University System of Georgia to STEM education: Drop dead

I wish I had the time to write out a detailed and patient analysis about the latest round of University System of Georgia pig-headedness, also known as the decision to fold Southern Polytechnic State University into Kennesaw State and, for all practical purposes, end Southern Poly’s independent existence. I’m afraid I’m only going to rant about it instead.

The word “merger” is completely inappropriate to apply to this. Mergers take two old things and make them into one new thing. Mergers blend communities. At the very least, you might expect both institutions to have participated in the discussions on how the merger would move forward, and on how the merger would benefit both institutions.

You would NOT expect this news to emerge:

Rossbacher, who was been president since 1998, stood in the sunshine and repeatedly told students, “there are a lot of things we don’t know.”

When the two schools merge, the president of KSU, Dan Papp, will be taking over as president of the school, a decision Rossbacher said surprised her.

“I was not consulted on this, I found out yesterday,” she said.

(And, by the way: a full rant would reserve a special disdain, possibly expletive-laden, concerning the state of higher education journalism in America broadly, and Georgia in particular. It is crystal clear that the ledes of EVERY article have been pulled from the spin of the Board of Regents; those quotes from Southern’s president are from the middle of a secondary article on the “merger” from the MARIETTA DAILY JOURNAL. The supposed flagship newspaper in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has been nowhere on this as far as actual reporting is concerned. You have two institutions coming together, and one of the presidents – who has served her institution for fourteen years – isn’t consulted on the details of the merger? This isn’t a major part of the reporting why? If what Lisa Rossbacher is saying is true – and politically, I have no reason to doubt it – what confidence should ANYBODY working for Southern Poly have about what’s next for them?)

Southern Polytechinic State University has a unique culture. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s because it’s been small and student-focused for a very long time, and it’s not been focused on constructing a brand. Other institutions in the state have been concerned with growth and public profile. Southern Poly has simply been educating students, frequently students who can’t access or don’t want the “elite” levels of education offered by the name-brand institutions in the state, and preparing them for serious technological, engineering, and scientific work. They’ve done it in an environment where students can be engaged with their professors.

I’ve taught a great many students who either transferred to Southern Poly deliberately to complete their undergraduate education or went to Southern Poly to get a graduate degree. I’ve never heard a single complaint about what they do.  Let me repeat that: I’ve never had a single student I’ve taught, who moved to Southern Polytechnic State University afterwards, complain about anything Southern Poly does. I’ve only heard affirmation of the welcoming environment, as opposed to the competitive environment that an elite science and engineering education can be.  As prone as students are to complaint, that’s something in and of itself.

That’s why Kennesaw State’s takeover of Southern Poly feels like a kick in the teeth. For me, it’s not a condemnation of Kennesaw State or its role in and of itself. There is a place for a large, regional state university in the climate of higher education. There are students who do well in such places, and there is a cost-effectiveness to what they do.

But in the STEM fields, where there is still a massive amount of inequity and where there is a genuine need for MORE student-centered institutions like Southern Poly, for the University System of Georgia to strip Southern Poly of its very identity is a crystal-clear message. An individual campus mission does not matter. Student-centered education does not matter. Effective student service does not matter. The brand names of the institutions are the only thing, and if your brand is not sufficiently strong, we’ll slap somebody else’s brand on you and make you fit.

The University System has already alienated darn near the entire city of Augusta through the process of merging the Medical College of Georgia/Georgia Health Sciences University with Augusta State University, choosing the self-congratulatory name Georgia Regents University over a name that affirms Augusta’s identity. It’s still anybody’s guess how well that merger will pan out. This “merger” is potentially even worse, in how it takes a institution with an important role to play and strips it of its identity.

There is a petition process underway. I wish I had a lick of confidence that anyone would listen to it. Ultimately, this is a process being driven by money – or, more accurately, the state of Georgia’s lack of willingness to give its higher education institutions any. That’s a political situation, and it only gets corrected when elected officials decide to stop the continuous bleeding of funding away from public institutions and stop forcing them to behave like bottom-line centered businesses instead of behaving in the broadest possible public interest. And since there is a substantial population that isn’t willing to pay a dime more in taxes and doesn’t think that public funding has been cut enough (and since the University System’s chancellor was formerly a member of a legislative majority that championed such things, and continues to champion them), it’s safe to assume that smaller state colleges will continue to be targeted for these “mergers”.

But even in this climate, there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed. There is a way to genuinely merge administrative functions at two nearby schools and maintain both schools’ identities, and to ensure that the public good is maintained. There is a way to promote the importance of this:

Through a fusion of technology with the liberal arts and sciences, we create a learning community that encourages thoughtful inquiry, diverse perspectives, and strong preparation of our graduates to be leaders in an increasingly technological world.

The university – faculty, staff, students, and graduates – aspires to be the best in the world at finding creative, practical, and sustainable solutions to real-world problems and improving the quality of life for people around the globe.

I haven’t heard a single word of respect given to that vision in the aftermath of this whole “merger.” Practical STEM education that serves to lift up individuals to positions of leadership is something that should be at the forefront of the public discussion of education, not administrative efficiencies, regional identity, or optimal institutional enrollment characteristics.

But all the talking points come from a political document for consolidation of institutions, not from the actual vision for the STEM institution targeted for consolidation.

It’s as if the University System doesn’t believe in the mission of Southern Polytechnic State University at all. And if that’s true, this action makes perfect sense.

Edited on 4 November to add the link to the University System’s “Principles for Consolidation of Institutions.”