Albany State University President Art Dunning today announced his plans for retirement, effective in January 2018. Dunning was named president of the institution following its merger with predominantly white Darton State College in 2015, and has been a part of the state’s effort to re-imagine its largest historically black college along lines of academic offerings, economic development for the region and athletics – all against the backdrop of its grand plan to reduce the number of colleges throughout the state in a cost savings effort.
All of those things are to be expected in a state dominated and guided by conservative politics and politicians, and under state rules, there is very little college communities can do outside of the voting booth when lawmakers and their proxies within the University System of Georgia come to put a new banner over the front door of a campus. But what cannot be allowed, even with Albany State as a national model for how states can remedy illegal and unconstitutional systems of segregated education for black and white students, is for the USG to treat Albany State’s executive vision like it is less than the other schools under its purview – historically black or otherwise.
And that means that HBCU students, alumni and supporters nationwide should focus on Georgia and pressure the USG to organize and execute a legitimate search for a new president; one that is transparent in setting the requirements for the position, one that engages the campus community in feedback on selected candidates, and one that allows for the school to have a fighting chance of doing more than just existing as a flagship in name alone while Savannah State University and Fort Valley State University are reduced by proximate PWI mergers.
A month before finalizing the Albany State-Darton merger, the Georgia System approved a national search for Georgia Southwestern State University, a school which had 1,000 fewer students than Albany State prior to its merger, a similar academic profile in degree offerings, and just over half of the economic impact of ASU. This small college earned the right to a national search to determine its future as a workforce development and educational pipeline for the region; but Albany State, which is now one of the largest HBCUs in the country, was not worthy of the same opportunity.
And neither was Fort Valley State or Savannah State, both of which had USG officials appointed as presidents and both of which now exist in the shadows of larger PWIs threatening to siphon students, resources and attention away from both institutions.
How should the actions by the Georgia System be interpreted? That its public HBCUs are not worth the investment of a professional search, or that it will not matter because consolidations are moving along to kill two of its three black colleges, and to severely limit the largest of the three? If HBCU alumni are okay with that concept, then they should let the lack of a search and the threats of proximate institutions go unchallenged.
But if they read them as most of the country is reading them, against the backdrop of growing policy and culture opposing opportunities for black people and black communities, then they would take these trends and relentlessly petition the University System of Georgia to do for its schools what it has done for every other member institution in the system. A transparent search to find a president who can lead the institution free of pressure from the system to reduce its programs and footprint to second-class existence.
Art Dunning did his job in overseeing a merger and making sure that the transition was not marred by radical opposition to white students attending a black college, or that faculty, employee and alumni communities did not become too ambitious in asking for more from a state which owes more to its black citizens and colleges more than it can ever repay. Now that he’s leaving, its time for Georgia to collect on what it owed, starting with its right to a legitimate presidential search.