The fate of Southern Union

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Town Hall meeting held March 8

By Anna-Claire Terry
Staff Reporter

Concerned citizens, students and alumni packed out the Southern Room at Southern Union State Community College to voice concerns about the upcoming merger with Central Alabama and Chattahoochee Valley Community Colleges at a town hall meeting led by Susan L. Burrow, president of Central Alabama, Tuesday night.
Burrow’s prepared opening comments focused on points of K-12 and university relations, dual enrollment, adult education and skills training, soft skills training and higher education’s role in preparation for high wage/ high skills jobs.
As the merger approaches, three important questions remain unanswered: Where will the headquarters be located, what will be the name of the school and how will the Southern Union curriculum be affected? Opelika community members asserted that Southern Union’s larger size and enrollment, higher collective grade point average, strong relationship with Auburn University, the East Alabama Medical Center and a number of industrial partners, and longevity make it better suited for the lead campus of the new regional institution.
According to Burrow, Alexander City community members argued that Central Alabama’s location makes it the ideal campus for the headquarters. Burrow agreed with the arguments of both sides and said the decision will boil down to size versus centrality. “The central-most point is Alex City. The one thing Opelika has is size,” she said. “Those are two hard facts.” Opelikans who voiced their opinions disagreed that Alex City is most central and asserted that Opelika is certainly the most accessible from all the other campuses.
Again, according to Burrow, the name of the institution and location of its headquarters are decisions that she will make as president and recommend them to the board of trustees. Indeed, it appeared to most that she has already decided these items.
Several other questions remained unanswered. Opelika City Councilwoman Patsy Jones asked Burrow about the criteria she will use to determine a name and headquarters location. “There aren’t really any defining criteria, honestly,” Burrow answered. She told Jones that the president makes the recommendation to the chancellor, and the chancellor then recommends to the board of trustees.
Jones replied, “We are very concerned. When I look at comparing Opelika and Southern Union to all the facts I have about the other campuses, to me, it’s a no- brainer.” Jones acknowledged that she was partial, but said that facts are facts. “It seems you become very subjective and very political, so we as citizens need to have some type of idea of how all of this is going to be processed and selected,” she said.
A similar question about curriculum merger plans from Chambers County School Superintendent Kelli Hodge revealed that little if any plan existed to accomplish this.
In response to a question from Opelika citizen Doug Horn, Burrows could offer no assurance that Southern Union’s excellent nurses training program would not be vandalized to strengthen subpar programs at the other two institutions.
Several students currently enrolled at both of Southern Union’s campuses asked Burrows questions about a rise in tuition costs and expressed their concerns with having a long commute. Burrows said students can expect no more than a two dollar increase per credit hour.
Many attendees of the meeting voiced concerns about a lack of transparency. Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller suggested that a recommendation from Burrow might be unfair. “If you’re going to make that recommendation, isn’t it unfair to you and unfair to us?” he asked. Burrows responded by stating that the location and name are “passion points” for each community even though several in the audience had urged that these decisions be based on economics and common sense.
Burrows told community members the new institution’s focus will be on growth, regardless of the name and site of its administrative headquarters. The statement of intent to consolidate will be presented to the Alabama Commission on Higher Education on March 11.

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