SHANNON McCAFFREY, Associated Press
ATLANTA - The head of the university system of Georgia said Wednesday he is ordering a study of whether any of the state's 35 campuses should be consolidated to save money.
"We must ensure that our system has the appropriate number of campuses around the state and in the right places," Chancellor Hank Huckaby told a meeting of the Board of Regents.
Georgia's universities have been grappling with deep state budget cuts, which prompted yet another tuition increase this fall.
Huckaby said his staff will begin immediately studying whether merging universities would make fiscal sense.
"I know this will be somewhat controversial to many," Huckaby said.
Attempts to consolidate universities could face vigorous opposition from state legislators in affected districts, who are typically big boosters for their local campuses. The universities are seen as the source of jobs as well points of local pride. The state legislature appropriates state money to the Board of Regents, which then decides how to spend it.
But state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees higher education spending, said a political turf fight was inevitable but a consolidation study is long overdue.
"This takes a lot of guts. It's music to my ears," the Republican from Powder Springs said.
Huckaby said no specific plans have been made yet to consolidate any of the state's colleges and he urged campuses "not to panic."
No changes would be undertaken without public input and thorough study, he said.
In 2009, a Republican state senator initiated a push to merge historically black colleges in Savannah and Albany with nearby schools that are predominantly white. The plan never moved forward, amid opposition from the legislative black caucus.
It's unknown if those colleges could be threatened under any proposed consolidation plan.
Consolidation would mark a change in direction for Georgia's public college system, which has been growing steadily since it was founded in the 1930's. Enrollment at the schools has also been rising.
A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said he looks forward to seeing the results of the studies.
"In these challenging times, Gov. Deal appreciates the chancellor's leadership and vision for maximizing efficiencies in the university system," spokesman Brian Robinson said.
Huckaby told The Associated Press the first step will be developing criteria that would drive any consolidation. That could be accomplished in about a month, he said
Huckaby also said the system is looking at a space utilization study, designed to see how colleges are using their current space in an attempt to assess future constriction needs.
"We are going to continue to build buildings. But we must build based on a clearly documented need," he said.
The university system currently owns more than 3,100 buildings with a more than 66 million square feet and worth more than $10.5 billion.
Members of the board signaled support for Huckaby's proposals.
Regent Robert Hatcher said the nation's continuing economic woes compel the system to look at ways to use its money wisely.
"We need to put more dollars into the classroom instead of buildings," Hatcher said.
Huckaby, a former state representative, took over as chancellor of the university system earlier this year.
On Tuesday the board adopted a proposed $1.85 billion budget for fiscal year 2013 that makes room for another 2 percent in cuts. Gov. Nathan Deal has ordered state agencies to prepare for those cuts but it is unclear if those cuts will need to be implemented.