Sonny Perdue’s next test: Supporting Georgia’s public colleges

Chancellor Sonny Perdue speaks in an interview at his office in downtown Atlanta on March 22, 2023. A veteran of Georgia politics, Perdue has navigated the challenges as he concludes his first year as chancellor of the University System of Georgia. (Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

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Chancellor Sonny Perdue speaks in an interview at his office in downtown Atlanta on March 22, 2023. A veteran of Georgia politics, Perdue has navigated the challenges as he concludes his first year as chancellor of the University System of Georgia. (Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

In his first year as chancellor, Sonny Perdue has served as the University System of Georgia’s lead salesman.

His product? A college degree.

After years of growth, the University System, which he’s overseen since his contentious appointment last spring, has lost students at most of its 26 public colleges and universities the last two years.

“Many people today say you don’t need a four-year degree. I think that’s a fad that will very quickly change as the economy changes,” Perdue said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I still think the credentials of a bachelor, four-year degree is the best ticket for the future prosperity of life that we know about.”

The decline has hit smaller, regional schools the hardest. College numbers nationwide have slid during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some students choosing work over school because of financial uncertainty and a robust job market, officials have said.

In coming years, researchers say lower birthrates nationwide will mean fewer high school students, which Georgia officials worry could result in fewer enrollees in its universities.

The decline represents a challenge for Perdue, a former Georgia Bulldogs football player and two-term governor, who highlighted strategies in the hour-long interview to tackle enrollment and budget pressures. The pressures were exacerbated after state lawmakers cut his budget in late March.

Perdue wants to boost enrollment by recruiting more adult learners and enticing more Georgia students to pick in-state colleges.

He’s open to waiving for another year the SAT or ACT exam admissions requirement for most colleges. Perdue said the decision to lift the test requirement during the pandemic was made partly to keep Georgia schools competitive with other test-optional states. He expects to discuss the matter at a Georgia Board of Regents meeting this month.

The University System and the Technical College System of Georgia also are working on a direct-admissions strategy. The plan is to send Georgia high school students a letter listing the colleges where they would likely be admitted based on their grades through 11th grade. Perdue aims to target those who haven’t thought about going to college.

“We want kids to move out of high school into a college experience and continue, even if it takes them longer to graduate while they’re working,” he said.

Budget challenges

Perdue must also confront a financial squeeze after lawmakers decreased the University System’s state funding for the upcoming fiscal year by $66 million.

That reduction, part of a budget that awaits the governor’s approval, is on top of losses due to falling enrollment.

The University System receives state funds, more than $3.1 billion this fiscal year, based on a formula developed in the 1980s and largely driven by enrollment. The state historically covered about 75% of the cost of a student’s education, and tuition paid for the remainder. During the Great Recession, when Perdue was governor, the state’s portion fell. It currently covers about 57% of the cost.

Twenty schools are slated to receive less money next academic year under the state funding formula. From that alone, the projected losses for most of those schools range between $1 million and $6 million.

Before lawmakers approved the additional state cuts, colleges were already cutting expenses by closing out vacant positions. Some current staff and faculty also will lose jobs. In August, for example, the University of North Georgia told three non-tenure track faculty members that it wouldn’t renew their contracts for the 2023-2024 school year.

Perdue said he’s not considering any school consolidations, but he’s looking for schools to share back-office tasks. He said he planned to partly subsidize struggling colleges by rerouting some earnings the University System receives from growing schools.

Perdue described the $66 million state cut in a written statement as “incredibly disappointing.” The system said the decrease means nearly $12 million less for the University of Georgia; for the state’s smallest schools, it amounts to several hundred thousand dollars. Some state lawmakers say Perdue’s criticism is unfair, citing the higher education budget cuts that occurred under his watch as governor.

It remains to be seen how the cuts will play out. Lawmakers urged the University System to mitigate any damage by dipping into more than $500 million in left over reserves, but the system said most of that money is tied up at just six schools and can’t be moved to other colleges.

