Hank Huckaby is soon going to find out who his real friends are.
The new chancellor of the University System has decided to tackle one of the most sensitive political issues in Georgia: whether to merge or consolidate some of the state's 35 public colleges.
Huckaby's move was partly prompted by the need for more money. With the erosion in tax revenues caused by the economic downturn, the legislature has cut the University System's funding from more than $8,200 per fulltime college student a decade ago to about $5,500 per student.
Tuition increases can only close part of that gap, so the push is on to cut operating expenditures by closing campuses or merging the administrative staffs of current institutions.
There are also management questions involved in the upcoming study: Could the University System more effectively accomplish its academic goals if some underfunded colleges were folded in with larger universities that have more resources available?
"I know this will be somewhat controversial to many," Huckaby told the Board of Regents last week.
He was recognizing the reality that any attempts to close a college or convert it to an extension campus of a larger institution will trigger fierce political opposition from the legislators and civic leaders in the area where the college is located.
Race can also be an issue, because some of the campuses that could become targets of consolidation include historically black colleges.
Two years ago, then-senator Seth Harp proposed the merger of historically black Savannah State University with predominantly white Armstrong Atlantic State University, along with combining historically black Albany State University with Darton College. Opposition to that idea quickly arose within the Legislative Black Caucus and it was dropped.
Huckaby's proposal has already drawn statements of support from several regents, including board Chairman Ben Tarbutton. The chancellor says no list has been drawn up with the names of any specific colleges that are targeted for merger; he wants to establish the criteria and standards for determining which ones might be considered.
The most likely scenario is that colleges with smaller enrollments and budgets will be merged with or become extension campuses of larger universities.
Despite the controversy that Harp generated when he first raised the proposal, any review of campus consolidations has to include the historically black colleges, which tend to have smaller enrollments. That would again raise the possible mergers of Savannah State, Armstrong Atlantic, Albany State and Darton College.
There could be a proposal for historically black Fort Valley State, which is one of Georgia's two land-grant colleges, to become an extension of the other land-grant institution, the University of Georgia. With UGA's prominence in the field of agricultural teaching and research, it may make sense to administratively attach Abraham Baldwin as well.
Some of the smaller colleges near the state's southern border could find themselves in line to become extension campuses of Valdosta State University, a fast-growing institution with an enrollment of more than 13,000 students.
Waycross College and Bainbridge College, whose combined enrollments total less than 5,000, would appear to be natural candidates for merger or consolidation with Valdosta State.
"Everybody does triple duties at the smaller campuses," said a consultant familiar with the issues in the University System. "It's hard to support a small campus when your physics teacher is also sweeping the floors."
These institutions, no matter how small or lacking in financial resources they may be, will have their political supporters who would be expected to fight for retaining their independent identity.
Bainbridge, for example, is the hometown of Alec Poitevint, a power broker in Republican Party circles and a former state chairman of the GOP. Poitevint's wife, Doreen, is a member of the Board of Regents.
One of the state's longest-serving black legislators, Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, is a Fort Valley State alumnus.
Navigating a path through this political minefield could be the biggest challenge ever taken on by Huckaby, whose 40-year career in government includes stints as a budget official for several governors and a brief term in the Georgia House of Representative.
"No one is more politically attuned than Hank is," said a longtime observer of the legislature. "If anyone has the political and policy skills to do this sort of thing, it's Hank."
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com.