What will Sonny Perdue do if he becomes Georgia system’s chancellor?

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, a former two-term Georgia governor, makes remarks during a GOP briefing at the Georgia Republican headquarters in Buckhead, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. Perdue is now the sole finalist to be chancellor of the University System of Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

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

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

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, a former two-term Georgia governor, makes remarks during a GOP briefing at the Georgia Republican headquarters in Buckhead, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. Perdue is now the sole finalist to be chancellor of the University System of Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer / AJC file photo)

The Georgia Board of Regents is scheduled to vote Tuesday to make former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue the new chancellor of the state’s vast University System.

So what would Perdue’s priorities be as chancellor?

Higher education experts, friends, foes and former colleagues believe Perdue’s main focus will be preparing students to be workforce ready. They also think the Perry native, who was governor from 2003 to 2011, will also be interested in research and other initiatives that have an agricultural focus or support rural students.

Sonny Perdue visited Georgia Gwinnett College's campus in June 2008 to celebrate the first day of classes at the school. Perdue, then governor, shares a laugh with the college's president at the time, Daniel Kaufman. (AJC file photo)


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One closely watched issue will be how Perdue handles contentious issues like critical race theory or addressing concerns that conservative students and guest speakers are shunned on campus.

Fran Millar, a former Republican state legislator who’s now on the Technical College System of Georgia’s board, believes the Georgia Legislature, not Perdue, “will deal with things they think are inappropriate. … That’s not going to be the job of the chancellor.”

State Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, thinks Perdue will get directly involved in such issues and side with conservatives. She noted Perdue’s remarks in a brief interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June about his desire to push conservative values if he gets the job.

“Sonny is very ideological and that will not serve the University System of Georgia well,” said Orrock, who serves on the Senate’s Higher Education Committee.

Students gather in front of the University System of Georgia offices in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, April 27, 2021, to protest against the possibility of former Gov. Sonny Perdue becoming the new chancellor. He's now the sole finalist for the job. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

The regents, without opposition, voted earlier this month to name Perdue, 75, its sole finalist to become chancellor.

The system has about 340,000 students and nearly 50,000 employees and receives more than $2 billion annually in state funds for operations. The chancellor’s role includes making sure the system’s 26 colleges and universities follow state and federal education guidelines as well as ensuring students earn degrees.

Perdue, in a statement after being named the finalist, called the potential appointment “a wonderful capstone to a career of public service.” He previously served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Donald Trump.

Jonathan Butcher, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Perdue may follow the lead of conservative higher education leaders in other states by pursuing measures such as allowing students to pay tuition through a portion of their future earnings. Butcher hopes Perdue explores opportunities for students to gain skills through certificate degrees, citing Georgia Tech’s online programs as an example.

“You need to make it nimble because the market is moving quickly,” he said.

Millar, a former state Senate Higher Education Committee chair, believes Perdue’s top priority will be ensuring graduates are prepared for growing industries in Georgia. Millar hopes Perdue will support needs-based aid programs for low-income students that could include a work component.

Education funding

Perdue’s critics say his record on education spending as governor shows he’s not committed to ensuring student success. His austerity cuts to K-12 education increased to more than $1 billion during his final years in office. The University System’s state funds budget rose sharply midway through Perdue’s tenure to more than $2.3 billion before dropping by $400 million by the time he left office.

“Higher education is where I wanted to have a real impact as governor, only to be stymied by twin recessions,” Perdue said in a statement after the regents picked him as its finalist.

Two men who worked for Perdue as chief of staff during his days as governor say he’ll employ a business-based approach to managing the University System.

Eric Tanenblatt, his first chief of staff, noted Perdue created a commission with business leaders that helped him look for ways to improve customer service as part of an attempt to make state government more efficient. Perdue’s early budget books included performance measures for the system, such as freshmen retention rates and external funds attracted for research.

“Data-driven decisions are core to his management principles,” said John Watson, who also served as Perdue’s chief of staff for three years.

Perdue’s management style is described by some as gruff. Watson said Perdue “doesn’t object to differing opinions. What he objects to is opinions that aren’t based on facts and homework.”

Still, Orrock says she’s heard from several faculty members who are concerned Perdue will lash out against critics. The regents last year approved changes to its post-tenure review guidelines some faculty fear will make it easier to remove outspoken professors.

“They are very concerned,” Orrock said. “They don’t have confidence that academic freedom will be honored.”

President Donald Trump signs the Executive Order promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue looks on during a roundtable with farmers on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: Olivier Douliery

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Credit: Olivier Douliery

Many faculty members are also wary of Perdue because he didn’t speak out on issues like climate change as agriculture secretary. They’re also critical of him because of past ethics complaints.

Millar believes Perdue’s critics aren’t giving him a fair chance. Perdue’s critics scowl at him for not resigning — as some Trump Cabinet members did after the deadly riot on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.

But Millar sees Perdue’s ability to navigate the four years of the Trump administration as a sign that he can work with anyone.

“Do you not think that he can get along with just about anybody?”

Sonny Perdue

Age: 75

Birthplace: Perry, Georgia

Political History: Georgia state senator, 1991-2002; governor, 2003-2011; U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary, 2017-2021.

Personal: Perdue was a walk-in for the Georgia Bulldogs football team. He served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. Perdue was also a veterinarian.