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Battle of Wills, Part I

Seth Harp is a Southern Republican who wants to close down two Georgia schools; but not ones you might think

Seth Harp speaks with a distinctive Georgia drawl that authenticates his Deep South roots, but also hints at a former life as a captain in the United States Marine Corps.

Despite such bona fides, Harp is a far cry from the stereotypical White, racist Republican that he’s being painted in some media circles.

To the contrary, at least at first glance, Harp appears to be more of a contradiction in terms.

Case in point: Harp calls himself “a conservative Republican who happens to be progressive.” And he sees nothing wrong with that.

Also, as the Georgia Senate chairman of the Higher Education Committee, Harp caused a bit of a firestorm last month when he suggested merging two of Georgia’s historically Black universities with nearby majority White campuses.

But this son of the South doesn’t want to shut down the Black colleges; he’s going after the White ones.

He calls it, eliminating the competition.

“There will still be historically Black colleges and universities. I just want to bring the quality of education up and make them very desirable schools,” he says. “I can’t dilute the history of these schools, the history is written. It’s there.”

Political Will versus Economic Reality

Georgia, like many other states, is facing a budget shortfall of about $2.5 billion, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. To help cope with its money woes, the state’s university system alone has to make at least $200 million in cuts, if not more.

With a current operating budget of $2.3 billion, this could mean up to 12 percent in cuts for each of the state’s 35 public colleges and universities, Harp tells Diverse. Many schools have already identified about 7 percent in cuts through layoffs, increasing class sizes, offering fewer courses and leaving job vacancies unfilled. State education officials have also proposed merging 14 of Georgia’s 34 technical colleges, which they say will yield up to $1.5 million per school.

Harp announced in December that he hopes to duplicate similar savings by shutting predominantly White Armstrong Atlantic State University and merging it with historically Black Savannah State University. Both located in the coastal city of Savannah, the schools are 12 miles apart, less than a 20-minute drive from one another. He also wants to close mostly White Darton College and combine it with mostly Black Albany State University, which are about five miles — or less than a 15-minute drive — away from each other in Albany, where Harp was stationed as a Marine captain in the mid-1960s.

There are three public historically Black universities in Georgia: Savannah State, Albany State and Fort Valley State University. The only reason he’s not recommending a merger for Fort Valley State, Harp says, is because there isn’t another school close enough to it.

Erroll Davis, the African-American chancellor of the University System of Georgia as well as the two African-American presidents of the historically Black colleges that would be affected by Harp’s proposal are hesitant to talk about a potential merger. In fact, Harp says he hasn’t heard from the presidents either. “They’re avoiding me,” Harp says.

Drs. Everette Freeman and Earl Yarbrough Sr., presidents of Albany State and Savannah State universities, respectively, both declined multiple requests to talk with Diverse as well.

Davis, who joined the university system three years ago, initially appeared not to want to wade into the political fray that often accompanies talk concerning school mergers. Now he’s taking a stronger stand. When Harp first raised the proposal during a budget hearing, Davis said: “You can make obvious arguments about the economics of it, but I don’t think economics will drive the decision. It’s going to be a political decision, not an economic decision.” According to news reports, Davis added that if the “body politic” wants the Board of Regents to look at mergers, it will.

Weeks later, Davis told Diverse in an e-mail that he believed “it would be a mistake to dilute the mission (of HBCUs) in the name of administrative efficiencies.” Those efficiencies, he said, “could be captured in other ways.”

One of the ways state officials hope to save money is by consolidating back office operations, such as payroll, across the university system, Davis said. Albany State, Armstrong Atlantic, Darton and Savannah State will all participate in this consolidation, he added.

Officials could not say how much money this would save the state, and Davis declined to discuss whether he thought merging the four colleges would produce further cost savings.


‘A Child of the South’

Harp could easily be mistaken as kin to the sharp-witted lawyer from the television series “Matlock.” The 65-year-old divorce attorney who attended Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Ga., laces his fingers, fixes his eyes firmly, and speaks softly when making a persuasive argument.

Besides the state’s pressing money problems, Harp says he wants to close the door on Georgia’s racist past and to finally begin a healing process.

Harp says he has seen the injustices of racial discrimination and segregation up close.

“I am a child of the South, I have seen it,” Harp recalls while leaning across his desk in the law office that doubles as his legislative district office.

“I was born in Arkansas. In 1955, the year after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, my family moved from Arkansas to New Jersey,” he continues. “I finished high school in New Jersey, and the reason I finished in New Jersey is because my parents were convinced they were going to close the public schools in Arkansas.

“I was at Auburn University when it was desegregated. I was there on campus when it happened, it was like an armed camp and then it went away. Black students came to Auburn and everybody kinda yawned,” he adds. “Unlike the University of Alabama where we had George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, Auburn was peacefully done and didn’t have any problems.

“And in 2008, we just elected Barack Obama president of the United States. If now is not the time, I don’t know when it will ever be,” says Harp, his voice rising. “We have made a statement in this country that there are no glass ceilings if you are an articulate, well-spoken person who is obviously educated and can create hope; that person can go wherever they want to in this country. I’m very proud of that. I am a Republican, I voted for John McCain but I am really proud of Barack Obama and what he’s doing. Now is the time for us to really work to heal the wounds of segregation. My proposal helps this process.”

But Savannah State and Albany State universities are still more than 90 percent Black, whereas their neighboring predominantly White colleges are just barely so — Darton is only about 53 percent White, while Armstrong’s 3,800-student population is just 63.7 percent White, according to officials at each school. The data suggest the state’s Black students don’t have a problem going to White schools; it’s the other way around.

Harp acknowledges this.

“It raises a real legal question to me, legally we can’t operate separate Black and White schools,” he says. “Whites choose not to go to these Black institutions, and what I’m trying to do is give them an urging by closing their White schools and merging them in with the historically Black schools. It’s eliminating the competition.

“If we build an institution that offers a quality product, a quality education, they will come,” is Harp’s retort to naysayers of his plan.

“Frankly, Albany State will never be where it could be as long as its competing against Darton,” he adds. “Savannah State is further complicated because it is competing against three schools: Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Armstrong [Atlantic] and a private school. The community support goes to SCAD and Armstrong Atlantic, and Savannah State is the child that is left out in the cold.”

Harp insists he’s not picking on Black colleges. He’s picking on communities that don’t have the population or financial resources to support more than one school.

“What I am trying to do is make sure that the state’s resources are brought together in a cohesive manner,” Harp continues, pointing to the successful merger of the predominantly White University of Tennessee Nashville campus with predominantly Black Tennessee State University.

“If we eliminate some of the competition, we can build a more quality school,” Harp says.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second installment of Battle of Wills will run later this week. Subscribe to Diverse: Issues In Higher Education to read more about Seth Harp in the Jan. 22 issue.


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