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Henry recalls Georgia Southern's rise to university status
Was last GSC, first GSU president 26 years ago
Dr Nicholas Henry Web
Dr. Nicholas Henry recalls the three-year quest that led to Georgia Southern College becoming a university in 1990, when Henry was president of the school. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

Dr. Nicholas Henry, the first president of Georgia Southern University under that name, gives many individuals credit, some more than others, when he talks about the drive that led to Georgia Southern College becoming a university on July 1, 1990.

Henry, Georgia Southern's president from September 1987 through June 1998, returned Monday to speak to the Bulloch County Historical Society at GSU's Nessmith-Lane Conference Center. In his remarks on "Three Glorious Years of People Power: From Georgia Southern College to Georgia Southern University, 1987-1990," he reverently dropped names from that era, such as the late state Sen. Joe Kennedy, groundbreaking Eagles football coach Erk Russell and now-retired barber Henry Doyle. The former president also threw in mention of a book of GSU history by two of the society's members, the Presleys.

"I'm here today only because I do know some things about how Georgia Southern got university status," Henry said. "I am not here because I had much to do with actually getting it. The real credit, as Del and Beverly Presley have so wonderfully and amply documented, goes to the people of Bulloch County, and indeed, to the people of all of South Georgia, going back at least 60 or so years."

When Henry and his wife, Muriel, first arrived in Statesboro in 1987, they found a happy GSC campus, where retired faculty members chose to remain nearby and students cited the friendliness of the place, he recalled.

"A happy campus was the good news," Henry said. "There was, regrettably, some bad news."

At that time, Georgia Southern was one of 15 "senior colleges" in the state system. These were allowed to offer master's degrees but were prohibited from offering doctorates. The senior colleges served as "cash cows" for the University System of Georgia, generating more money than they received under the state's funding formula, he said.

Meanwhile, the University System regents prohibited any senior college from hiring a vice president for advancement, usually a leading position in coordinating fundraising efforts.

"Consequently, after some 80 years of existence, GSC had an endowment of barely $1 million," Henry said.

He cited the "before" but not the "after." After 25 years of university status, Georgia Southern's endowment on June 30, 2015, totaled $46 million, according to information the GSU communications office supplied from Vice President for University Advancement Salinda Arthur.

But in the late 1980s, Georgia Southern had a "less than gorgeous" campus, shabby except for a few bright spots, Henry said. The college had installed temporary buildings to keep up with growing enrollment and had no money to spend on improvements.

After citing a list of past and current state legislators as contributing to the quest, Henry singled out "the late, great coach Erk Russell, who was instrumental in making Georgia Southern the fastest-growing college or university in the United States over seven years - record growth that was crucial in gaining university status."

By 1987, Russell had led the Eagles to two national championship titles. A third would come in 1989.

A regional proposal

Beginning in 1987, Henry requested meetings with the presidents of the schools then named Armstrong State College, Brunswick College, East Georgia College and Savannah State College with the idea of strengthening regional cooperation, he said. This grew into a proposal for a regional university made up of the various campuses.

At this stage, Armstrong and Savannah State were cautiously supportive, Henry said. Both had experienced declining enrollments after a court order, meant to remedy past segregation, transferred Armstrong's business school to Savannah State and Savannah State's school of education to Armstrong.

The two-year colleges, East Georgia and Brunswick, were eager to become part of a university, according to Henry. Meanwhile, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography independently inquired about making the research institute part of the "New University."

After some controversy, the eventual proposal omitted any reference to where the main campus would be. The name also was debated, with one proposal being that it could contain the words "Georgia" and "Southern."

This resulted in a June 30, 1988, report in The Statesboro Georgian that "the possibility of Georgia Southern College becoming the University of Southern Georgia" was drawing wide opposition and that many people were blaming "new-comer" Nick Henry.

So, Henry "commissioned a survey," he said, with Henry Doyle of Henry's Haircuts as his "pollster." Doyle asked his customers and kept a written tally. Overwhelmingly, the opinions amounted to "Who cares about the name? We want a university!" Henry said.

Despite the progress, the odds remained stacked against the proposal, he said.

"Then, that magnificent mountain of a man, Claxton's Sen. Joe Kennedy, president pro-tem of the Georgia Senate, called a meeting," Henry said. "Joe had instantly recognized that, once the region's campuses were united, then the region's legislative delegations could be united, and once those budget-allocating legislators were united ... perhaps the University System might take notice."

About 100 officials, including legislators, regents, the University System chancellor and the college presidents, attended the meeting at Georgia State Prison near Reidsville. Kennedy began the meeting by praising the chancellor as an honest, fair, decent, honorable man, Henry said.

"Then Joe made his point, and it was as sharp as a needle: 'But, chancellor,' Joe said, 'this is where the water meets the wheel,' " Henry recalled. "And that was it. That was when Georgia Southern College, for all intents and purposes, became Georgia Southern University."

An "era of cold feet" followed, when two of the other college presidents said they were withdrawing and a third seemed not fully aware of what he had agreed to, Henry said.

More than he asked

But then-Chancellor Dean Propst called Henry one day and said that he was not going to support the presidents' proposal for a multicampus regional university.

"I said, 'OK,' " Henry recalled. "But then he added that he would transfer all of Armstrong State College's and Savannah State College's graduate programs to Georgia Southern. ... And oh, by the way, Georgia Southern College would be upgraded to Georgia Southern University and would be authorized to offer doctoral degrees; it would not be just a title change - far from it."

The Board of Regents approved the change Sept. 13, 1989, on an 11-2 vote with one abstention. Fireworks accompanied the unveiling of the sign nine months later.

A new chancellor restored Armstrong and Savannah State's graduate programs in 1995. In 1996, the state upgraded all of the remaining senior colleges to universities, including Armstrong and Savannah State.

"The cosmetic retitling of the state's senior colleges to universities had no discernible impact on much of anything," Henry said. "Aside from those graduate programs, Georgia Southern kept everything else that it had gained in 1990, when it was granted university status, and then some."

Georgia Southern now offers six doctoral degree programs. From 10,700 students the semester after it became a university, it continued growing. Now with 20,500 students, Georgia Southern is the largest university in southern Georgia.

After stepping down as GSU president, Henry returned to the classroom as a professor of public administration until his retirement in 2009. He and his wife live in Savannah.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.



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