Kemp’s new regents picks could boost Perdue’s bid to lead Georgia system

Governor Brian Kemp (R-GA) speaks at the Georgia Chamber’s “Eggs & Issues” breakfast at the Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta, Georgia on January 12th, 2022. Kemp on Wednesday announced he's named two business leaders to the Georgia Board of Regents. (Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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Governor Brian Kemp (R-GA) speaks at the Georgia Chamber’s “Eggs & Issues” breakfast at the Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta, Georgia on January 12th, 2022. Kemp on Wednesday announced he's named two business leaders to the Georgia Board of Regents. (Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gov. Brian Kemp named two allies to Georgia’s Board of Regents on Wednesday in a move that could jumpstart the stalled search for a new chancellor for its public university system.

Kemp named longtime businessmen Richard “Tim” Evans and Jim Syfan to the powerful 19-member board, replacing Kessel D. Stelling, Jr. and Philip A. Wilheit, Sr., whose seven-year terms expired this month.

The governor last year backed former two-term Gov. Sonny Perdue for chancellor. Two people close to Kemp said the Republican’s chances for the coveted post are still alive.

Stelling was said to be one of the staunchest opponents of the Perdue appointment, though other regents have raised private objections to the move. Still, some figured Kemp would abandon the idea after Perdue’s first-cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, announced he would challenge the governor.

But Kemp has a long relationship with Sonny Perdue that outdates his rivalry with his cousin. The former governor supported Kemp’s 2002 run for state Senate, tapped Kemp to fill the open post of secretary of state in 2010 and talked Trump into giving Kemp his endorsement in the race for governor in 2018.

The chancellor search has been a thorny process for the 19-member Board of Regents and for Kemp since Steve Wrigley announced his retirement from the job a year ago.

Though the regents have the legal authority to select the chancellor, the governor appoints its members and has broad influence over the process.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported Sonny Perdue’s interest in leading the 340,000-student system, one of the nation’s largest. He later confirmed he was pursuing the job, saying that his experience as governor and as the U.S. agriculture secretary prepared him for the post.

A groundswell of students and faculty members held rallies against Perdue’s candidacy, noting he has no higher education leadership experience. And a major accrediting agency raised questions about whether politics was interfering with the administrative process.

Amid the backlash, the board could not muster enough support for Perdue, or any other candidate. It restarted the search process in May after a firm charged with recruiting for the post abruptly quit.

Teresa MacCartney, a veteran state financial official, has been acting chancellor since July.

The incoming regents are prominent business leaders. Evans founded Evans General Contractors in 2001, leading the company as president and chief executive officer until January 2021. He now serves as its board chairman.

Syfan and his sons founded Turbo Logistics, Inc. in 1984, which was sold in 2006. Syfan has been involved in several economic development organizations in Hall County. Kemp appointed Syfan in 2020 to serve as a member of the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority.

Both men donated thousands of dollars to Kemp’s 2018 and current gubernatorial campaigns, state records show.

“For many years as strong business leaders, Tim Evans and Jim Syfan have worked hard to make their communities and our state better,” Kemp said in a statement.

“With decades of experience, they are eminently qualified for these posts, and I am honored to name them to the Board of Regents to serve our top-ranked university system.”