Sonny Perdue takes the helm as University System of Georgia chancellor

Sonny Perdue, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, speaks during the investiture ceremony for Georgia Gwinnett College President Jann L. Joseph, on Friday, April 1, 2022, in Lawrenceville. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Combined ShapeCaption
Sonny Perdue, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, speaks during the investiture ceremony for Georgia Gwinnett College President Jann L. Joseph, on Friday, April 1, 2022, in Lawrenceville. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Former two-term Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue on Friday spent his first day as chancellor of the University System of Georgia — a position he’s called a “capstone to a career of public service.”

Perdue visited Georgia Gwinnett College for a ceremony to formally celebrate the selection of the college’s president, Jann Joseph. Joseph became the college’s president in July 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed her investiture ceremony.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Perdue, who signed the law in 2005 creating the college.

“It’s a great way to start,” Perdue, dressed in a black and gray robe for the ceremony, told the audience.

Perdue’s appointment came after a yearlong battle waged by critics who said he lacked higher education leadership experience. Perdue’s supporters countered his time as governor, in which he authorized the system’s budget, along with a four-year stint as U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary, made him well-qualified for the job.

The 19-member Georgia Board of Regents voted without opposition a month ago to make Perdue chancellor. A handful of current and former regents members attended the hourlong ceremony in Lawrenceville, along with about 300 guests.

Perdue, 75, a Republican, has said little publicly about his specific goals for the job. He wrote in a cover letter stating his interest in the job that the Georgia system isn’t immune to “the challenges of modern day higher education.”

Perdue also made several references to the importance of college education to help young people succeed in the workforce. Friends and former colleagues believe workforce development will be one of Perdue’s primary goals as chancellor.

“It’s a high calling to prepare someone for a better quality of life and to think about the future and what you can do and to give them the skills to become valuable members of the workforce,” he said Friday.

Combined ShapeCaption
Sonny Perdue, the new chancellor of the University System of Georgia, shares a laugh during a luncheon following the investiture ceremony for Georgia Gwinnett College President Jann L. Joseph, on Friday, April 1, 2022, in Lawrenceville. Friday was the first day on the job for Perdue, the former two-term Georgia governor. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Sonny Perdue, the new chancellor of the University System of Georgia, shares a laugh during a luncheon following the investiture ceremony for Georgia Gwinnett College President Jann L. Joseph, on Friday, April 1, 2022, in Lawrenceville. Friday was the first day on the job for Perdue, the former two-term Georgia governor. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Combined ShapeCaption
Sonny Perdue, the new chancellor of the University System of Georgia, shares a laugh during a luncheon following the investiture ceremony for Georgia Gwinnett College President Jann L. Joseph, on Friday, April 1, 2022, in Lawrenceville. Friday was the first day on the job for Perdue, the former two-term Georgia governor. (Elijah Nouvelage/Special to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Perdue appeared at ease Friday, making jokes with Joseph during the ceremony. The chancellor search has had its moments of drama. A firm initially hired to handle the search withdrew from the process. Some regents members were privately opposed to Perdue.

Perdue’s cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, is challenging Gov. Brian Kemp for the Republican Party nomination this year.

Perdue arrives at the USG at a time college leaders, locally and nationally, are facing demands to make tuition more affordable as a higher percentage of students come from lower-income households.

The 340,000-student system had a slight enrollment decline last fall, its first in about a decade. System leaders have been frank about projections of greater declines around 2025 because of decreasing birth rates nationally. Several of the system’s schools have six-year graduation rates below 50%.

Meanwhile, faculty — many who opposed Perdue’s candidacy for the job — are at odds with system officials over recent changes to the post-tenure review process, which they say will make it tougher for professors to speak candidly about campus issues for fear they may lose their jobs.

Rebekah Ward, a leader of the United Campus Workers of Georgia, Local 3265, which has been critical of the review changes, said she hopes Perdue will reassure faculty that the system will ensure academic freedom.

“I hope Sonny pledges to listen to educators, staff and students to determine his priorities as chancellor. Sadly, if his record is any indication, I will be disappointed,” said Ward, the organization’s former statewide president and an associate biology professor at the college.

Ward, who said she’s not speaking for the college, added she hopes Perdue will push for annually adjusted cost-of-living raises, particularly in light of rising inflation. The University System has about 48,000 employees, many who work in service and maintenance jobs.

Perdue has spent the last few weeks meeting with University System staff and administrators from its 26 colleges and universities to prepare for his new job. Teresa MacCartney, who was acting chancellor for nearly a year, agreed to stay with the system as executive vice chancellor for administration.

Perdue’s annual compensation will be about $524,000, the same as the prior chancellor, Steve Wrigley.