Group promotes uphill battle to 'unmerge' Armstrong

DOESN’T IT seem that Savannah is full of "We can do it" civic pride right now? We just totally remade City Council — against the forces of the status quo.

Leaders arose, people spoke, supporters hustled, voters did their duty and the new council represents a “popular voice” unlike any council that I’ve seen in my 20 years here, certainly.

Doesn’t it seem right now that this “popular voice” could do anything? Like something big, something seemingly impossible, something everybody wants but no one can figure out how to do?

Well, the signs started going up around town a few weeks ago. “Unmerge My University” is a new group seeking to reverse Georgia Southern University’s much-despised takeover of Armstrong State University.

“The merger was done in haste, against the will of the people and at some point, it will be undone,” says David Breland, an 1989 Armstrong computer science graduate and one of the new group’s leaders.

“The more the people of Savannah get involved, there’s a definite possibility to unmerge the university, if there’s enough pressure,” says Irving Victor, a 1941 (yes, that’s right!) Armstrong graduate, a retired doctor and another leader in the “Unmerge” organization.

The thinking behind this new group is simple. Nobody in Savannah wanted this merger. It was railroaded into being as a fait accompli, handed down to us from that great source of all we hate, Atlanta, specifically, the former Governor, Nathan Deal, assisted by the Board of Regents, whose chairman, Don Waters, might be the only Savannahian who thought this was a good idea. (Actual quote from Waters at the time: “The plan is to grow both campuses.”)

To the contrary, the enrollment numbers for Armstrong are terrible. The latest numbers, released last month, show Armstrong continues losing students, from 6,636 just before the merger was announced in January 2017 to 5,281 this fall, a frightening 20% decline.

By contrast, the Statesboro campus lost only 4% during the same time. So this can’t be explained away by national trends.

Georgia Southern officials, in their responses to me, say that they are “on this” with a five-year strategic plan, including new degree programs, new recruitment efforts and new marketing to reverse declines.

Meanwhile, student apartments sit empty. Sports are in Statesboro. All decisions are made in Statesboro. Less enrollment means fewer classes.

And morale is low. A stark report, released in August, details how bad it is.

Less than 35% of Armstrong undergrads, faculty and staff report feeling “valued” or “belonging” — not good for recruitment at what’s now clearly treated as the “satellite campus.”

This was not the vision of Thomas Gamble, Mills Lane and those great Savannah leaders who made Armstrong a reality. Their legacies have been subsumed by blue and white.

“Stop trying to shove eagle down our throats,” an associate professor is quoted as saying at a recent campus forum addressing the report.

The forum was reported by (and I took the quote from) the Armstrong campus newspaper, the Inkwell, which apparently now is called the George Anne (Georgia Southern’s newspaper) “Inkwell Edition.”

Hello, folks! Did anyone ever tell you: Savannah doesn’t play second very well? We are not someone else’s “edition” or “addition.” We are Savannah. And we can do things. Everything about our history should’ve told you that.

So the thinking of “Unmerge My University” is this: It’s not popular. It’s not working. There’s a new governor. Savannah can rise up. Apply political pressure in the right places and we can undo it.

The group is contacting alumni, identifying supporters (including among Armstrong faculty, which is dangerous for those involved.) They are confident.

“It would be much easier to undo it than when they did the merger,” says Ron Freeman, another group leader, a business major who attended Armstrong in the 60’s. “One stroke of the pen and it could be undone,” Victor adds.

Yes, but that pen, the Governor’s, is largely unresponsive to Savannah’s interests. And unlike City Council, we don’t elect the Board of Regents, gubernatorial appointees who are the most powerful unelected body in Georgia.

These people — not our young and new City Council — control Armstrong’s future. They respond only to our ATL overlords.

And it’s going to take a whole lot of “We can do it” civic pride to overcome that obstacle.

CS

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