Georgia system poised to appoint former Trump official Sonny Perdue next chancellor

Dive Brief:

  • Regents of the University System of Georgia on Tuesday named Sonny Perdue, a former governor of the state and the Trump administration’s agriculture secretary, as sole finalist for the system chancellorship.
  • While the regent board must finalize Perdue’s appointment, the move all but cements the prominent Republican as the next leader of the 340,000-student public system. 
  • News that Perdue would likely clinch the job drew criticism from the the American Association of University Professors, which said the search process has been opaque and politicized. 

Dive Insight:

The hunt for a new Georgia chancellor has been unusually thorny, even before the former system leader, Steve Wrigley, stepped down in July.

Some members of the regent board had tried to install Perdue early last year but could not garner enough support on the panel. 

Reports that Perdue — who has no formal higher education administration experience — was the leading candidate prompted a warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the system’s accreditor. SACSCOC said a partisan search might put USG out of compliance with its standards. Following this, the initial search firm the system hired to help find the next chancellor quit.

The clashes illustrate a partisan dynamic playing out at public institutions in many red states, where GOP lawmakers are attacking academe and influencing colleges’ operations.

In Georgia, state policymakers wield significant power over the public system. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp recently replaced several members of the USG regent board with political allies, lining up support for Perdue to likely lock down the chancellor job. 

On Tuesday, Matthew Boedy, president of AAUP’s Georgia conference, wrote to SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan, asking the agency to once again send a letter of warning to the regents before they take a final vote on Perdue’s appointment, which will occur no sooner than two weeks from Tuesday.

“It is clear that Gov. Kemp’s shuffling of the board by appointing two new regents in January played a massive role in the speed at which Mr. Perdue’s chances of getting the job were resurrected,” Boedy wrote to Wheelan. “While legally allowed to appoint regents, the governor’s move could be read as pushing off the board those who blocked Perdue’s path.”

Boedy also wrote that Perdue’s resume does not match the accrediting body’s standard that administrators have “appropriate experience and qualifications.”

Wheelan said in an email to Higher Ed Dive that she would not be writing to the regents. 

The system in its search interviewed several candidates, Wheelan said, and institutions have hired successful chief executives from backgrounds outside the academy, including legislators and attorneys. 

However, the national branch of AAUP said in a statement that the system has largely concealed the search from the public, and appointing an inexperienced chancellor after such a process would negatively affect student and faculty retention. 

The faculty group called for a system head who understands public higher education and has the confidence of its professors. It also drew attention to Perdue’s positions on key scientific issues, such as his skepticism of climate change.

Board Chair Harold Reynolds said in a statement USG’s reputation attracted an “outstanding group of candidates.”

“Ultimately, Gov. Perdue stood out for his impressive experience and leadership in public service as well as a vast understanding not only of Georgia and its communities but of the issues facing the university system as we move forward,” Reynolds said. 

A USG spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the criticism of Perdue.

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