction that Armstrong attendees were “very interested in the future of and the creation of a new university in this region.”

Following the commotion, the event’s moderator and later Armstrong President Linda Bleicken had to repeatedly reminded the audience to be respectful.

“Thank you for understandably showing your passion for Armstrong,” Bleicken said. “This is a hospitable place … and part of our hospitality, of course, is always going to be extended to guests to our campus.”

The meeting’s focus was to begin answering questions pertaining to the consolidation of Armstrong and Georgia Southern University. The merger would create the fourth largest public university in Georgia with about 27,000 students. The decision is suspected to be more cost efficient and offer more programs on each campus.

Officials were unable to answer several questions on topics such as the future of athletics, clubs and organizations, commemoration of Armstrong’s legacy and how academic programs will be affected.

“We do not have every answer,” Bleicken said. “For some of you, that’s probably very disturbing. For some of you, that’s probably pretty good because it does give us an opportunity to work this out over the coming months and that’s what we need to do.”

The end of the meeting did not mean the end of student concern. Some left wondering how they could participate in the consolidation.

“Its understandable that they’re not going to have all the answers right now because this all just happened, but it’d be nice to know how they’re forming these committees so, as students, we can get on those committees,” junior radiation therapy major and President of Alpha Sigma Tau sorority Claire Davis said.  “As greek students, we want to be on those committees and protect our organizations that we put so much back into and I know the athletes feel the same way.”

During the meeting, officials said they did not expect the consolidation to result in many job losses for faculty and staff, with the exception of some higher up positions. Nickel also claimed that tuition and fees would not negatively impact students. Students were not convinced, and voiced their discontent once more.

In response to questions from the audience, panelists said the consolidation would not have a negative impact on how diplomas will be issued. Students graduating from Armstrong through December 2017 will receive an Armstrong diploma. Those graduating after will have a choice between listing Armstrong or Georgia Southern throughout the consolidation process.

The future of athletics has been a topic in the spotlight since the merger announcement. Student athletes created an extensive anti-merge video to voice their concerns and participated in the campus protests.

Although officials are unsure about the department’s future, GSU president Hebert stated that his vision includes athletics and organizations at the Savannah campus. Student athletes of both GS and ASU will have their athletic scholarships honored throughout the process of consolidation.

We as athletes would like to know what’s going to happen to us because we need to know if we need to start planning ahead to move,” junior rehab science major and student athlete Tyler Epps said.

Hebert acknowledged that very few specifics have been decided, but expressed his openness to commemorating Armstrong and building upon strengths of both universities. He also emphasized his need for input and made note of the audience’s passion.

“I personally welcome your input… We must pursue this without ever losing sight of the human impact of this endeavor,” Hebert said. “Your reactions today are absolutely warranted. I fully respect the way you feel now.”

“No I don’t have all the answers but I will never look past the human condition that I’ve experienced today—that I see in the eyes of the people in this room. I feel that responsibility as we move forward.”

What’s next?

A consolidation committee will be formed to consider issues like athletics, combining academic programs and the distance between campuses. According to Nickel, the committee will include 20 representatives from Armstrong and 20 from Georgia Southern along with Savannah State University representatives.

The committee will meet with USG in Atlanta to aid in plan development. Ideally, a plan for the new university will be reviewed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for accreditation (SACS) in September.

SACS would vote on the plan in December and if approved, the plan will be submitted to the Board of Regents in January.

Questions asked during the meeting — even those that were not answered — will be posted in a FAQs section on consolidation.georgiasouthern.edu, where the meeting stream can also be viewed.
For more information about the consolidation, go to consolidation.georgiasouthern.edu.