Opinion: When Georgia names permanent chancellor, it shouldn’t be Sonny Perdue

Faculty leader says former governor lacks vital higher education background
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (right) give Gov. Brian Kemp a high five as he prepares to make remarks at a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (right) give Gov. Brian Kemp a high five as he prepares to make remarks at a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

In a guest column, Matthew Boedy, the president of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors, discusses what Georgia needs in the next leader of its university system.

As the AJC has reported, there has been a push to award the chancellor job to former Gov. Sonny Perdue. Earlier this month, Perdue confirmed his interest in the job in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying he had spoken with Gov. Brian Kemp about it.

But today, the AJC reports:

The state's higher education system on Wednesday tapped a veteran finance official as the acting chancellor of Georgia's public university system, dealing a blow to former Gov. Sonny Perdue's immediate hopes of landing the coveted job.

The Board of Regents voted in a brief meeting to appoint Teresa MacCartney to lead the system as members of the powerful group try to overcome internal confusion and friction to select the University System of Georgia's next permanent chancellor. Her annual salary will be $438,000. She'll be in charge until the board finds a replacement for Steve Wrigley, who is retiring, effective July 1.

In this essay, Boedy, a University of North Georgia associate professor of rhetoric/composition, says when the Board of Regents selects its permanent chancellor, it should not be Perdue.

By Matthew Boedy

There are two important traits the next chancellor of Georgia’s university system should have.

The first comes from the current officeholder, Steve Wrigley, who is set to retire at the end of this month. He told a group of faculty leaders earlier this year that the job is complex. The state has 26 institutions of different sizes, levels, and needs not to mention the distinct types of faculty, staff, and students on these campuses. There is an enormous system budget built on the infrastructure, personnel, and technology realities of these schools. And the chancellor must also help to craft the economic, civic, and educational impact of curriculums, degrees, and brands. The next chancellor has to understand complexity in general and have a firm grounding in higher education’s specific complexity.

They can only get such an understanding from being part of an academic institution for many years.

Dr Matthew Boedy

Credit: Peggy Cozart

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Credit: Peggy Cozart

The second comes from a Board of Regents member during an online public comment session a few months ago. That regent (whose name I can’t recall) said a chancellor needs to understand politics without being political.

The USG has been constitutionally independent since the 1930s and a decade later suffered under a demagogue governor. In the decades since, Georgians came to understand that higher education is a public good to be protected from political shenanigans. But like all publicly funded enterprises, its benefactor is the state legislature. A chancellor needs to understand the political lines and ties of those who serve under the Gold Dome.

Yet a chancellor also needs to be independent from the politics of the day. He or she must seek the good of the faculty, students, and staff, not a partisan or ideological view, especially when such views may encroach upon its domain. He or she must work as a civil servant, keeping the collegiate trains running on time, in other words.

Unsurprisingly, the way to get such an understanding also comes from being part of an academic institution for many years. Those in administration at our colleges and universities and the central system office have been trained by experience in a mosaic of tangled intricacies sometimes cursed by cogs like me. There is much to hate about the ways our higher education system operates. There is also much to praise. And much institutional gravitas is needed to maintain and reform it.

These two must-haves should eliminate from consideration former Gov. Sonny Perdue. Though the distinguished gentleman from Perry was willing to serve, the USG would not be served well by Perdue. Certainly, his time in state politics mirrors some past chancellors, Wrigley and Hank Huckaby most notably.

But they had extensive higher education careers that more than overshadowed their political work. Such work in the case of Wrigley showed his desire to support and advance higher education. As chief of staff to former governor Zell Miller, Wrigley helped to shape the HOPE Scholarship program, the singular most impactful higher education change agent in Georgia in my lifetime.

It is no secret that Georgia’s governors, who appoint Regents, have gotten in the past who they want for chancellor. That political reality though has always been balanced by the wisdom of governors choosing experienced administrators. While we don’t know what was said between Perdue and Gov. Brian Kemp when they spoke about the position, we know why the current governor might want to bestow this gift on his benefactor. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to understand the politics at play.

Gov. Kemp has yet to convince the Regents to go along. What has been holding them back? I think they understand that the qualities needed in a chancellor are the same qualities needed of them. The business and community leaders know from their time approving school budgets and programs about the complexity of the system they oversee. As political appointees they also know how to be political without being political.

The Board of Regents today selected an acting leader for the USG. This may be the end for a Perdue candidacy. But in any case, the Regents still have to choose a permanent leader.

We in the system and those who send their money and children to our campuses can only trust that the forceful history of the institution the regents oversee has been rooted deep enough in them to withstand the current political winds.