ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers were urged Wednesday to soften the blows to public colleges and universities, which face up to $600 million in cuts as part of the state’s budget crisis.
University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis was grilled for two hours during the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. Earlier this week, the system released a plan that included closing satellite campuses, shortening library and student center hours and capping enrollment. Lawmakers have asked the state Board of Regents to plan for $300 million in additional cuts — on top of the $265 million in cuts already in the works for the next fiscal year.
Davis said tuition increases and cuts likely will be unavoidable. But he warned that the quality of public education in the state is at stake and that accessible, affordable, high-quality institutions cost money.
“The system is acutely aware of the budget situation,” Davis told the panel. “We know we have to play a part ... I will accept reality, whatever that reality is.”
Monday’s news of the cuts hit hard at North Georgia College & State University, which proposed eliminating 20 percent of its course offerings and some graduate level programs to meet $4.2 million in cuts. In effect, the university would lose 39 faculty positions in the move that would affect about 900 students.
Martin Erbele, North Georgia’s Student Government Association president, rallied students on campus Wednesday, encouraging them to write their legislators and protest the cuts.
“We had around 60 letters handwritten,” said Erbele, who spent most of the day at the campus dining hall offering students information on the potential cuts. The letter-writing campaign will run through today, with students encouraged to pen personal letters reflecting their experiences at the college and how less funding would affect their studies.
“A lot of students that go to North Georgia realize there’s a lot of unique opportunities here,” Erbele said. “Class sizes are small, the level of services is high. The possibility that a lot of those may disappear is really concerning a lot of students, myself included.”
North Georgia’s student government will join their counterparts and students from the 34 other system universities to rally March 15 at the Capitol. About 40 college students from across the state gathered outside the Gold Dome on Wednesday afternoon chanting “No budget cuts” and holding signs that said “We love our education” and “What about our future?”
Also forecasted to be cut from North Georgia are two master’s degree nursing programs, master’s programs for history and music and master of education and master of arts in teaching programs for special education. Some undergraduate teacher education offerings also would be cut, according to a college news release.
Several master’s degree nursing students work for the on-campus Appalachian Nurse Practitioner clinic, which last year served more than 4,000 low-income residents in Northeast Georgia, according to Kate Maine, director of university relations for North Georgia.
At Gainesville State College, administrators met their potential $3.3 million drop in funds by leaving 28 full-time faculty slots unfilled. As many as 6,000 students stand to be affected by the move, which would eliminate 252 course offerings. Also, the college would eliminate 50 percent of its student workers, leaving only federal work-study slots open to qualifying students.
Members of the community have banded together to save the campus’s Olympic-sized swimming pool, which serves students, faculty, staff and members who donate to the school’s foundation. One of the facility’s instructors reportedly began a petition and distributed it among pool users, according to Claire Dunn, a frequent swimmer at the pool and teacher a Spout Springs Elementary School.
Online, social networking sites have been instrumental in spreading the word to students about the cuts. A petition started on Facebook reached more than 23,000 signatures as of Wednesday evening, more than doubling Tuesday’s total.
At Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers repeatedly praised the university system as a special and unique entity in the state and urged a spirit of cooperation in finding a solution that preserves the gains Georgia has made in higher education.
“Nobody wants to see draconian cuts,” said Sen. Seth Harp, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, who asked Davis to “do the least amount of damage, with the sacrifice spread of the entire education community.”
In Wednesday’s hearing, Davis addressed a number ideas raised in his last meeting with lawmakers, ranging from a 35 percent tuition increase to consolidating institutions and cutting employee salaries or semesters.
While a 35 percent tuition increase could generate $175 million, such a sharp rise could raise questions of affordability and access; a third of Georgia students use the HOPE Scholarship. Davis said he would prefer less of an increase or to raise tuition over time instead of all at once.
Davis balked at the idea of dramatic cuts to faculty and dismissed the notion that some professors earned too much.
“They are not overpaid in comparison to their peers,” Davis said, adding that such professors frequently bring in millions of dollars in research grants. “You have to pay for intellectual capital. Otherwise, we run the risk of having our best and brightest leave in this environment.”
Several rural legislators had a different concern: the possible elimination of Georgia’s 4-H program, which is headquartered at the University of Georgia.
Rep. Bob Smith, R-Watkinsville, said 4-H was in danger of becoming a pawn in the budget battle.
“It appears that 4-H ... is expendable,” Smith said. “I hope you and the Board of Regents will consider the impact of that as you go forward.”
University of Georgia President Michael Adams said he has worked hard to support 4-H, but could not guarantee the program would be spared.