Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Merger Creates Higher Education Success Story

072115_MergerMerging two universities into one is hardly an easy feat.

But administrators at Kennesaw State University (KSU) have successfully done just that, creating a national blueprint that will likely be replicated as more colleges and universities look to consolidation as an answer to help cut costs and streamline academic programs.

Earlier this year, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia approved the consolidation plans between KSU and Southern Polytechnic State University, transforming this new institution of higher education into one of the largest universities in the nation.

Consolidating these two relatively young institutions located within 10 miles of each other made sense to Dr. Daniel S. Papp, who has been president of KSU since 2006.

“It was pretty easy for me to personally buy into this project,” says Papp, whose new university now includes a total of about 32,000 expected students and an alumni base of nearly 100,000, according to the university.

“­This is truly monumental. ­There was angst. ­There’s no doubt about that, but whatever angst existed, we were able to overcome, and we convinced people that this was right from day one,” he adds.

­The apprehension came mainly from faculty, staff and alumni who had strong ties to Southern Polytech. ­They watched as their institution, which was founded in 1948 as a two-year division of Georgia Institute of Technology and later became accredited as a four-year college in 1970, vanished before their eyes.

­The campus signage came down and all of the estimated 6,500 Southern Polytech students suddenly became KSU students. Faculty and staff were reassigned, with some deciding to retire or seek jobs elsewhere. The president of Southern Polytech, Dr. Lisa Rossbacher, was offered the presidency of Humboldt State University in California.

­The process of transforming two campuses into one was emotional and daunting, and grief counselors were even called in to help some cope with the dramatic change, say officials.

“I knew we would get through this consolidation based on the strength of our president,” says Dr. Randy C. Hinds, vice president for operations, chief business officer and chief information officer at KSU. “He’s the guy who owns it all. We are led by an amazing president.”

Visionary leadership

Papp, a skilled administrator who shies away from talking about himself and his accomplishments, started his career as an assistant professor of international relations at Georgia Tech in 1973. After serving as founding director of Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and executive assistant to Georgia Tech’s president, he was tapped to be the interim president from 1997 to 1998.

­That experience, coupled with the administrative skills that he later acquired as senior vice chancellor for academics and fiscal affairs of the University System of Georgia—the fifth-largest university system in the country—fully equipped him to carry out one of the largest university consolidations in recent memory.

“I believe that you hire good people and get out of the way,” says Papp, who now splits his time between the Kennesaw and the Marietta campuses and demands that his top-level administrators do the same.

The impact of the consolidation is becoming visible in the day-to-day culture at KSU. Walk across campus and one will be hard pressed to find anyone who refers to the former Southern Polytech campus as “the other campus.” The two sprawling campuses are one and the same, and university officials have been intentional about ensuring that all services offered on one campus are offered on the other campus.

Although the admissions process between the two universities prior to the consolidation was quite similar, and the tuition and fees were merely $6 apart, say officials, Papp commissioned the formation of 81 operational working groups (OWGs) with representatives from both institutions to examine everything from the vision and mission statements of the universities, to academic and degree programs to diversity and inclusion activities.

Dr. W. Ken Harmon, provost and vice president for academic affairs, shepherded a committee through the process of reconfiguring the university’s academic offerings and making sure that the new standards for promotion, tenure and evaluation process were fairly aligned as well as faculty salaries.

“All faculty were retained,” says Harmon, who adds that KSU now has 13 colleges, 10 of which grant degrees. In an effort to keep a semblance of its history and heritage, the engineering college bears the name of Southern Polytech.

“I think to the extent possible, we always gave people a voice,” says Harmon. “I have zero doubt this [consolidation] will be a great, great thing for future students and alumni.”

Cost-saving measures

By most estimates, the consolidation of these two institutions will result in cost-saving measures of about $5 million, says Papp.

“That is a lot of money,” notes Papp, who adds that, by meshing programs, university officials can focus more time and energy on pressing issues such as improving the retention and graduation rates of students.

KSU now employs more than 2,800 full-time faculty and staff and will boast an economic impact of more than $1.2 billion to the Cobb County area, according to the university.

For years, both KSU and the former Southern Polytech were considered best-kept secrets. Situated in Cobb County—about 20 miles outside Atlanta—the universities had to compete with Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and even private institutions such as Emory, Morehouse and Spelman colleges.

Although most of KSU’s students are local commuters, university officials hope that the consolidation effort will help them to attract residential students from across the nation.

For Dr. Jerome Ratchford, outgoing vice president for student affairs at KSU, the consolidation efforts have enabled him to focus on ensuring that the university remains committed to diversity, particularly among its student population.

Chancellor of the University System of Georgia Hank Huckaby’s focus has been on bolstering student opportunities while remaining cost-effective.

“Our challenge and opportunity is to control the cost of college while strengthening the quality and accessibility of the programs and degrees we offer,” said Huckaby in a statement. “The new Kennesaw State University will expand opportunities for students and do so more efficiently.”

A model to follow

States across the country are watching Georgia carefully and are experimenting with consolidation efforts of their own. Education experts say that HBCUs—particularly those in financial crisis—would be well served to embrace this organizational model to help fend off looming closures in the future.

The Georgia Board of Regents voted earlier this year to consolidate Georgia Perimeter College (GPC), a two-year degree-granting institution with Georgia State University (GSU), a four-year public research university. Once that consolidation is completed next year, student enrollment is expected to surpass 50,000.

GSU President Mark Becker said that GPC will become a division of Georgia State and will continue to offer associate degrees, while helping to integrate GPC students into the university system to continue their studies.

“Georgia State and Georgia Perimeter have a long history of collaboration and mutual benefit,” said Becker in an interview.

“Nearly 1,500 Georgia Perimeter students annually transfer to Georgia State, and those students have performed at an academic level equivalent to students who began their four-year program at Georgia State. Georgia State’s nationally recognized and continuing work on programs aimed at ensuring student success will have a significant impact on improving graduation rates at both institutions. Overall, the number of students who earn their undergraduate degree is expected to increase significantly.”

Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected].

A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises.
Read More
A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics