Former Gov. Nathan Deal lectures a class called “Road to Congress” Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. The state’s Board of Regents approved a proposal earlier this year to make the governor a professor teaching law and politics.
Photo: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Former Ga. Gov. Nathan Deal transitions to his new role: professor

DAHLONEGA — University of North Georgia professor Carl Cavalli had a surprise guest at one of his recent political science classes.

In walked Nathan Deal, the two-term former governor of Georgia.

“I was speechless,” said Abbey Smith, 22, a senior.

Deal, the former governor, congressman and state lawmaker, has a new title: professor.

The Georgia Board of Regents earlier this year agreed to have Deal teach for the University System of Georgia, which includes UNG. Deal, who is recuperating from back surgery he had shortly after leaving office in January, decided to give lectures at the University of North Georgia first because it’s closer (about 30 miles) to his home in Demorest.

Former Gov. Nathan Deal lectures a class called “Road to Congress” on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. The state’s Board of Regents approved a proposal earlier this year to make the governor a professor teaching law and politics.
Photo: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

He’ll also soon teach at his alma mater, Mercer University, which announced Friday that Deal will be a professor. Mercer, a private university, has its largest campuses in Macon and Atlanta.

>> RELATED | Former Gov. Nathan Deal to teach at Georgia colleges

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and photographer sat in on Cavalli’s class Thursday as Deal returned for his second lecture. Joined by Chris Riley, his business partner and former chief of staff, Deal talked to the 15 students about campaign strategy. He discussed how candidates should define their most important issues, negative ads, his strategy against his two gubernatorial opponents, and President Donald Trump.

His remarks weren’t provocative, but Professor Deal seemed more candid than, say, candidate Deal.

“Most citizens would say they don’t like negative campaigning and want an issue-oriented campaign, and then they vote for the people with the negative campaign,” Deal said before chuckling.

Deal, who is also lecturing law classes, has a few more lectures scheduled for Cavalli’s class. With Riley’s help, he is working on the syllabus for a three-credit class on campaigning and governing he’ll teach next semester at UNG.

Colleges have historically looked to prominent figures and celebrities to bring their knowledge — and publicity — by hiring them to teach. Former President Jimmy Carter gives an annual lecture at Emory University where he has been a professor for 37 years. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is a faculty member at George Mason University in Virginia. Georgia State University this week named entertainer Ludacris as an artist-in-residence.

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Many of these appointments have been criticized, including Deal’s. The Board of Regents agreed to pay Deal $120,000 a year to teach, which raised ethics concerns since he picked or reappointed each Regents member when he was hired. The average salary for a full professor in the University System last year was $121,886, according to a systemwide report.

The North Georgia students, nonetheless, said they were excited to have Deal in their classroom. The former governor, some said, brought their textbooks to life.

Former Gov. Nathan Deal lectures a class called "Road to Congress" at the University of North Georgia on Oct. 17, 2019. The state's Board of Regents approved a proposal earlier this year to make the governor a professor teaching law and politics.
Photo: Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

“I think that he makes you think about it in ways you didn’t think about,” said Smith, a history major who is interested in working on political campaigns. “As far as starting the processes of deciding if you want to run, why you want to run, how do you start your campaign and all the networking and everything that goes into it, the strategy, are things I never would have thought about.”

Dressed in a gray suit jacket, white shirt and black tie, the former governor spoke for about 40 minutes with Riley acting as Deal’s self-proclaimed “teaching assistant.” Deal referenced a book the students are reading for the class with some passages he highlighted with a yellow marker.

Often described as a pragmatic politician, Deal spoke matter-of-factly about the art of campaigning. Candidates should have five issues to campaign on, they must define themselves before their opponent does so and they should not waste time trying to get everyone to support them, he said. Deal discussed how targeting voters has changed from newspaper ads to television spots on the evening news to, now, through social media and robocalls.

Aubrey Cagle asks a question during the class where former Gov. Nathan Deal was lecturing Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. The class, called “Road to Congress,” is at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. The state’s Board of Regents approved a proposal earlier this year to make the governor a professor teaching law and politics.
Photo: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

The students, some dressed in ROTC uniforms, were polite as they took notes by hand or on their laptops. They asked: When should a candidate focus on the issues, should an incumbent focus first on retaining his base or pursuing new voters and how did Deal’s approach change during his reelection campaign in 2014?

Deal, a Republican, offered some insights. Deal said he focused on Roy Barnes’ record during their 2010 contest to “remind people” what Barnes didn’t accomplish during his time as governor. He recited former Georgia congressman and U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s advice that politicians should only advocate for issues supported by at least 80% of the public.

>> RELATED | Ludacris named Georgia State artist-in-residence

Deal said he was conflicted about negative campaign ads. His wife didn’t like it, but he used them.

“We’re told it’s one of the most effective tools that you can have in a campaign is to define your opponent first,” Deal told the class.

Deal described the students as attentive and said they asked good questions.

One question they’ve asked: Why is he doing this?

“My real purpose is to get them to think,” he said in the hallway outside the class. “Not just to accept what they hear on a talk radio show or a television show or what some special interest group has mailed out. Think for themselves. Find out what the facts really are. And sometimes if they do that, they’ll come to a totally different conclusion than what somebody is bombarding them with and wanting them to think. If I can do that, then I feel I will be successful.”

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