Georgia regents name Sonny Perdue finalist to lead University System

Sonny Perdue makes remarks during a Defend the Majority Republican Rally in Canton, Ga., on Nov. 20, 2020. Perdue, a former two-term Georgia governor and U.S. agriculture secretary, is the sole finalist to lead the University System of Georgia. (AJC file photo)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Sonny Perdue makes remarks during a Defend the Majority Republican Rally in Canton, Ga., on Nov. 20, 2020. Perdue, a former two-term Georgia governor and U.S. agriculture secretary, is the sole finalist to lead the University System of Georgia. (AJC file photo)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Georgia Board of Regents on Tuesday named former governor and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue as the sole finalist to lead the state’s University System.

Perdue is poised within weeks to become University System of Georgia chancellor, one of the most powerful positions in state government.

The system has about 340,000 students and roughly 48,000 employees and consists of schools such as the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Kennesaw State universities. The board must now wait 14 days before taking a vote on appointing the Republican to the post.

The board voted without dissent Tuesday to name Perdue the finalist, saying they interviewed several excellent candidates for the job. Regents chairman Harold Reynolds cited Perdue’s background in public service and his “passion for higher education” in naming him the finalist.

“I’m excited about the future of the University System with him at the helm,” Reynolds said.

Perdue has said little publicly about the job beyond a brief June interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which he said he wanted to bring more conservative values to the job. On Tuesday, he called the nomination “a wonderful capstone to a career of public service.”

“I want to make a difference by providing leadership and resources so that faculty can thrive in their teaching, research and service and students are inspired and supported so they graduate, find rewarding careers and become productive citizens,” he said in a statement. “I am honored to be considered for such an important role.”

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November 5, 2018 Atlanta - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp share a smile ahead of Putting Georgians First Fly Around a day before the election day at Peachtree DeKalb Airport on Monday, November 5, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

November 5, 2018 Atlanta - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp share a smile ahead of Putting Georgians First Fly Around a day before the election day at Peachtree DeKalb Airport on Monday, November 5, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
November 5, 2018 Atlanta - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp share a smile ahead of Putting Georgians First Fly Around a day before the election day at Peachtree DeKalb Airport on Monday, November 5, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Perdue’s critics are preparing a final effort to stop the appointment. The American Association of University Professors denounced the search process as secretive and politically motivated, adding that “Perdue has absolutely no experience in higher education leadership.”

ExploreWhy Brian Kemp wants Sonny Perdue to lead Georgia’s higher ed system

Gov. Brian Kemp, who has received Perdue’s support during several key moments in his political career, has replaced four members of the 19-member board this year with political allies who are expected to be supportive of Perdue’s candidacy.

On Tuesday, he called Perdue “exceedingly qualified for the position.”

“Georgians will benefit from his decisive and creative leadership over a system which now serves more than 340,000 students,” Kemp said. “I look forward to working with future Chancellor Perdue to ensure the quality of our higher education continues to be worthy of the best place to live, work, learn, and raise a family.”

The governor backed Perdue even though his first cousin former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is challenging the governor in the Republican primary. Though the regents have the legal authority to select the chancellor, the governor appoints its members and has broad influence over the process.

The search for the next chancellor has been an unusually fraught process since former Chancellor Steve Wrigley announced his retirement from the job 13 months ago. Veteran state administrator Teresa MacCartney was appointed to temporarily lead the system.

ExploreDebate grows over Sonny Perdue as possible Georgia system chancellor

Perdue’s interest in the job has drawn criticism from students and faculty — and concerns from an influential accrediting agency.

Critics say Perdue is not qualified because he has no higher education administrative experience. Supporters say his eight years as governor and four years in the Trump administration show Perdue has experience in leading large, complex organizations. They also feel his name recognition could help with fundraising and building relationships with state and federal lawmakers.

There’s debate about Perdue among his friends and associates.

Philip Wilheit, who served on the regents until January, said in an interview that Perdue lacks the background for the position.

“I like Sonny. I’ve known him a long time. But I have no doubt in my mind there are better people in this very important job than Sonny,” he said.

Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist, said Perdue could address ongoing concerns such as conservative students have trouble expressing their viewpoints on campus.

“Is Sonny Perdue going to face entrenched pushback from academia? Sure. But he knows that. He’s ready for it,” Robinson said.

Sonny Perdue

Age: 75

Birthplace: Perry, Georgia

Political History: Georgia state senator, 1991-2002; governor, 2003-2011; U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary, 2017-2021.

Personal: Perdue was a walk-in for the Georgia Bulldogs football team. He served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. Perdue was also a veterinarian.