Former DeKalb DA turned professor: College degree only as good as faculty backing it.

Former Dekalb County DA J. Tom Morgan now teaches law at a university in North Carolina. He says the Board of Regents is acting in ways that will deter top faculty from working at Georgia public colleges.
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Former Dekalb County DA J. Tom Morgan now teaches law at a university in North Carolina. He says the Board of Regents is acting in ways that will deter top faculty from working at Georgia public colleges.

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

J. Tom Morgan warns Georgia Board of Regents may drive off top faculty

DeKalb County’s district attorney for 12 years, J. Tom Morgan is now a criminal law professor at Western Carolina University. Morgan led the 2002 prosecution and conviction of ex DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey for the assassination of Derwin Brown, a reform-minded law challenger who defeated Dorsey in an election two years earlier for the sheriff’s job.

In this guest column on the Board of Regents, the appointed body that oversees Georgia’s public campuses, Morgan draws on earlier achievements in his life. As a student, Morgan served as student body president of two colleges in the University System of Georgia. including the University of Georgia. Those roles brought him into close contact with the Regents and involved him in the campaign to attract and keep top professors in Georgia.

Morgan now fears those efforts are being undone by the current Board of Regents in its response to COVID-19 on campuses and its attack on tenure.

By J. Tom Morgan

The Georgia Board of Regents have traditionally made decisions that were in the best interests for the faculty and students at the University System of Georgia. I am concerned that is no longer the case.

In the 1970s, I had the privilege of serving as student body president for two colleges in the University System of Georgia-Albany Junior College, 1974–1975 and the University of Georgia, 1976 –1977. During that period, I, along with the student body presidents from the other 31 University System of Georgia schools, had the opportunity to observe up close and first-hand the Board of Regents.

The Regents invited us, encouraged us, and even paid our expenses to attend their meetings. There was always at least one, and usually several student body presidents, attending these meetings. I learned and appreciated the difficulty the Regents had allocating very limited resources across a large state with diverse needs. Having attended a junior college in rural Southwest Georgia, followed by attendance at the flagship university, I was acutely aware of the difficulties facing the Regents and their staff.

It was during one of the Regents’ meetings that we learned that faculty salaries across the USG were abysmally low compared to the faculty salaries in the other public colleges across the South. In fact, Georgia was in last place. The student body presidents knew that the worth of a college diploma was dependent on the quality of instruction provided by the faculty.

With the help of the Board of Regents’ staff and lawyers the student body presidents formed a lobbying group, Q.U.E.S.T, Quality University Education for Students Today. None of us had been registered lobbyists before this endeavor. With the guidance of the Regents’ staff, we learned the legislative budgeting process and who was important to achieve our goal of securing raises for the faculty who served the University System of Georgia.

In one year, with the promise of raises over the next three years, Georgia college faculty salaries went from last place to third place following North Carolina and Virginia.

I am extremely concerned today with decisions made by the Georgia Board of Regents which will impact the attraction and retention of top faculty in my home state. The lack of a mask mandate has alienated faculty against administrators and students, and ultimately the Regents themselves.

I am a professor at a public university in North Carolina where the wearing of masks inside college buildings is mandated statewide. No one has complained -- no faculty, students, or administrators. It is now second nature to don a mask when entering a college building. I have yet to hear a colleague or student complain about being required to wear a mask inside a building. If science says we should wear a mask to protect ourselves and others, we all agree to follow the science.

Vaccinations are not mandated in the North Carolina University System. However, students and faculty who are not vaccinated must routinely be tested before being allowed to enter the classroom.  Those of us who are vaccinated must upload our vaccination cards into the college health services database.

My other concern is that the Georgia Board of Regents has decided Georgia will be the only state in the country to severely cut back the protections of tenure for deserving faculty. First, to become a tenured faculty member is a rigorous process. The prospect must achieve high marks on student evaluations, publish multiple articles in peer reviewed journals, participate in campus-wide activities, and while instructing a class, be observed and evaluated by a tenured faculty member.

Once tenure is awarded, usually after five to seven years, a tenured faculty professor is provided a modicum of security. This security is essential to protect faculty who may publish research that is controversial or challenges the status quo, whether it be in criminal justice, history, science, politics, education, medicine, public health, economics, or whatever in the field of that professor’s expertise.

A tenured faculty member can only be fired for cause, and peer review is required before the faculty member can be terminated. The Board of Regents plan will remove peer review and leave termination solely to the whims and caprices of college administrators and the Board of Regents.

I knew when I was a college student working closely with the Board of Regents that all the members were political appointees. At that time, most of the Board had been appointed by Gov. George Busbee. Even though the Regents were appointed by a politician, not once did we ever see a decision by the Regents controlled by politics. Yes, there were disagreements, but the disagreements were centered around what was in the best interests of the faculty and students for the University System of Georgia.

Recent decisions by the Georgia Board of Regents will severely impact Georgia’s ability to attract and retain the best faculty in the country, and a college degree is only as good as the faculty backing it.

The author of this guest column, J. Tom Morgan, served as DeKalb County district attorney for 12 years and now teaches law.

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