Perdue, who oversaw the state budget as governor, is now among the state officials who make requests to the governor and legislators for state dollars. Before legislators made the cut on the final day of the session, he said he wants to show that schools are working to “live within our means.” He also cautioned the trims they’re making won’t always be enough.

In addition to salary increases, some utility bills have gone up 30% to 40%, he said.

Next year, Perdue said he’ll be prepared to present to legislators a base level of funding that schools are “going to need to survive.”



Politics on campus

Perdue pledged to be nonpartisan and nonpolitical when he became chancellor on April 1, 2022 and said that remains his stance.

Even as other Republican-led states push sweeping reforms to root out what Florida’s governor has called “woke activism” on college campuses, Perdue has publicly struck a different tone.

Campuses are places where students with different backgrounds and beliefs come to listen to one another, he said.

“Your story is just as important as my story. It just happens to be yours and mine is mine,” said Perdue. “It’s a matter of really mutual respect and civil discourse. And that’s where, I think, young people need to learn these principles in universities.”

Perdue’s appointment sparked backlash from those who opposed hiring someone from outside academia; he’s a longtime politician who also served in former President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. Some worried politics would shape decisions.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

When Perdue’s name was floated as a candidate for the job, Alex Ames, a third-year Georgia Tech student, organized the group Students Against Sonny. As chancellor, Ames thinks he hasn’t focused on the right things. She wants to see him lobby for more need-based financial aid, more affordable student housing and efforts to make sure Georgia’s largest universities reflect the state’s diversity.

“I still don’t think he belongs in that role,” Ames said.

Matthew Boedy, president of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said he was surprised to hear Perdue tell faculty last spring that he had opposed legislation that aimed to control discussions of race in college classrooms. As passed, the 2022 divisive concepts law applies only to how teachers talk about race in K-12 schools.

”That tells me he is interested in protecting higher education from culture wars. That gave me a little bit of hope that he would do more to do that,” said Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia.

Perdue said he was concerned with constitutional issues.

“The Legislature has to be very careful in what they prescribe over what can and can’t be taught or said in the universities,” he said. “We want people to feel free to be expressive of their First Amendment rights on our campuses without being shouted down or called out in that regard.”

Varying views on Perdue

Matthew Hipps, an associate professor of political science at Dalton State College and past chair of the systemwide faculty council, said the chancellor has sought the advisory group’s input.

“I think that the chancellor was very aware of the concerns that people had and from the jump Chancellor Perdue told us, ‘You know, I’m here to serve the students and the system,’” Hipps said.

The faculty group has met with Perdue to discuss changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and promotion and tenure policies. Before Perdue took office, the University System implemented changes to post-tenure policies that faculty leaders believe will make it easier to fire them.

Hipps said they don’t agree on every issue, “but there is no doubt that he has listened to us and sought out our thoughts.”

The chancellor’s approach has impressed key allies, such as the chairs of the House’s and Senate’s higher education committees.

“He is open-minded. He’s business-minded,” state Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, said he wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when it came to working with a chancellor who was in the presidential line of succession less than three years ago. He said Perdue collaborates and has brought “a new sense of energy” to the University System.

“He (has) a workman’s attitude but (is) a strategic thinker at the same time,” Martin said.

Boedy said Perdue has “tried to win over” faculty, staff and students by visiting campuses and attending events. Still, he’s wary of what he sees as a framing of education matters in terms of economic output.

“I think that we really don’t have a sense of his long-term plans for the University System,” Boedy said. “He’s willing to listen to data. I don’t know how much he’s willing to listen to faculty voices over business voices.”

Perdue said he’ll define his success by the success of students. He wants more of them to stay in school, graduate, leave with lower debt and progress in their careers.

He’s pushing for public dashboards that show such metrics. He said the University System will probably provide additional money to colleges that meet or exceed school-specific goals as part of a performance-based incentive plan.

“I need data to tell me what’s working, what’s not,” said Perdue. “That’s what we want to do: Make sure we are moving the needle in the right direction.”

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