Historian: From segregation to COVID, Regents served governors, not students

Appointed body has deferred to Brian Kemp, who opposes a mask mandate

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

In trying to make sense of the intransigence of the Georgia Board of Regents on COVID precautions, University of Georgia history professor Scott Nelson looks back on the appointed body’s practices and policies.

What he finds is discomforting. This is a state entity that has been on the wrong side of history on such defining moments as integration. The Regents and Acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney -- who stood by their irresponsible opposition to a mask mandate today -- remain on the wrong side of history and science with their position on COVID-19, writes Nelson.

Nelson is the UGA Athletics Association Professor of History at the University of Georgia. He was previously Legum Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. Nelson writes about 19th-century U.S. history, including the history of slavery and Reconstruction.

His 2007 book, “Steel Drivin’ Man,” about the life of Black folklore legend John Henry, won four national awards, including the National Award for Arts Writing and the Merle Curti Prize for best book in U.S. social history. He has been a research fellow at Harvard University, the Filson Historical Society, and Chicago’s Newberry Library. In 2019-20, he was named a Guggenheim fellow.

By Scott Nelson

Since I came to the University of Georgia five years ago, I have been puzzled by how it works. Now that COVID has broken out a second time, I think I understand: This university is a branch of a political machine.

My faculty colleagues teaching classes right now have as many as 20% of students with active COVID symptoms. But these professors cannot stream their in-person lectures to those COVID-positive students because this would make the class a “hybrid” class.

And the chairs, deans, provosts, and president refuse to authorize any individual class to be hybrid, no matter how high COVID levels among students are. But if you ask each person along this chain of command why a professor cannot make Biology 1103 or History 2111 available to her students online, each will point up the chain declaring that their superiors all the way up to the University System of Georgia will not authorize it. This is perverse.

When students applied to the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech or Georgia Southern or Georgia College, they probably did not realize that they were, in fact, applying to have the education controlled by an unknown entity of governor’s appointees that calls itself the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (BORUSG).

It is understood that most gave large donations to the current and previous governors or at least received their appointments as some kind of political favor. Gaining powerful seats on state boards like this is old-fashioned machine politics, as old as Georgia’s first constitution.

That power has attracted former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has announced his wish to be elected as the USG’s next chancellor. That body of relatively unknown people meets in public for a few minutes and then conducts the rest of its business in secret despite state law. This secret chamber of 19 men and women permits almost no autonomy in any of the functions of its “branches,” the so-called universities I have named.

In private, the university’s chairs, deans, and (so I have heard) even the provost and president will tell you that this board imposes many secret diktats. They demand to see any public-facing documents before university presidents are permitted to sign them.

For this reason, even a university president cannot change how a single class is taught (and more than 5,000 of them are operating this month throughout Georgia) without approval from the cloistered chamber in Atlanta. Why?

To understand that, we must go back to the days that Georgia’s governors struggled to preserve segregation in Georgia’s colleges and universities. Then-Gov. Eugene Talmadge helped shape a USG system rigidly controlled from the top. In the so-called Cocking Affair, Talmadge had the Board of Regents fire Walter Cocking, dean of the UGA College of Education, because the governor believed he supported integration (he didn’t).

In 1941, UGA lost its accreditation because the accrediting body determined UGA was being operated by remote control through the governor’s office. This was huge for students. No national or international grants could go to such universities and UGA graduates could not enter accredited law or business schools anywhere in the country. A bit of minor housekeeping put the university in compliance. Segregation was saved, until around 1960. Then, the regional accrediting body determined that UGA was both hiring too many of its own graduates as professors and that the BORUSG was instructing deans to block admissions from qualified Black students.

Again, UGA teetered on the precipice of losing accreditation, and two things happened. The BORUSG quickly hired a hundred research faculty from universities outside of Georgia for UGA (and Georgia Tech), and a federal judge ruled that honor students Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes would become UGA’s first Black undergraduates despite the BORUSG’s strenuous objections.

In January of 1961, white students rioted at UGA, forcing Hunter and Holmes to be removed from campus. When 340 UGA faculty members signed a petition calling for their return, Board of Regents member Roy V. Harris demanded to see the list in order to punish them. (Harris was considered a political kingmaker, leading to the saying, “What do you need to be elected governor in Georgia? Fifty thousand dollars and Roy Harris.”)

By 1962, formal segregation ended at UGA but the state hierarchy designed to protect segregation never went away. That perverse hierarchy has many unintended effects. The president and provost at every other major university in the United States, Europe or Japan makes university policy, but not in Georgia. This is UGA’s secret shame, and Georgia Tech’s also.

Presently, Gov. Brian Kemp fears that former President Trump will hand-pick his challenger in the primaries. (The former president blames Kemp for his loss in Georgia.) To appear tough, the governor has tried to block city-mandated face masks and vaccine requirements.

For most people, this has been a kind of theatre where the governor makes proclamations he does not enforce while school boards and companies make decisions based on their experience. But not in the state’s university system. There, a body of people you have never met but whom the governor knows well are making the most minute decisions about how every state university in Georgia operates, including whether a professor can stream her BIOL 1103 lectures to sick students so they can pass the class.

Is the university I teach at a political machine that grinds its gears in the smallest corners of Athens, Georgia? I believe it is. Do all of Georgia’s universities hang in the balance? I believe they do.