Conquering Savannah: The Georgia Southern/Armstrong State Merger – Part I

Part I, Part II, Part III

“I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

General William T. Sherman’s message to Abraham Lincoln on December 22, 1864, notifying him that the Union army had captured The City of Savannah, completing his famed “March to the Sea.” It was a much appreciated Christmas present for the President who had just survived the 1864 Presidential Election against his former General George McClellan. It was the first democratic election ever held in a country currently fighting a civil war.

“Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift.” said Lincoln “the honor is all yours.”

Sherman left Savannah untouched after facing light resistance from the Confederate troops. They camped there for Christmas and New Years before continuing their march through the Carolinas. Lincoln won the 1864 Election in a landslide. The war’s momentum had mercifully swung in the Union’s direction for the final time. In less than a six months, the war would be over.

On Friday night, August 18, Georgia Southern football will host a practice and subsequent ‘Fan Fest‘ from 6-8 pm on the Armstrong State soccer fields. It will be the first time the football team tours the school’s newly acquired campus. A big ‘army’ of dudes wearing blue uniforms, that have an eagle as a logo, and known for their devastating ground game will be marching into town. No, this is not the United States Army on the march this time. This ‘army’ comes in peace, and they come bearing inflatable footballs and free t-shirts.

Georgia Southern was “gifted” a piece of Savannah as a belated Christmas present from the Georgia University System Board of Regents on January 11, 2017, to combine both Armstrong State University and Georgia Southern University. Although it was officially labeled a consolidation, the University System of Georgia (USG) Board of Regents (BOR) ruled that the new school would be called Georgia Southern University, and Georgia Southern President Jaimie L. Hebert would be in-charge. So, it would be a de facto takeover.

The City of Savannah has always been important to Georgia Southern University. It’s the school’s closest urban area, its closest major media market. Just 40 minutes away from campus, 30 to the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport. Georgia Southern’s campus is an hour from the Port of Savannah, Hunter Army Airfield, and Fort Stewart. The historical financial link between Georgia Southern and Savannah cannot be understated either. It includes but is not limited to former President/CEO of Gulfstream American, Allen E. Paulson, ring a bell? (hint: his name is on the stadium and the college of engineering).

The institution has had the Coastal Georgia Center up and running (a collaboration with Armstrong and SSU) since the mid 1980’s. Personally, I attended several Model UN and Model African Union conferences there in college (nerd alert). The school added the Herty Advanced Material Development Center in 2012, which is a laboratory that makes Batman and Iron-Man suits (only partially lying about that).

Beginning in the aftermath of the recession in 2008, the state of Georgia has gone through a round of consolidations in higher education to “save costs.” Augusta State and Medical College of Georgia became Augusta University. Gainesville State and North Georgia College became the University of North Georgia. Macon State and Middle Georgia College became Middle Georgia State. So on and so forth.

When the USG made the consolidation announcement, some onlookers were glad to see the BOR throw Georgia Southern a bone after in-state rivals Georgia State took control of 20,000 student Georgia Perimeter College and Turner Field in the past few years. Even Kennesaw State took control over Southern Polytechnic. There was a growing sense that Georgia Southern was losing the arms race.

These consolidations matter. They have massive effects on athletic departments. Jobs at various athletic departments across the state have evaporated over the past decade. The whole point of consolidation is to cut costs. The Georgia State, Kennesaw State, and Georgia Southern consolidations are the biggest to date. If you look at it from a business perspective, it’s not hard to see the how addition of Armstrong State’s campus in Savannah would benefit Georgia Southern. But not without costing a few good people their jobs.

It might sound crass but the larger enrollment a school has, the more people you can theoretically charge athletic fees which subsidize many G5 programs. Bottom line. Even if these new students are not paying the same athletic fees as the main campus students, that is still more students, and potentially alumni, paying into the university and wearing its clothing. That’s what this Friday practice in Savannah is all about. So is the Coastal Empire Challenge, men’s soccer tournament hosted by Georgia Southern on Armstrong’s campus September 8. It will feature Jacksonville University, Gardner-Webb, and Houston Baptist.

The Armstrong merger announcement meant it was Georgia Southern’s turn on the BOR’s consolidation carousel. Georgia State and Kennesaw State already had larger enrollment and were closer to Atlanta than Georgia Southern before consolidation. Now the gap was widening.  Armstrong State has roughly 7,000 students, ~6,300 undergraduates, ~700 post-graduates. It’s further expansion into the heart of Georgia Southern’s most significant local media market. This was a huge win for the University from a strategic level.

“It reaffirms that really amazing relationship that Statesboro and Savannah have grown into,” said Darin Van Tassell, Ga. Southern Professor, Alumnus. “Two, I think it talks about the power of those academic institutions that is about grow exponentially.”

This isn’t to say that the merger plan has universal support. Such an ambitious fusion of two institutions 54 miles apart from one another has had its fair share of detractors and faces a daunting set of hurdles. The consolidation process is not easy. Faculty, students, alumni, and parents have protested the move. President Hebert is doing his best to navigate these rough waters. Trying to project an image of a leader given a challenging, unforeseen task by state bureaucrats. An image of a leader that is merging the two schools as equals and not one school ‘conquering’ the other.

In this three-part series, we will look at the potential positives and negatives of the Armstrong State merger. We take a more in-depth look at the challenges of consolidation in Part 2 and the potential in Part 3…

Part I, Part II, Part III

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