Azziz presents his plan to build “the next great American university”
While avoiding specific references to the controversial name change that has overshadowed just about every other aspect of the merger of Georgia Health Sciences University and Augusta State University since the Georgia Regents University name was selected in August, Dr. Ricardo Azziz used his annual State of the Enterprise address to outline an ambitious agenda that he hopes will make the merged institution the “next great American university.”
Coming shortly after the naming compromise that tagged Augusta on the end of Georgia Regents University, thereby saving the A no matter how diluted the form, the address declared Azziz’s vision for the new enterprise, which will start out with nearly 10,000 students spread across nine colleges and schools, have more than 1,000 faculty members, 650 acres of campus and almost $2.5 billion in direct economic impact.
While outlining some of the things that have kept Georgia Health Sciences University from being known as anything more than “a medical school or a high-level tech school for health professionals” — things like a siloed structure that limited collaboration across departments and the fact that it was a standalone health sciences university — Azziz used most of the speech to look ahead, almost as if, with the naming hurdle finally cleared, his vision could once again command center stage.
“Some of you may rightfully be asking, ‘Why consolidate ASU and GHSU,’ and I can only respond, because long-term, it’s the right thing,” he said. “No matter the discomfort and angst we experience today, it’s the right thing for our students, who will have improved offerings in degrees, in experiences and in infrastructure, and it’s the right thing for our faculty, who will have greater opportunities for collaborative research and professional development.”
The comprehensive research university Azziz intends to create is a long way from the mission cultivated by former ASU President Dr. William Bloodworth during his 19-year tenure. In an interview with the Metro Spirit just before his May retirement, Bloodworth described a school far from the destination institution Azziz desires to bring to life.
“It’s been a place where the internal academic standards are actually high,” he said, “but the external standards for admission are not high, so it’s been a place that has created an opportunity for a lot of people to go to college or try to go to college. And it’s been my view over the years that that is a good thing.”
Bloodworth spoke warmly of the flowering of the next generation that occurred because ASU was a college where not everyone made it out with a degree.
“You’ve got people who come to schools like this who were not born to come to school, who may come from backgrounds with very little exposure to higher education,” Bloodworth said. “A lot of those people do not do well starting out. Sometimes, they come back and sometimes their children come back, but it’s still a benefit.”
In contrast, Azziz’s plan would fundamentally change the groundwork Bloodworth laid and so many alumni seem to hold dear, transforming the small commuter university into something far larger, a school that will look beyond the local population in order to become an institution with a six-year graduation rate exceeding 75 percent with a 95 percent employment rate.
Such growth, he said, will not come easily, particularly in light of recent cuts to higher education. While criticism over the Georgia Regents University name, particularly the perception that it was placating the governing body, has been harsh, Azziz focused on the need to stand alone because of the state’s dwindling financial influence.
“We were over-dependent on state support, particularly for capital projects and education, resulting in investments determined primarily by state politics or tax revenues rather than an overarching strategic plan, an inadequate focus on entrepreneurship, limited philanthropic efforts and chronic underinvestment in our facilities,” he said. “In fact, much of the lack of emphasis on philanthropy stemmed from the mistaken perception that because we receive state appropriations we are fully state-supported.”
State funds only support 23 percent of the university’s budget.
In addition, he said there was a lack of understanding about the university’s value to the community.
“We have experienced limited tangible local support of our health sciences university and our health system,” he said. “Some in our community are not yet ready or prepared to embrace and accept a strong and growing university in their midst, nor do they fully comprehend that their success and future, and that of the city, is intimately tied to how well the university does.”
In spite of $600 million in decreased revenues and unfunded costs and $225 million in state appropriation reductions, Azziz vowed to address the fact that some staff and faculty haven’t received a pay raise in over four years.
Most surprising, however, was his articulated vision for 2030, which included a student body double what it is today, a “Top 50” ranked medical school, 800 acres of university campus in Augusta, Division I sports and a new sports complex, and at least eight regional campuses throughout the state, including an Atlanta campus, which he insisted was vital to the school’s growth and stature.
“All research universities in Georgia, including UGA and Mercer, have campuses in Atlanta,” he said, “because metro Atlanta is home to more than half of Georgia’s population, because that’s where the state’s business is conducted and because, to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, that’s where the money is.”
Though his detailed, long-term blueprint to make the merged school a world-class institution undoubtedly failed to sway those skeptics convinced that Azziz’s ultimate goal has always been to move the entire enterprise out of Augusta, his stated commitment to grow in Augusta even as the school branches out across the state should give most Augustans a sigh of relief and possible a twinge of excitement.
If Georgia Regents University Augusta reaches its 2030 destination, it won’t just transform the two schools it started with, it will completely transform the city as well.You Might Also Like: