Georgia chancellor search process slowed by confusion, split over Perdue

University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley, seated, gets a standing ovation from state Board of Regents members and staff during his final scheduled meeting as chancellor on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Wrigley plans to retire at the end of June. (Eric Stirgus / estirgus@ajc.com)
Caption
University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley, seated, gets a standing ovation from state Board of Regents members and staff during his final scheduled meeting as chancellor on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Wrigley plans to retire at the end of June. (Eric Stirgus / estirgus@ajc.com)

Georgia officials this week began Act II of their quest to find the next leader of the state’s public university system when they hired their second firm to lead the search. Records show the process has been slowed by internal confusion and friction among the powerful board charged with making the selection.

At least 17 candidates were under consideration to become the University System of Georgia’s chancellor when the Board of Regents paused the search, documents recently obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the state’s open records act show. The names weren’t mentioned and state law allows the University System to withhold documents about someone who may be considered a candidate for employment.

The 19-member board paused the search in late April amid a push by some members to select former Gov. Sonny Perdue as the University System’s chancellor. Perdue most recently ran the U.S. Department of Agriculture under then-President Donald Trump. Chancellor Steve Wrigley is retiring at the end of June. Perdue told the AJC on Thursday in his first public remarks about the search, he’s talked to Gov. Brian Kemp about the position and is willing to serve if approved by the Regents. To date, Perdue has not mustered enough support on the board to get the job, the AJC has reported.

U.S. President Donald Trump signs the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue looks on during a meeting with farmers on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
Caption
U.S. President Donald Trump signs the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue looks on during a meeting with farmers on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The search process, for a board that prides itself on operating quietly and efficiently, has been neither, and records reviewed by the AJC show some of the troubles.

“Several Regents seemed to be concerned that we had not clearly articulated a job description for the Chancellor, or the Board’s expectations for a new Chancellor, and that this has led to confusion during the search process,” Regent Don Waters said in an April 25 email to fellow board members.

Waters suggested former Chancellor Stephen Portch, who retired from the job about two decades ago, serve in an advisory role with the search, noting his prior help to the board on some matters. Some Regents members did not support the idea because Portch previously recommended someone for the job. Portch recommended Perdue, according to a source familiar with the search. Regent Harold Reynolds, who was a major donor to Perdue’s campaigns, supported Waters’ idea to bring in Portch “to get our board on track and fulfill our responsibilities.”

“We cannot let a few people acting as confidential sources for the media guide the present or the future of the USG,” Reynolds replied to Waters’ email. “I welcome the historical context and insight into higher education, now and the future, Dr. Portch can provide. He should not be ‘cancelled’ as a few have suggested.”

The records contained no additional responses. An accreditation agency sent a letter to Regents chairman Sachin Shailendra the following day warning the system could be found “out of compliance” if the process of picking the next leader is controlled by a minority of board members or elected officials.

Reynolds, Shailendra and Waters declined comment because the search process has not been completed. Telephone calls and an email to Portch were not returned.

Explore5 things to know about the University System of Georgia chancellor job

University System chancellor is one of the top and best-paid jobs in state government. The chancellor’s duties have included directing education policy and operations for a system that includes schools often ranked among the nation’s top public universities. The entire system has about 340,000 students, nearly 48,000 employees and a total annual budget of about $10 billion.

Wrigley’s annual compensation is about $524,000, about three times as much as the salary of Gov. Brian Kemp, who makes roughly $175,000 a year. Wrigley was the system’s executive vice chancellor for administration when he was named interim chancellor in 2016. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal recommended Wrigley for the job, which he took on permanently in 2017.

The Regents, who oversee the system’s operations, are appointed by the governor for staggered seven-year terms. They vote on financing for construction projects, curriculum initiatives and finalists for university presidential vacancies.

Many Regents members are business executives, and have been major political donors to top Republicans, who hold most top positions in the state. Eleven Regents members have made campaign contributions to either Perdue or his cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, both Republicans, totaling at least $119,000 since 2006. Another Regent, Erin Hames, worked as Sonny Perdue’s policy director.

The national search to replace Wrigley began in late January, about two weeks after his retirement announcement. It began, like presidential searches, with a committee of Regents members being picked to serve in an advisory capacity. The Regents picked Parker Executive Search to do the legwork on finding candidates.

Records show candidate suggestions came along the way. Georgia state Sen. John Albers recommended Cecil Staton, a former state senator who was Valdosta State University’s interim president. Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera emailed a recommendation whose name was redacted. Cabrera declined to discuss his suggestion, a spokesman said. Portch recommended Perdue.

The firm told the committee on April 9 there were 17 committed candidates. Parker officials asked committee members to submit evaluations of candidates by April 16.

The firm had hoped to conduct interviews with semifinalists on April 22, but the Regents announced that day it was pausing the search, saying in a one-paragraph statement they wanted “to reflect and determine our next steps.” Parker Executive Search pulled out of the search process about a week later.

WittKieffer, a global executive search firm with offices in Atlanta, is now conducting the search. The firm was blocked from doing similar work three years ago by the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors after officials criticized the consultants’ work over disputed past salary data, according to published news reports.

The Regents have said they hope to pick an acting chancellor by the end of June.

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)
Caption
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

Credit: Ben Gray

For some, the restart has renewed complaints that Georgia’s selection process is secretive. Matt Boedy, a University of North Georgia professor who is conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, points to the recent Florida State University presidential search process as an ideal approach. Three finalists were named before a nominee was selected. Georgia typically names one finalist. Boedy is also worried some candidates previously interested are now out of the mix.

“What qualified candidates, seemingly implicitly rejected once already, are going to take that second call from the Regents?” Boedy asked. “Many probably have taken other jobs or withdrew from this search after learning about the early part of the process. ... The USG has had a national reputation for educational leadership. That has been squandered in some respects by Regents pushing their agendas.”

ExploreGeorgia campuses debate value of ‘closed’ presidential job hunts

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government relations for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education, believes the Georgia position “is a very desirable job” and will attract highly qualified candidates.

Hartle said there is often strong interest from many sectors, including politicians, in these searches and noted that several elected officials have been hired to lead major colleges or universities. In Georgia, the list includes former Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who was president of Young Harris College and is now dean of Mercer University’s law school. Former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens led Kennesaw State University for less than two years, leaving amid complaints of his handling of a police brutality and racial discrimination protest by a group of Black cheerleaders.

Hartle, who’s been involved in higher education for about 40 years, said the search process for a chancellor often takes six months to a year. Succession planning is not done well in higher education administration, Hartle said, joking that college football coaching searches often take a week or less.

“This is the public face of the system,” Hartle said of the chancellor position. “He or she meets with the governor, the Legislature and many constituencies. This is not a search you want to mess up.”

How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed a request a few weeks ago under the Georgia Open Records Act seeking documents pertaining to the University System of Georgia chancellor search. The newspaper reviewed about 400 pages of emails. Some emails had information that was redacted. State officials did not include other records, citing a law prohibiting the release of documents about someone who may be considered a candidate for employment.

Timeline of the chancellor search

Jan. 12 - Steve Wrigley announced plans to retire as chancellor of the University System of Georgia at the end of June.

Jan. 25 - The Georgia Board of Regents announced it would conduct a national search for Wrigley’s replacement, and Parker Executive Search would assist in the process.

March 2 - The University System held the first of several public listening sessions to get input about the chancellor search.

March 16 - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported some board members want former two-term Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to become chancellor.

March 26 - Former University System Chancellor Stephen Portch emailed the search firm recommending a candidate for the job.

April 22 - The Regents decided to pause the chancellor search.

April 25 - Some Regents members wanted Portch to help as an adviser in the search process.

April 26 - The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges sent a letter to Regents chairman Sachin Shailendra warning the system could be found “out of compliance” if the process of picking the next leader is politicized.

May 5 - The firm hired to conduct the chancellor search, Parker Executive Search, pulled out of the process.

May 11 - The Regents said it will begin the process of finding a new firm to conduct its search.

June 3 - The University System hired WittKieffer to conduct the search.