Probably the worst-kept non-secret is that the next stage of the institutional evolution of my current employer is to some ill-defined concept of “university status,” which mostly involves the establishment of some to-be-determined master’s degree programs. In the context of the University System of Georgia, it means a small jump from the “state college” prestige tier (a motley collection of schools that largely started out as two-year community colleges and transfer institutions) to the “state university” tier (which is where most of the ex-normal schools hang out these days). What is yet to be determined is how that transition will affect the broader institution that will be the University of Middle Georgia.* People on high are said to be working on these things; in any event, here are my assorted random thoughts on what might be reasonable things to pursue:
- Marketing and positioning: Unlike the situation facing many of the other USG institutions, the population of the two anchor counties of our core service area (Bibb and Houston) is growing, and Houston County in particular has a statewide reputation for the quality of its public school system. Rather than conceding that the most prepared students from these schools will go to Athens or Atlanta or Valdosta, we should strongly market our institutional advantages over these more “prestigious” institutions, particularly in terms of the student experience in the first two years and the core curriculum: we have no large lecture courses, no teaching assistants, no lengthy bus rides to and from class every day, and the vast majority of the core is taught by full-time faculty with terminal degrees. Not to mention costs to students are much lower, particularly in the case of students who do not qualify for need-based aid. Even if we were to “lose” these students as transfers to the top-tier institutions after 1–4 semesters, we’d still benefit from the tuition and fees they bring in and we would not be penalized in the upcoming state performance funding formula. Dual enrollment in Warner Robins in particular is an opportunity to showcase our institution as a real alternative for better prepared students rather than a safety school.
- Comprehensive offerings at the bachelor’s level: As a state university, we will need to offer a comprehensive range of options for bachelor’s students to attract and retain students, both traditional and nontraditional. In particular, B.S. degrees in political science and sociology with emphasis in applied empirical skills would meet public and private employer demand for workers who have research skills and the ability to collect, manage, understand, and use data appropriately. There are other gaps in the liberal arts and sciences as well that need to be addressed to become a truly comprehensive state university.
- Create incentives to boost the residential population: The college currently has a heavy debt burden inherited from the overbuilding of dorms at the Cochran campus. We need to identify ways to encourage students to live in Cochran, which may require public-private partnerships to try to build a “college town” atmosphere in the community near campus. We also need to work with wireless providers like Sprint and T-Mobile to ensure that students from the “big city” can fully use their cell phones and tablets in Cochran and Eastman without roaming fees or changing wireless providers.
- Tie the institution more closely to the communities we serve: This includes both physical ties and psychological ties. The Macon campus in particular has poor physical links to the city itself for students who might walk or ride bicycles; extending the existing bike/walking trail from Wesleyan to the Macon campus should be a priority, as should pedestrian access and bike facilities along Columbus Road. Access to the Warner Robins campus is somewhat better but still could be improved. More generally, the institution is perceived as an afterthought or alternative of last resort in the community. Improving this situation and perception among community leaders and political figures may require a physical presence in or near downtown Macon, perhaps in partnership with the GCSU Graduate Center.
* There is no official name-in-waiting, but given that our former interim president seemed to believe he could will this name into existence by repeating it enough I’ll stick with it. The straw poll of faculty trivia night suggests that it’s the least bad option available, which inevitably means the regents will choose something else instead (if the last name change is anything to go by).