Gov. Perdue's speech to the Regents

Gov. Sonny Perdue addressed the State Board of Regents this morning about the University of Georgia's proposal to offer three new engineering programs. Following Perdue's speech, the regents tabled the issue until November. The governor's office provided a copy of the speech:

Before I begin today let me first acknowledge the Chancellor’s announcement last week. Chancellor, thank you for your vision, leadership and, most of all, your dedication to the mission of educating Georgia’s best and brightest.

Allow me to remind you of the relationship Governors have historically had with this Board … and how we’ve operated through the years. We have always worked closely together and I think the results speak for themselves. Our relationship began with personal discussions about your appointment to this board and, to a person, there was a mutual understanding that we would work together to determine the course forward for the university system.

I have been a staunch advocate of this system and defended against all who would attempt to diminish it because I believe passionately in its mission and contribution to the future of our state. The most recent example of that happened just last year when I said, “I would not allow the legislature to defund and tear down the incredible university system we have built here in Georgia.” It was going to be a budget that recognized the value of higher education or I wasn’t going to sign it.

But somehow we have arrived at a place where I’m hearing rumors that some of you don’t care what this Governor thinks about your work. Not one of you expressed that feeling when we discussed your appointment to this board and if any of you do now, I’d like to talk with you individually about that.

We have begun holding meetings for this year’s amended and the 2012 budget and that work will be instrumental in how money is allocated to this system going forward.

One thing I have always asked and expected of our boards and agencies is that they think with an enterprise mindset. That is, while they represent the interests of the area of the state that is their home, I expect members to be more interested in representing the entire state, not just their respective areas or even their favorite institutions.

I’ve heard some talk about the independence of the Board of Regents, and it is true the Constitution gives the Board wide latitude in setting policy for the University System. But viewing policy-setting as unilateral independence ignores an undeniable fact – the Governor and legislature still have final say on the state budget for the system. So I would suggest that the appropriate word is interdependence -- that is we all have our roles to play but we better check with each other regularly to ensure we are all pulling in the same direction.

The funny thing is … well, it doesn’t really strike me as all that comical right now … is that the relationship between the executive branch and the Regents has always been so close that onlookers have assumed that any policies that come out of this Board have already been vetted by the Governor’s Office.

And some of you may even have had that impression regarding this engineering school decision. But unfortunately, that is not the case.

I’ve consistently defended the Regents and the terrific job the System has done in educating students, but that support implies a certain level of coordination and certain expectations. But with this UGA engineering school, sadly, I am late to the party. And this move while some have characterized as a minor curriculum change, could have significant implications for this system. That’s why I was surprised to hear that this major decision was viewed by virtually everyone as a foregone conclusion.

Now don’t hear me saying something I’m not saying … I respect the Constitutional authority given to the Board of Regents and thus have never tried to micromanage your work. I have appointed people with the belief that they would do the right things for the right reasons. But we have always worked as a team and I had hoped that we would finish just as strong as we started.

… You all have heard me say that I don’t believe in granting franchises in higher education. No one institution has cornered the market on any specialty. Providing access and opportunity is far more important to me than someone protecting their turf. You’ll remember my message to those in Augusta who were holding to this idea that they would be Georgia’s perpetual and only option for medical education. Likewise, I have no interest in allowing any school to have veto power over the university system as a whole or to protect an engineering school franchise.

But I will caution the Board in taking unilateral action to reshape the university system without first making sure you have the support of the Governor and legislative leadership. Sadly, I’ve been told that people who have questioned this move have been told to, “sit down and shut up … this is a done deal.”

I want to make this clear; I am 100 percent in favor of expanding engineering education in Georgia. However, neither I nor other policy makers and appropriators have had the opportunity to be convinced that UGA is the right fit. I think you all know my affinity for the University of Georgia, but I will not let that love for my alma mater get in the way of pursuing the right policy for our state.

Even if this new school at UGA did make sense, I would be hard pressed to believe this is the right timing. We are in an economically-constrained situation. When you see these new budgets – where stimulus has disappeared and where program enrollments continue to grow – you are going to see just how constrained things are.

The University is still trying to digest monetarily and administratively the new medical program – an expansion effort that began well before the recent economic downturn and one I have whole-heartedly supported from day one.

I also question whether the prescription here really fits the diagnosis. I’ve heard the goal here is to provide more opportunities for students from around the state to have access to an engineering school. Yet only 11 percent of UGA students come from below the fall line, even though 20 percent of our residents live there. At an enrollment-capped institution where more than 40 percent of in-state students hail from just four metro Atlanta counties, I don’t understand the argument that this new school will provide wide access for all of Georgia, where we say we need engineers.

In my view, these considerations have been given short shrift. The process has been wrong and I frankly cannot tell if that is by design or omission. Step one in any consideration of a decision like this should include a thorough, well-coordinated dialogue between this board, my office, the legislature and as well as university system partners. I think you all have seen by now the letter from Chairman Ehrhart, and I believe the concerns he raised will be shared by many in the legislature.

Ladies and gentlemen, my solemn advice and counsel to you is to take a deep breath, relax, slow down and work diligently to win universal support with the new Governor, Lt Governor, Speaker, legislature, and the public at large. After all, whether elected or appointed, that is who we all serve.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for your time today.