Already active on Georgia Southern University’s campuses for weeks, Shelley Clark Nickel officially becomes its interim president today.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised since I got here at the enthusiasm that people have for the university both inside and on campus and within the communities surrounding our campuses,” Nickel said. “They’re very excited about the future, looking at the opportunities and the possibilities and are all offering their help, so that’s what I’ve seen so far.”
She left her previous job, as the University System of Georgia’s executive vice chancellor for strategy and fiscal affairs and treasurer for the Board of Regents, for as long as needed, but hopes to return.
In that role, Nickel has led the system-wide consolidation effort, which has reduced the number of USG institutions from 35 to 26. One of the two most recently completed mergers was that of Savannah-based Armstrong State University into Georgia Southern, creating a “new Georgia Southern University” officially last Jan. 1.
The university now has three campuses, including the original campus, growing in Statesboro since 1906, the Armstrong campus in Savannah, and the Liberty campus, previously Armstrong’s Liberty Center, in Hinesville. At its creation, this new Georgia Southern had more than 27,000 students.
What I’ve been charged to do while I’m here is to solidify the consolidation, and that’s to make sure that we’re doing what we said we were going to do and that we have programs in place and things for our students so that they can be successful.Shelley Clark Nickel, interim president at Georgia Southern University
Solidifying the merger
Following up on consolidation is a big part of why Nickel was chosen as interim Georgia Southern president at this juncture, she confirmed during an interview Thursday in the Marvin Pittman Administration Building.
“What I’ve been charged to do while I’m here is to solidify the consolidation, and that’s to make sure that we’re doing what we said we were going to do and that we have programs in place and things for our students so that they can be successful,” she said, “and the second thing I’ve been charged with doing is to implement the academic regional plan, which is to make sure that the academic programs that we’ve talked about putting in Savannah and at the Liberty campus actually get there.”
The university will offer a new bachelor’s degree in logistics and economics on the Armstrong campus this fall, she said. Georgia Southern has an internationally ranked logistics program, previously available only on the Statesboro campus.
“We will be working on offering a professional MBA program in Savannah and a hospitality program in the near future, which I think will all coincide with the community and business needs to grow the economy in that part of our region, so we’re very excited about that,” Nickel said.
The university’s College of Business website already includes a page, dated May 4, advertising the new Master of Business Administration program as an “MBA in Savannah,” “designed specifically for working professionals.”
“The real crux of all this is to make sure that we do all of these things and make decisions so that our students can be successful, and that means to give them the highest quality academic programs that they can get, taught by great faculty and in a campus environment that helps them to not only be a student but also to be a great learner and to become the person they want to be, and also in the end to get a job,” Nickel said.
After two years as Georgia Southern president, right through the consolidation process, Jaimie Hebert, Ph.D., announced his resignation in May. Chancellor Steve Wrigley then named Nickel to the interim role until a search is conducted and a new president hired. Also official today, Hebert starts his new job as provost and vice president for academic affairs of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he received all three of his academic degrees.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Nickel has lived in Georgia 33 years, and for 28 of those years has worked for the state. From July 2005 until August 2007 she was director of the Office of Planning and Budget, which is part of the governor’s office, and from February 2003 through June 2005, she ran the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which administers the HOPE Scholarship program.
But for 17 years, the majority of her time in state government, Nickel has worked for the University System, mainly at its headquarters in Atlanta. After first serving as associate vice chancellor, she was assigned as an interim president once before, at Gordon State College in Barnesville, for 18 months beginning in 2010.
Nickel attained her master’s degree in public administration and her bachelor’s degree in community development both from Penn State University.
Savings: $6 million
The University System of Georgia is following up on the consolidation from a financial standpoint.
“I think Georgia Southern is very fiscally stable,” Nickel said. “But part of what we do in consolidation is we look where we can find savings from duplication of either programs or services or administrators so that we can redirect those into academic programs and student support services.”
There is no specific target for savings, she said.
“Georgia Southern has saved over $6 million in their consolidation to this point, and those are being plowed back into, like I mentioned, academic programs and student support, so very directed toward what we call student success,” Nickel said.
Some of the savings came from administrative salaries, with the elimination of one university president position, some vice presidents, deans and support personnel, she said.
In addition to new programs in Savannah, some of the savings is being directed to hiring professional advisors to help students who are having trouble with their grades or missing classes and might otherwise leave without graduating, she said.
Asked if she sees anything she wishes had been done differently in the consolidation, Nickel said there should have better communication with students and families.
“I think that would be my suggestion, or lesson learned I guess, that we probably could have done a better job of communicating to our students and families to make sure they knew that we weren’t going away and that we were going to be stronger than ever,” she said.
From faculty and staff, Nickel said, she has not heard “any negativity” regarding the process. What she has heard and understands, she said, is people saying that they are weary of the work it takes to complete a consolidation.
“But I think there’s more enthusiasm than anything, to really call this, you know, ‘We are consolidated, we are a new university and we are the Georgia Southern of the future,’” Nickel said.
In consolidations of other universities and colleges, enrollment has dropped from previous totals before recovering.
“Typically, that has happened in the consolidations that the university system has conducted, and we might see a slight dip,” Nickel said. “We’re not expecting large losses, and we are working day-in and day-out to make sure we get as many students as we can enrolled and ready to start in the fall.”
Another question was whether there will come a time in the future that the primary location of Georgia Southern will shift to Savannah.
“I don’t think so,” Nickel said. “I think Statesboro is the home base, but we sure are gonna take advantage of all that Savannah has to offer.”
And no, she is not aware of any further consolidations that will involve Georgia Southern.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.