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

Part I, Part II, Part III

Local History

You might be reading this and wondering to yourself: “What’s an Armstrong State?” You are not alone. Part of the reason Armstrong State folded was due to its lack of name recognition outside the Savannah area, much less the state of Georgia. It long struggled to shed its reputation as a commuter school for non-traditional students. Armstrong was not a household name, so it became an easy target for the Board of Regents. Despite recent campus facility upgrades on the Armstrong campus, it failed to avoid the BOR’s ax.

Armstrong State was founded by Savannah Mayor Thomas Gamble in 1935 as Armstrong Junior College. Back in those days campus was next to historic Forsyth Park in downtown Savannah. It had a not-so great reputation during segregation, but so did a lot of schools. An interesting figure in all of this is former Savannah Mayor Dr. Otis Johnson. The City of Savannah’s city’s most influential Savannah State professor as well as the first African-American to enroll at Armstrong, then a junior college, graduating in 1964.

It gained four-year college status in 1964 and moved to the other end of Abercorn Street in 1966 after Donald Livingston, and Mills B. Lane donated 250 acres of land to the school on the southwest side of town. It became known locally as a “commuter school” after that point. In 1996, it gained University status and opened the Liberty Center in Hinesville a year later. It dropped “Atlantic” from its name to and went back to Armstrong State University in 2014.

 

Protests

When the BOR made the announcement, there were immediate protests. Several protests. It was not a popular decision on Armstrong State’s campus at all. The University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents voted to combine the two schools with virtually no opportunity for input from students, employees, alumni, or the community at large. Faculty at Armstrong had their jobs tossed into limbo. Alumni of Armstrong wasn’t particularly pleased either. Staff did not know how to market the university. Professors from both Southern and Armstrong banded together to create an alternate proposal to what the consolidation committee came up with, but it ultimately fell on deaf ears.

There were legitimate fears about the future of the athletic department as well. A Division II athletic department with excellent tennis, golf, and softball programs among others would be disappearing. Student athletes in high school who had made plans to attend and played at Armstrong had to go back to the drawing board. Personally, I worked with a colleague that wanted her daughter to attend Armstrong in the Fall of 2017. When they announced consolidation, she was none too pleased; but she went to Georgia State (so ya know).

The consolidation committee (CIC) is made up for 41 members, 20 from Armstrong, 20 from Georgia Southern, and 1 from Savannah State. This committee is in charge of overseeing the entire process. They hosted town halls to get the community’s response, town halls that were sometimes contentious.

“We do not have every answer,” (Linda) 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.

“What we know is that neither Armstrong nor Georgia Southern will stay the same.”

 

Academic hurdles

After the announcement, professors and administrators were afraid of losing their jobs. Students were worried about losing out on courses and even degree options or seeing a professor they liked to disappear. The University System of Georgia has done what it could to assuage such fears. The new school will have 140 degree options.

Both schools have academic standards roughly in the same ballpark which makes integration much smoother. The CIC announced that all current academic programs at both schools would be offered at the new Georgia Southern University through the spring of 2022. So that gives the University time to adapt to the new arrangement before making drastic decisions. It allows incoming first-year students to stick with a four-year plan if need be.

Hebert reassured Southern professors that “curricula, policies, and procedures of the ‘new’ Georgia Southern will just be transplanted” from what Georgia Southern now has on the books. The consolidation committee wants to make sure there is no redundancy between course offerings at the Statesboro and Savannah campuses. Senior appointments were plucked from Armstrong’s administration and deputized as new Georgia Southern employees. Georj Lewis, is one of them, the former Dean of Students at Georgia Southern while I was a student there, and was VP of Student Affairs at Armstrong at the time of the announcement. He is a quality administrator.

An organizational structure was released to the public that only a true academic nerd could decipher. As a former student, I was sad to see CLASS (College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences) go away. That was my department as a political science student and used to be the largest college on campus. But alas, it is an end of an era in humanities education in Statesboro.

 

Armstrong Athletics are no more

Armstrong State’s athletic program celebrated its 50th year in existence in 2016-17. The BOR announced on March 7th that the 2016-2017 would be their last season ever. There was nothing the athletes or coaches could do about it.

“What I envision in our new institution will certainly include a presence of athletics here on this campus and a presence of all of our activities and the enriching environment that we expect our students to have available to them,” Hebert said to applause.

The answer did not provide much assurance for Lena Lutzeier, who stood outside Armstrong’s Fine Arts Auditorium after the meeting, wiping a tear from her cheek.

“I’m worried about my team and Armstrong athletics,” said Lutzeier, a junior who is captain of the women’s tennis team. “We wanted to know how long it’s going to exist, and we didn’t get any answers today.”

Sure, some coaches or athletes would move over to the new Georgia Southern, and they were all granted free transfer from the NCAA. But not everybody could be saved by the Georgia Southern life raft, which means valuable athletic scholarships evaporate unless those athletes can find another school to offer them one. Even if they are lucky enough to get another school to provide them with a scholarship, the transfer process is not easy. Take it from a guy who transferred in graduate school.

The rest of the season felt like visiting a relative in the hospital on their deathbed. The CIC approved a recommendation that allows some future Georgia Southern athletic events to be held on the Armstrong campus. The practice and the soccer tournament are early examples of that. It’s possible that the basketball team could play a game or two at Savannah Civic Center or Armstrong Alumni Arena, maybe a baseball series at Grayson Stadium? Golf and Tennis tournaments in Savannah? The possibilities are tantalizing. The committee agreed that hosting some games on the Savannah campus would be a good way to begin to unite the two universities. Sports can be a bonding experience after all.

 

Savannah State’s reaction

Whether it correlates or not the timing of Savannah State dropping to Division II seemed to coincide with the Georgia Southern/Armstrong State consolidation. Savannah State was the only in-state Division I school in the region and the only Division I HBCU in the state of Georgia. Due to rising costs, evaporating revenue, and middling success on the field, the Tigers, decided to drop down to Division II.

With a +27,000 student (and rising) FBS behemoth growing in the marches that ring Savannah and the future of the HBCU in limbo, Savannah State decided it needed to save resources.

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Stay tuned for Part III tomorrow when we look at the potential of the merger…

Part I, Part II, Part III

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