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 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.
Georgia Southern University submitted a proposal that cut $25.7 million out of its budget. Among many cuts, the plan calls for eliminating more than 100 teaching positions, cutting $1 million from the athletic funding and taking state funding away from the Wildlife Center, the Performing Arts Center and the museum. GSU president Brooks Keel said the cuts would be "devastating" to the university.
"If faced with the magnitude of cuts currently being proposed, the Georgia Southern we all know and love today will look dramatically different tomorrow," Keel said.
Davis said tuition increases and cuts likely would 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."
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, chair of the Senate Education committee, who asked Davis to "do the least amount of damage, with the sacrifice spread of the entire education community."
"This is a time where we have to make hard decisions," Harp said, adding that he had heard from Republican voters as he campaigns for re-election that they do not want their taxes raised.
"I'm a candidate, but I'm also a realist and a pragmatist," he said.
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 are on 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."
The proposed cuts leave many students, like Medical College of Georgia nurse anesthesiology student Rebecca Reese, in limbo. Reese began an e-mail and phone call campaign to state legislators after she found out her program is on the list of possible cuts at the state's only public medical school.
"This could leave me five months before graduation with a lot of student loans and no degree," Reese said.
About 40 students from college campuses 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?"
University of West Georgia graduate student Will Avery, who led a group of students from across the state in a rally at the Gold Dome on Wednesday, called the proposed cuts "not acceptable."
"Our best students will be going to other states that are going to support their education," said Avery, a 29-year-old graduate student in history and education who hopes to be a history teacher. "Our best professors, our most well equipped professors, will go to other states to find jobs and situations where they can be provided with the best means to do their jobs."
Among those in the audience were many who will likely be affected by the cuts to higher education, including several college presidents.
"The message was, they're looking for balance," said Georgia State University President Mark Becker. "At the end of the day, they expect the system to do its work."