University System of Georgia chancellor announces retirement plans

University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the 340,000-student system that includes the state’s largest public colleges and universities, announced Tuesday he will retire on July 1.

Wrigley’s impending departure comes as the system of 26 colleges and universities works on recent initiatives to increase graduation rates, to offer degrees in subjects to help workers seeking jobs or promotions in high-demand careers and to provide additional mental health services to students.

The system, like all schools nationwide, is grappling with the multitude of ongoing challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic. Wrigley has pushed for more in-person learning while many faculty members have unsuccessfully urged the system to allow instructors and students to participate in any courses remotely.

Wrigley announced his plans hours after the first state Board of Regents meeting of the year. He did not discuss his retirement in his monthly remarks to the board, focusing on COVID-19 prevention plans and efforts to keep tuition and fees low.

“I am grateful to my family and members of the Board of Regents for their support and guidance, and I especially appreciate the support and leadership of Governors (Brian) Kemp and (Nathan) Deal during my time as Chancellor,” Wrigley, who has been chancellor since 2017, said in a statement. “Thanks to the vision of Georgia governors and members of the General Assembly over many years, Georgians can be proud of their university system, which is recognized among the best in the nation. As a graduate of this system, it has been a special honor to help students pursue their own dreams.”

Wrigley, a chief of staff to former Gov. Zell Miller, has worked in public service for 36 years. Wrigley, who received his doctoral degree in history, is known for being detailed and his hearty laugh. Kemp described Wrigley in a statement as “a tireless advocate for our students and faculty.” House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, offered congratulatory remarks toward Wrigley in a statement.

While many states have seen fewer students in their public colleges and universities in recent years, Georgia’s system has seen enrollment increase by more than 15,000 students since 2017. Wrigley has heralded efforts to lower costs in areas such as student textbooks.

As the Georgia system’s enrollment has grown, so, too, have the number of students in need of more financial help to pay for tuition and other fees. Students, on average, are borrowing more than $6,000 a year to attend the system’s larger schools. Higher education experts have said Georgia’s system must offer more needs-based aid for students.

Meanwhile, many of the system’s smaller schools had enrollment declines during the fall semester.

“One of the biggest challenges for a future chancellor is figuring out how to manage a very diverse university system that includes big, growing urban institutions and smaller, rural schools,” said Jennifer Lee, senior higher education policy analyst for the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, an Atlanta-based nonprofit.

Additionally, the system has become more racially diverse. About 53% of its students are non-white.

University of North Georgia professor Matt Boedy, conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said Wrigley has fought for students and faculty during his career. However, Boedy was critical of his management of the pandemic, saying Wrigley hasn’t adequately listened to the suggestions of faculty to limit the spread of COVID-19 on its campuses.

“I hope the Board of Regents keeps in mind the changes afoot in Georgia as it searches for a new chancellor,” Boedy said.