Agency warns Georgia Regents against politicizing chancellor search

210427-Atlanta- Students gather in front of the University System of Georgia offices in Downtown Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, April 27, 2021, to protest against former Gov. Sonny Perdue becoming the new chancellor. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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210427-Atlanta- Students gather in front of the University System of Georgia offices in Downtown Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, April 27, 2021, to protest against former Gov. Sonny Perdue becoming the new chancellor. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

A regional accrediting agency is raising concerns about the possibility that the Board of Regents could tap former Gov. Sonny Perdue as the next leader of the state’s university system.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent a letter to Regents chair Sachin Shailendra on Monday warning the system could be found “out of compliance” if the process of picking the next leader is politicized.

“While it is often especially difficult for members of a governing board who are appointed by the Governor or legislative body to remain independent in their work, it is imperative that they do, or they place the accreditation of the institution(s) they govern in jeopardy,” read the letter from the agency’s president, Belle Wheelan, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday in a public records request.

In the letter, Wheelan wrote that the accrediting agency requires higher education systems to select candidates with “appropriate experience and qualifications” to lead institutions. Perdue has no experience in higher education leadership.

Another standard requires that the governing board is not controlled by “organizations and institutions separate from it.”

“This would include the Governor, members of the Legislature, alumni, etc.,” wrote Wheelan, who suggested the board tap an interim leader if they can’t find an appropriate candidate before the current chancellor, Steve Wrigley, retires in July.

The agency can impose actions that include revoking a college or university’s accreditation, which prevents students from receiving federal financial aid.

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The Regents last week paused the search for the next chancellor hours after the AJC reported some members were opposed to efforts to tap Perdue, a two-term Republican governor and former U.S. Agriculture secretary, to the coveted post. The 19-member board did not say how long the search would be paused.

Perdue and his aides have not publicly commented on the search, and declined to weigh in on Tuesday. Shailendra and other Regents have also declined comment on the process.

About two dozen demonstrators, mainly students, gathered outside the University System offices in Atlanta late Tuesday as part of two “Students Against Sonny” rallies. The group, which also included state Rep. Derrick Jackson, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, demanded a more transparent chancellor search process, describing it as the “good ol’ boy” system at work. They said Perdue is unqualified for the job and noted he likely hasn’t interviewed for the position. They demanded Regents members seek greater input from students.

“If you value what we think, you would disqualify Sonny Perdue,” said Alex Ames, 19, a first-year Georgia Tech student who helped organize the protest.

At a smaller protest on the University of Georgia campus, seven students and a representative from the United Campus Workers of Georgia voiced similar opposition.

“Education is not political. It’s only political if those against it make it out to be,” said protest organizer Layla Contreras, a sophomore at UGA and one of several volunteers with Students Against Sonny.

Wrigley announced in January his plans to retire after 36 years in state government. His departure comes as the system of 26 colleges and universities races to increase graduation rates, expand degrees in subjects in high-demand fields and provide additional mental health services to students.

Perdue and his political network, among the most powerful in the state, have close ties to Gov. Brian Kemp, who has broad influence over the chancellor post. Kemp’s office Tuesday said in a statement to the AJC it respects the board’s autonomy and shares “similar concerns” with the accreditation agency about the search effort.

“We share similar concerns ... a minority of Board of Regents members may be controlling or influencing key decisions of this critical personnel process without input from the majority of the Board,” the statement said in part. “We look forward to the Board completing their nationwide search in an orderly, timely manner according to the process developed and approved by the Board’s own search committee.”