ALBANY — For some, the merger of Darton State College and Albany State University is the end of an era. For others, it is a new beginning.
With the arrival of 2017, the consolidation of Albany State and Darton becomes official, the two schools merging to form the “new Albany State University.” For many current and former Darton students and alumni, saying goodbye to their alma mater is a difficult experience. For others, though, there are the possibilities brought on by the dawning of this new day.
Established in 1963, Darton State College, originally Albany Junior College, has grown over the years from 620 students in 1966, its first year of operation, to its highest enrollment of 6,097 students in 2011.
At its inception, Albany Junior College benefited from a $1.6 million bond provided by the citizens of Albany to finance the purchase of the original 100-acre site in west Albany and the construction of the school’s first five buildings. Today, the campus covers 180 acres, landscaped with native grasses and shrubs, as well as a productive pecan grove.
In 1987, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia dropped the word “junior” from all junior college names, and Albany junior College was renamed Darton, an old English word meaning “town by the water.” In 2012, the name changed to Darton State College, reflecting the school’s transition from a two-year to a four-year institution.
Now, some 50 years after its founding, thanks to a state-sanctioned merger, Darton State College is officially no longer an independent institution of higher learning, but rather a part of Albany State University, which has traditionally been a historically black university.
The consolidation, the first in Georgia to combine a historically black college with an institution that traditionally had a higher white population, is the seventh such merger within the University System. After the initial approval of the consolidation, and to reflect the merged status, the state’s Board of Regents approved (in March) ASU’s new mission statement, which did not contain HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) status.
The announcement of the move to drop HBCU from Albany State’s mission statement drew criticism from the community and sparked protests from hundreds of students, who, many dressed in all black, walked out of classes and picketed across campus, waving signs and venting their outrage.
According to the new non-HBCU ASU mission statement, “ASU respects and builds on the historical roots of its institutional predecessors with its commitment to access and a strong liberal arts heritage that respects diversity in all its forms and gives students the foundation they need to succeed.”
On Dec. 23, the merger became a visible reality when workers from Art Sign Company replaced the Darton signs along Gillionville Road with new “Albany State University West Campus” signage.
“The new signage at ASU West Campus is symbolic of the consolidation of two great institutions as we prepare for the new year and this new era in higher education in South Georgia,” ASU Vice President of Institutional Advancement Cynthia George said at the time.
Like George, others within the community are optimistic about the merger of the two schools.
“I think it is important to note that the core principles of Darton, particularly with respect to the health science courses, are, as I understand it, going to continue to be here and are going to continue to be something that is supported heavily by the Board of Regents and by ASU under its current merged iteration.” said former Darton Foundation chairman and current Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas. “It is going to continue to provide the benefits of an access community school for those degrees.
“As a community leader, one of the things that was very important to me was to combine the best components of ASU and Darton. I am excited to see a unified campus on both sides of the river.”
For others, Darton was a nostalgic part of their educational past, a past that is now gone.
“I was there the first day,” said local attorney Tommy Coleman. “It wasn’t even complete. You had to walk across plywood sidewalks to get to the classroom buildings. The gym could not be used because the pool sank. The first two six-week periods, everyone took archery (as a PE class). I ran for vice president of the student body and won. It was a remarkable place of turning around for me. It taught me how to study. I was on the first tennis team they had. It was an important two years of my life.”
Coleman admits that he suspected for years that the merger was coming.
“I was certain that this merger was on the way, it just took them a long time,” the former Albany mayor said. “They really started working on it in the 1980s. Which, if you look at it from a distance, you have two colleges and a technical college now, in a relatively, compared to other places, small community in which the population has declined. So if you look at it that way, it makes sense. But I do have some nostalgia for (an independent Darton).”
Despite feelings of optimism or nostalgia, the merger has produced other alarming consequences.
According to the Board of Regents, 2016 fall enrollment numbers for the new Albany State University West Campus (Darton) dropped by 24.7 percent (1,351 students), which is the largest drop of any institution of higher learning in the entire state.
“With any sort of consolidation, particularly a consolidation of this type, which is very unique, where you are taking two different universities that have different purposes and they’re combining them, I think any time you go through that type of process there is necessarily going to be a drop in enrollment,” said Cohilas. “The people in the community, the students and the marketplace are going to want to see what happens.
“Any institution that goes through something like this has to build credibility, to show stability and to establish what it is going to be selling. Sometimes there are growing pains.”
As classes ended in early December and the new year dawned, Darton College was no more. And Albany State University West Campus classes begin on Jan. 9.
An old era has passed. And a new era has begun.