The honeymoon period is over, and the first full academic year of the recently christened University of North Georgia begins next month.
For UNG President Bonita Jacobs, that brings a sense of relief.
“No doubt about it, there were some anxious times for faculty and staff as we go through a lot of change,” she said. “Change is hard for all of us.”
The change she’s referring to is the consolidation of the former Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University, which officially went into effect in January. Consolidations haven’t gone well in other states, and Jacobs assumed her position during that undertaking.
“Most of them have failed,” said University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby. “We knew we were going against the grain.”
And there have been some stumbling blocks along the way. The name change in particular brought strong opinions from alumni, students and other stakeholders.
Adding to the strain, Huckaby said that there were between 500 and 600 decisions that were made regarding the transition over this first year.
The difficulties, though, seem to be outweighed by a consensus that the dust has settled. The struggle now for Jacobs is in making the appropriate contacts and building relationships with the wide range of stakeholders, as well as emphasizing the unity of one university with multiple campuses.
These notes are highlighted in Jacobs’ annual review, released in late June and independently conducted by David Brown, a consultant for the university system. The review involved interviews with Jacobs as well as administrative officers, faculty senate leaders, staff council members, deans, student government officers, alumni officers, foundation board members and a selection of faculty, staff and students.
Brown spent time on both the Dahlonega and Gainesville campuses prior to composing his findings, which note that there are still some lingering anxieties over the consolidation.
“Transition tensions exist everywhere,” the review reads. “President Jacobs has, frequently and effectively, articulated the ultimate advantages of a larger, more complex university. The stress upon ‘ultimate advantage’ and ‘consolidation’ has, however, increased both expectations and anxieties.”
It goes on to say that there are concerns that the individual “distinctiveness” of each campus will be compromised by lack of understanding or “overreaching policy.”
Jacobs said that she understands and could see the concerns throughout the consolidation process, but there was a cooperative effort of people across the campuses.
“We had this incredibly dedicated faculty and staff,” she said. “They have just rolled up their sleeves and done a magnificent job.”
There’s a general feeling that with such a large undertaking, concerns were inevitable.
“The task of consolidation,” the review continues, “has, however, meant that your new president has not had time to develop deep personal ties throughout the university, has not been able to lead the university through a strategic visioning process that accompanies almost all new presidencies, and has not been able to ‘sell’ the ultimate decisions to the academic community.”
It’s a fair review, Jacobs said. There’s now a need for structure and communication, both of which are priorities but were sometimes lost throughout the consolidation process.
‘Healthy signs abound’
While the task of merging four distinct campuses remains a process and not a one-step project, this upcoming academic year provides more time for interaction and visits with faculty, staff and students.
“During consolidation, we were in Atlanta quite a bit, so I was on the road a lot,” Jacobs said.
Most agree on two things: First, that consolidation is a process, and it has gone smoothly for the most part.
And secondly, that UNG is now on the precipice of something major, having cornered the northeast region for the University System of Georgia. It’s an attitude reflected in Jacobs’ review.
“All components of UNG are strong, and getting stronger,” it reads. “Healthy signs abound.”
The review notes that SAT scores among incoming freshman are rising, as well as donations from alumni.
“Faculty/staff commitment and loyalty is high,” the review continues. “At both Dahlonega and Gainesville, students and faculty are ‘on task.’ Pride prevails. Real learning is taking place.”
Anticipation is high following the final steps of consolidation.
“I think overall the process will take some time, and over time I think the campuses will blend into a unique culture for the University of North Georgia,” said Jeff Turk, director of the institute for environmental and spatial analysis on the Gainesville campus. He said he has met with Jacobs a couple of times, and she has also toured his department’s facility.
“I think President Jacobs, now that the initial consolidation is complete, is expanding her personal interactions with faculty and staff,” he said.
That’s the key piece of advice in Jacobs’ review, and one she is taking to heart.
“To be fully effective President Jacobs needs (in consultation with USG leaders) to develop and implement a mid-course correction,” the review reads. “The key and urgent need is for greater visibility on campus, especially unstructured by also structured. Also needed is strategic visioning that earns endorsement from all stakeholder groups.”
To that end, Jacobs now has an office in Oakwood, which will allow her to be on that campus at least one day every week. She already has an office on the Dahlonega campus.
She voiced her surprise in how difficult the first semester as one cohesive unit was.
“I thought since we had finalized consolidation as of Jan. 8, that we would just take a deep breath and kind of settle in,” Jacobs said. “But it was our first semester together, so we went through a lot of adjustments that I didn’t anticipate.
“Spring is always more difficult than fall,” she added. “There’s so much going on and a lot of end-of-the-year things and a lot of deadlines.”
NGCSU alumnus James Wright said that he has never met Jacobs, but he sees the consolidation as going smoothly with a few “hiccups in the road.”
Wright, who also attended Gainesville State College, is an attorney with Whelchel, Dunlap, Jarrard & Walker, LLP in Gainesville. He has been involved in the consolidation process from an alumni perspective.
“Everybody’s moving forward with a common goal in coming together as one,” he said. “Both colleges are great, both colleges offer great things ... I think it gives us a good footprint in this region, and only helps to what the university offers, to draw more qualified people to this area.”
Mark Spraker, chairman of UNG’s Faculty Senate, and physics professor, said he looks forward to seeing Jacobs out and about at the various campuses.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that consolidation came about for a brand-new president,” he said. “She didn’t have an opportunity to get around to actually talk to the departments, to meet the professors, to get out on campuses.”
There is an agreement that judging Jacobs as president from the past year would not be fair. Spraker said that he is looking forward to the progress that will be made this upcoming academic year.
“I think she’ll have the opportunity to be a much more traditional president,” he said.
He said he was most appreciative that Jacobs has coordinated meetings between professors and leadership at the campuses, saying these meetings are “incredibly useful” as most had never met each other prior to the consolidation.
For his part, Huckaby is pleased with Jacobs’ performance and the notes in her review. He said he is encouraged that she is taking the recommendations constructively.
“I think we’re on a good path now to move forward in a very positive and very effective way,” he said. “I think the results will be evident over the next two to three years.
“UNG is in an exciting situation. They’re in the part of the state that’s growing dramatically, and (was able to) weather the recession extremely well,” he said.
In addition to advising Jacobs to “walk the campus and listen a lot,” the review also provided suggestions to spend time on recruitment and training rather than supervising and dismissing, to build trusting relationships and develop and apply educational outcomes.
Jacobs expressed her desire to get out and apply those recommendations.
“I want people to know that I’m genuine,” she said. “That what I tell them is what I mean, and that I’m going to listen. If you’re genuine, you don’t go in with a preconceived notion about everything, and that’s what I strive to do.
“When you don’t communicate, people assume. So we’re going to communicate both ways. I want to listen to people. I want people to get to know me better, because we’ve just been in a whirlwind and so now we get to take a deep breath.”