ATLANTA (AP) - University System of Georgia Chancellor Henry "Hank" Huckaby said in an interview Monday that he's "cautiously optimistic" that the state's 35 public colleges and universities will receive full funding next fiscal year.
That could mean lower tuition increases for students and an infusion of about $100 million for cash-strapped campuses that have been cut by more than $1 billion since the economy tanked a few years ago, Huckaby told The Associated Press.
"We're cautiously optimistic that if state revenues continue to grow, although modestly, that we will have a chance at really getting that," said Huckaby, seated in his downtown Atlanta office.
The former state lawmaker took over the 300,000-student university system in July after his predecessor, Erroll Davis, retired. Huckaby inherited an organization facing deep budget cuts amid perceptions among state lawmakers that the system needed to bear a greater share of the state's economic woes.
Last month, Huckaby announced plans to study whether any of Georgia's colleges should be consolidated to save money. Huckaby said Monday he expects within the next 10 days to release the criteria that will drive combining any campuses.
State lawmakers have taken aim at historically black colleges in Savannah and Albany, saying they duplicate efforts at nearby predominantly white institutions. But Huckaby said it would be premature for him to say which colleges could face consolidation.
He said he was "keenly aware' of the role of the historically black colleges in the state.
"I'm very excited about what their role can be as we go forward," Huckaby said, adding he has a commitment to work with the black colleges as chancellor "to help make them as strong as we possibly can."
He also is looking at how to cut spending on new facilities while also accommodating an expected enrollment surge of about 100,000 students in the next decade. He said he favors renovating older buildings if that would cost less than constructing all-new facilities.
State lawmakers say Huckaby's initiatives are the best direction for the university system as the state works to recover from its economic slump.
"We've had some very encouraging news over a number of months," said state House Higher Education Committee Chairman Len Walker, a Republican from Loganville. "The problem is the previous year's budget reflects the 2001 budget. We're a long way from making up what we need to make up."
Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to name a commission in coming weeks that will examine how the state funds higher education. State officials say they are looking at moving from enrollment-based funding to performance funding that takes into account graduation rates, among other targets.
Huckaby has spent his first few months as chancellor touring the expansive university system that runs from the northeast Georgia mountains to the borders of Alabama and Florida. He has visited 22 campuses so far and plans to get to all 35 by Thanksgiving.
He said he's been surprised at the good morale on most campuses despite ongoing state budget problems and cuts to the HOPE scholarship. State lawmakers made wide reductions to the lottery-funded HOPE program this year to prevent it from going broke, cutting awards for all but the state's highest-scoring students.
In the past, HOPE would cover tuition and books for any Georgia high school graduate with a B average. The cuts, along with the lagging economy, have led to a smaller increase in enrollment this year compared to previous years when enrollment would skyrocket each fall by up to 20,000 students, Huckaby said.
"The economy is beginning to take a real effect on people in terms of their ability to pay tuition," he said.